One of basketball’s oldest adages is that “Defense wins championships” and the Phoenix Suns have taken this mantra to heart in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
The commitment that the Suns have put in on the defensive end, coupled with the offensive talent that they already have on the roster, have allowed them to rise from a title dark horse into a legitimate contender. Phoenix boasts of the top postseason defense , allowing just 98.6 points per game on 42.2% shooting from the field and 30.8% from three after seven games–all of which are by far an NBA-best.
Coming off a blowout win in the opener against the Denver Nuggets, the Suns followed it up with a 123-98 drubbing in Game 2. The win padded their already impressive defensive numbers and gave them a 2-0 lead before flying to Denver where they hope to achieve their first series sweep in 11 years.
The Suns’ win was once again a collective effort with all five starters scoring in double figures for the second straight game. They fed off the flawless play of the ageless Chris Paul who had 17 points, 15 assists, and zero turnovers in Game 2–improving his series assist-to-turnover ratio to a ridiculous 26:1. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and the rest of the Suns feasted off the opportunities created by Paul, highlighted by the team’s 18 made three pointers in the win.
A spectacular offensive game from Booker, who has averaged just 19.5 points in this series after scoring almost 30 per game in the opening round, has not even been needed in their first two blowout wins. Booker has been confident and unfazed in his first playoff appearance while his buy-in on defense has further solidified the Suns.
DeAndre Ayton has also managed to stay out of foul trouble and it has paved the way for him to continue his breakout postseason run. He has ably defended the newly minted NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic without much help defense while also producing 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game in this series. Ayton’s coverage of Jokic has made it easier for the Suns to shut down the other the Nuggets which has been and will still be the biggest factor in this match-up moving forward.
Jokic, in his first game since being crowned the NBA’s MVP, led Denver with 24 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists, but the other four Nuggets’ starters combined for just 26 points. Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon, and Facundo Campazzo all scored in double digits in the series opener, but were limited and frustrated by the physical Phoenix defense in the Game 2 loss.
The Nuggets’ second leading scorer Porter, who was tagged as questionable coming into the contest after hurting his back in the second half of Game 1, was visibly hampered and finished with just 11 points on 13 shots. With Porter far from full health, the absence of starting guard Jamal Murray has hurt them even more.
Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Monte Morris have filled in admirably since Murray tore his ACL in January, but their limitations have been brutally exposed by the Suns. Murray, whose two-man game with Jokic has been the Nuggets’ bread and butter over the past few seasons, would have given Denver that additional threat and dimension on offense that they have sorely missed.
Denver’s lack of offensive diversity and the Suns’ suffocating defense have turned this highly anticipated best-of-seven into a one-sided affair after two meetings. The injury to Porter, whose scoring abilities when healthy have the ability to swing a game, is practically a death knell for the Nuggets unless one of their role players unleashes the greatest two week stretch of their careers or Paul Millsap plays like its 2014. Despite his status as the league’s MVP, Jokic cannot take on these Suns alone, especially with the form they have shown over these past few weeks.
Phoenix has built off the momentum from the previous series where they dethroned the defending champion LA Lakers with three consecutive wins after falling behind 2-1. They themselves have looked like a championship caliber team versus the Nuggets with outstanding play on both ends of the court from their whole rotation. If Paul can maintain his elite level of play and the decent three-point shooting of the Suns’ role players remains, they might not even need Booker to flash his best form until the start of the Western Conference Finals.
The toughness of Paul and Crowder, the veterans on this team, has rubbed off on this young roster that has played with an edge that was not there as recently as last season. Bridges and Ayton are emerging as premier two-way players alongside Booker has also been a welcome development for this franchise, and their continuous improvement will only make it more difficult to beat these Suns in a seven game showdown. This team’s capacity to shut down their opponents paired with the breathtaking skills of Paul and Booker are a tried and tested recipe for success that puts them in a position to win every game that they play.
The next two games in Denver could be the Nuggets’ last for this season, but this team proved last year, after climbing out of two 3-1 deficits, that no lead in a series with them is safe. With two out of the four wins necessary to advance already tucked under their belt, the Suns will have to put their foot down on the proverbial accelerator–not take it off–if they want to make it to the next stop on their road to the NBA Finals.
Less games benefits the Suns greatly, decreasing their risk of Paul getting hurt and allowing him to stay fresh for the next round, and if their recent play has been any indication, this series might be down to its last 96 minutes.