Suns give Nuggets' defense plenty to chew on in surgical Game 1 win
About two-and-a-half minutes into their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns ran a run-of-the-mill Chris Paul-Deandre Ayton high pick-and-roll. The Nuggets, as is their wont, defended it by having Nikola Jokic (guarding Ayton) hedge out at Paul as he came off the screen. Paul slipped a slick backhand pocket pass to the rolling Ayton, who caught the ball behind the 3-point line.
The Nuggets were in a decent position to manage the ensuing three-on-two situation, with lengthy helpers Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon on the back side. But Porter was two beats late with his rotation from the weak side, Gordon's desperation stunt from the strong side proved ineffectual, and Ayton rumbled to the basket for a massive one-handed slam (plus a foul) that brought Guy Fieri and 16,218 other frenzied Suns fans to their feet.
While no other Suns ball-screen action produced a moment quite so electric for the remainder of their 122-105 series-opening win, it was a good preview of the challenges Denver's aggressive defense faces in trying to slow down Phoenix's surgical attack.
Of course, the Nuggets faced many of those same challenges in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers. But the Suns come with a few crucial distinctions. Their lead guards are better playmakers than Portland's. Ayton is a more dynamic roll man than Jusuf Nurkic. And their off-ball players are more active in relocating around the central action. That doesn't necessarily make Phoenix a more difficult team to guard - it doesn't have anyone in Damian Lillard's galaxy as a pull-up 3-point shooter - but it may be reason enough for Denver to reconsider its defensive game plan in this series.
Paul is nursing a shoulder injury and coming off a six-game series in which he hit just two 3-pointers; picking him up that high on the floor doesn't seem necessary. One can also count on one hand the number of players as good as Paul at dissecting defenses that put two on the ball. With the Nuggets reacting to that early Ayton rim run by pulling over earlier from the weak side, Paul immediately started hunting the skip pass to the corner:
Those are tough passes, but they're passes Paul can make blindfolded when he knows what coverage is coming. Denver can probably afford to dial things back at the point of the screen.
That's not to say there's a great alternative or that Paul wouldn't find a way to burn any other scheme. The Nuggets resorted to switching screens against him in the second half, and he just started splashing jumpers over Porter and JaMychal Green. Playing a drop coverage would be a similar invitation for him to walk into his favorite mid-range shots, which are practically layups for him.
Paul shot 8-of-14 from the field and 2-of-3 from deep in Game 1, and his shoulder, frankly, seemed fine. But challenging him to be a scorer still feels like a wiser bet than making him a playmaker. The Suns shot 55.5% off his passes, and he finished the game with 11 assists to just one turnover. That's not a great return on investment for an ostensibly aggressive scheme.
Paul's instincts may be sharpening like fine cheddar over time, but he has very little explosiveness left. Opponents don't really have to worry about him dusting slow-footed defenders off the bounce and getting all the way to the cup. He isn't going to traffic-cone Jokic going downhill the way Donovan Mitchell did in the 2020 postseason or as Lillard did at times in Round 1. Playing a shallow drop and late-switching isn't a terrible option, provided the Nuggets can scram their smaller defenders out of the size mismatch on the back end of those switches, or at least crash in from the corners to gang rebound.
That calculus is a bit different when it comes to Devin Booker, who's a greater threat to pull up from deep and a bigger headache to defend in space. Booker doesn't process coverages as quickly as Paul, so he struggled with Denver's pressure in the first half, committing five turnovers. But he, too, had the Nuggets' defense pretty well solved by game's end. He finished with 8 assists, and 4 of them went to corner 3-point shooters out of a high screen action
After an error-strewn first half, he didn't turn the ball over once in the third and fourth quarters.
Booker also presents a different challenge because he starts the vast majority of his possessions off the ball. He very rarely initiates the pick-and-roll from a standstill. Instead, he catapults himself into motion off of pindowns and dribble-handoffs and then orchestrates on-ball action where he can react to the defense. The Nuggets' principles stay the same on those actions, but they're often playing catch-up because Booker has created an advantage before even catching the ball.
That's partly why putting Gordon on him (one of the Nuggets' second-half adjustments) didn't really work. The Suns ran Gordon through mazes of off-ball screens to get him trailing the play and, in the process, removed his help defense from the back end. Phoenix repeatedly managed to isolate lesser Nuggets defenders (often Porter) on the weak side by stationing Mikal Bridges as the lone shooter there. Bridges would lift to the top right as Booker turned the corner, making it nearly impossible for that weak-side defender to tag Ayton on the roll without surrendering an open, above-the-break triple to a 43.6% catch-and-shoot 3-point marksman.
This play was particularly mean. Booker sold the skip to Bridges so hard that Porter fully committed, leaving Ayton unguarded on the lob:
You can see how the Suns also made a point of clearing out the strong-side wing on those Booker handoffs, giving him tons of space to curl into.
Bridges punished the Nuggets' tilted defense all game by relocating and canning his open threes. He shot 4-of-8 from deep and finished with a game-high 23 points. By the end of the contest, the Nuggets had decided to simply help off of Jae Crowder instead, even if that meant helping from one pass away:
You can see Green - pulled all the way over from the strong side to deter Ayton's roll - motioning for Facundo Campazzo to stay attached to Bridges on the weak side even as Booker turned the corner and set up Crowder for a practice-gym three. (That was supposed to be Austin Rivers' rotation.)
The Nuggets obviously aren't going to stray from their base scheme entirely. It's what they've done all year, and it's still the best way to amplify Jokic's defensive strengths while mitigating his defensive limitations. They were able to speed Booker up early in the game, and Gordon managed to blow some stuff up with his rotations when he was the low man:
But Phoenix ultimately has to feel pretty good about its ability to handle Denver's default setting. The result was a remarkably balanced Suns attack: Every starter had at least 13 shooting possessions, and none had more than Paul's 15.
That may not be as flashy as Lillard carving the Nuggets en route to 50-plus, but it's probably more sustainable. Where Lillard ran out of gas toward the end of that series, the Suns' more egalitarian approach should keep their stars fresher for longer. It will be interesting to see if the Nuggets try to implement some tweaks that force those stars to take matters into their own hands.
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