The Phoenix Suns entered the NBA playoffs as the fifth highest ranked defensive team with a 110.4 rating. But with the first round now nearly complete, two of the four teams ahead them have already “gone fishin,” including the Los Angeles Lakers, so graciously escorted from the postseason by the Suns themselves.
Having clearly emphasised defensive prowess from a team standpoint this year, the Suns remain well-suited to square off against any team, no matter what weapons they wield. But although most know this already, perhaps the team’s best chance to further prove this truth to any remaining skeptics lies only one day ahead, with a series set to tip off against a team that really made them bleed from a defensive standpoint earlier this year: the Denver Nuggets.
During their three contests this season, the Nuggets won the series by snatching the last two games as overtime victories. Although the extra time added on certainly played a factor, the Nuggets nonetheless hurt the Suns where they normally excel, racking up 120 points during their first win, and then 130 during the next. At the time, the Suns were giving up only 106.5 points per game to their opponents.
But now stands a perfect chance to right their former wrongs. As we all know, on a postseason stage everything that happens matters to a far greater extent. If the Suns knock out the Nuggets, that bitter taste likely still swelling around everyone’s mouth following the two back-to-back overtime losses will surely dissipate.
If the Suns hope to make good on this though, they need to start by shutting down these three Denver Nuggets.
Phoenix Suns must shut down Nikola Jokic
If you ask Vegas, the MVP crown will soon sit atop Nikola Jokic‘s head, naming him the first center to win the illustrious award since Shaquille O’Neal 21 years ago. By definition, this makes Jokic far and way the most important player for the Suns to stop.
During the regular season Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game. With numbers like those, it makes sense for Denver to run their entire offense through Jokic, which they do, as he owns the league’s second highest player impact estimate, a stat which gauges a player’s complete impact on a game according to the box score.
Additionally, Jokic already seems very committed to carrying his regular season excellence into the postseason. During round one against the Portland Trailblazers he increased his scoring output to 33.0 points per game. His best performance perhaps came during Denver’s overtime Game 5 victory where he tallied 38 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, and four blocked shots.
Now to chop down a tree, you don’t snap off the all branches before attacking the trunk. You go right at it even though it’s clearly the hardest thing to break through, and almost nobody exemplifies this position for their team more clearly than Jokic.
Just like one needs a sharpened axe for this task, the Suns need Deandre Ayton to step up once again and carry over the dominance he exerted against the Lakers. But Ayton has struggled thus far during his career defending Jokic, allowing the Serbian big man to average 25.9 points and 7.9 assists per game while shooting 57.4 percent on field goals and 40.0 percent from 3-point land.
Completely neutralizing arguably the league’s best player right now feels like an unfair task to ask Ayton, but at least slowing him down might go a long way. Perhaps Jokic’s worst game this season ironically came against the Lakers during a February matchup where he scored only 13 points, going 6-16 from the field with three turnovers.
Jokic was primarily defended by Montrezl Harrell, who attacked Jokic just about as physically as the refs allowed him to. Utilizing his youth and raw athleticism to his advantage, Ayton might want to start things out by taking a page out of his former opponent’s book.