10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Suns -3.5, Over/Under: 224.5
A series that had initially appeared to be evenly matched now looks to be one-sided, as the top-seeded Denver Nuggets look to press their advantage and take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Phoenix Suns, desperate to restore order at home in this Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals from Footprint Center. For the bulk of the campaign, if there was one constant in the wild, unpredictable Western Conference, it was the Nuggets (53-29, 1st in Western Conference), who for the final four months of the regular season sat comfortably atop the standings. While the lacked the championship pedigree or outright star power of some of their contemporaries, they were by far and away the most consistent group out West and in a season in which there were so many injuries befalling contenders, they were without a doubt the healthiest. Oh, it also certainly didn’t hurt having the reigning two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic, in their lineup, with the towering Serbian putting together yet another statistically anomalous campaign; the five-time All-Star Center certainly made his case for a third consecutive Michael Jordan trophy, posting averages of 24.8 points per game on a highly-efficient 63.2% shooting from the field, along with 11.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists (an NBA record for Centers), and 1.3 steals, while netting a stellar 38.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc. With that said, Jokic (pictured above) has been a bonafide star destroyer for a number of years now, while the supporting cast around has left a bit to be desired largely due to injuries. Well, that is NOT the case this season, for (Head Coach) Mike Malone has what has been easily the best rotation at his disposal during his time in Denver, eclipsing even that of the group that reached the Western Conference Finals in the Bubble three years ago. First and foremost, (young sharpshooter) Jamal Murray is finally healthy after tearing his ACL during the latter stages of the 2020-2021 season, putting up 20.0 points on 45.4% shooting and 39.8% from three in sixty-five games, while increasing that production to 25.7 points on 45.5% shooting in these playoffs. Second, Michael Porter Jr. has been healthy and productive as the third scoring option, while the likes of Aaron Gordon (a crucial addition at last year’s trade deadline), along with (useful veterans) such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have added more options and versatility to the rotation. Though they stumbled a bit down the stretch of the regular season, the Nuggets handled their business in the first round, eliminating the Timberwolves in five games, averaging 114.2 points on a healthy 48.1% shooting and 38.9% from downtown, with Murray and Jokic combining for 53.4 points, 18.0 rebounds, 15.4 assists, and 2.2 steals per game. While some felt that they would meet more resistance in this next round against Phoenix, that hasn’t been the case as Denver has continued to march forward. In Game One’s 125-107 victory, Malone’s troops torched them from beyond the arc (+27), while hammering them on the offensive glass (16 offensive rebounds), and harassed them throughout the affair with FOURTEEN steals, leading to sixteen turnovers and eighteen points going the other way. Murray erupted for thirty-four points, five rebounds, and nine assists, while Jokic and Gordon finished with twenty-four and twenty-three points respectively, with the former securing nineteen rebounds, eight of which were of the offensive variety. Game Two was certainly closer, but the outcome remained the same as the hosts pulled away late to win a tough 97-87 contest. In this case, Murray only mustered ten points, but Jokic was there to take matters into his own hands with thirty-nine points on 17-of-30 shooting (56.7%), sixteen rebounds, and five assists, while Caldwell-Pope came up big with fourteen points and 4-of-4 shooting from long-range (100.0%). Though the Nuggets cooled off considerably from three and applied far less pressure, they were still the more physical side, outscoring the Suns 48-30 in the paint, allowing them to get to the charity stripe which is where this contest was ultimately decided; Denver netted 18-of-21 free-throws (85.7%) in comparison to Phoenix’s 5-of-5 (100.0%) for a decisive +13 advantage. From a betting perspective, the Nuggets are both 7-3 straight-up and against the spread over their last ten games, regardless of the venue, though are just 2-3 in that regard in their last five trips away from the Rocky Mountains. However, being an underdog has suited them well, as they’ve covered four of their last five outings when receiving points from the oddsmakers, including each of their last three. Malone’s charges have also enjoyed seeing Phoenix, riding a five-game win streak against the spread against tonight’s opponent. Furthermore, .
Meanwhile, after entering the playoffs as the betting favorite to escape the West and reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, the Suns (45-37, 4th in Western Conference) suddenly find themselves staring down the barrel of a potential 0-3 hole as this Western Conference Semifinal pivots to the desert. Following last year’s embarrassing playoff exit, Phoenix faced the prospect of their championship window closing as quickly as it opened, and in an attempt to prolong said window of opportunity they swung for the fences at the trade deadline and managed to finally acquire the services of (thirteen-time All-Star Forward) Kevin Durant in a blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets. In adding the four-time scoring champion, 2013-2014 MVP, and two-time Finals MVP, the team immediately became the favorite to win the NBA Title, which would be their first in franchise history. However, simply adding a supernova like Durant and pairing him alongside the likes of (All-Star Guard) Devon Booker, (future Hall of Fame Point Guard) Chris Paul, and (former number one overall pick) Deandre Ayton doesn’t assure (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ side of anything, for even with all of this star power there are some very real concerns that have come to the surface over the last few weeks that could very well derail this group from achieving those lofty goals. First and foremost, despite being 12-3 with Durant (pictured above) in the lineup, the Suns completely shattered their rotation to get him, shipping out the likes of promising young players such as Mikel Bridges and Cam Johnson along with a wealth of draft picks as part of the deal. As a result, the rotation lacks any semblance of depth, which is something that has been exposed in these playoffs; through seven postseason games, Phoenix’s bench has been outscored 223-101, which equates to a margin of -17.4 points per game. Part of the problem is that Williams is continuing to tinker with his starting five in an effort to provide better scoring balance alongside Durant and Booker with the pickings looking slimmer with each passing game. Granted, their bench actually outscored Denver’s in Game One (25-23), but was barely there in Game Two (4-13). The other issue is that they really lack size, length, and physicality, not just in the paint but on the wings, which after being very noticeable in the previous round against Los Angeles is even more apparent against the Nuggets. Again, this is where losing Bridges and Johnson hurts, because both players were tall, long wings that can make an impact on both ends of the hardwood, and Williams simply doesn’t have that kind of personnel to throw at the aforementioned Murray, who eviscerated in Saturday’s opener. This issue could have proven particularly fatal had the Clippers been at full strength, as two of the NBA’s premier wings, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, combined to participate in just two of the series’ five games, with the former bowing out after two outings due to an ailing knee, while the latter missed the entire affair due to a sprained knee of his own. And then there is the Jokic factor. Sure, the giant Serbian has proven able to get his numbers against just about every opponent, but the Suns have really nothing to throw at him in this series, with Ayton lacking the physical size and girth to keep him out of the paint and off the glass, while (Backup Center) Bismack Biyombo is limited at best. And now we have the CP3 factor to consider; at 37-years old, Paul has been an elite Point Guard for nearly two decades, but at his size he has been a perennial target in the playoffs, while his health has seen him miss time to injury in each of the last three postseasons. Simply put at this advanced stage of his career, he cannot bring it at a high level every game, which was a major reason why they crashed out of the playoffs prematurely last May. Durant’s presence takes much of the scoring burden off his shoulders, but there are far too many games in which the floor general looks like an afterthought than the playmaker we’re all accustomed to watching. After totaling eleven points and five assists in Game One, the twelve-time All-Star could muster just eight points before having to leave Game Two with a sore groin, which coincided with the Nuggets rally in the second half. With the news implying that he will be out for the next few games, Williams will be forced to rely upon (Backup Point Guard) Cameron Payne to log heavy minutes in this crucial affair, which could be asking a lot as the veteran journeyman had previously missed the first four games of the previous series due to a lingering back strain. The other option is the aforementioned Booker assuming those duties but given that he’s carried such a scoring burden thus far, averaging a whopping 35.4 points per game on a staggering 43.0 minutes a night, most of any player in these playoffs, it could again become counterproductive. From a betting perspective, the Suns have really struggled of late, covering just three of their last ten outings regardless of the venue, including a 1-4 record in their last five contests overall and three straight losses against the spread. Though they’ve win eight out of ten straight-up at Footprint Center, they’ve covered just five of those games, while duplicating that mark when in their last ten when favored by the oddsmakers. If Williams’ charges were to cover tonight’s spread, it would be the first time they’ve done so against Denver in six tries. On the injury front, the news dropped Tuesday night that Paul will not only miss tonight’s affair but could very well be out of action for Games Four and Five, provided the series even lasts that long. Needless to say, this is a disappointing turn of events in the career of one of the true greats who continues to pursue his first NBA Championship.