In his first ever playoff appearance, Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns were unfazed by the bright lights of the Staples Center.
This rising Suns roster was undaunted against reigning NBA Finals MVP Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, eliminating them in six games.
Playing in his first ever postseason, Booker bid the defending champions farewell with a 47-point showing in Game 6 to cap off a spectacular series where he averaged 29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists.
Despite dispatching the Lakers, the road to the NBA title will not get any easier for Booker, veteran Chris Paul, and the Suns in the second round. For one, Paul’s shoulder injury that he suffered in the first game against Los Angeles has lingered though he has shown considerable improvement over time.
The production of Booker and Paul will be banked on once again in their upcoming clash against this season’s Most Valuable Player favorite Nikola Jokic, who is fresh off another classic showdown between his Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trailblazers.
Jokic continued his superb season against the Blazers, who insisted on covering the savvy-passing center with just one man. He was primarily defended by former teammate Jusuf Nurkic in an attempt to neutralize his crafty assists out of double teams, but made the Blazers pay for daring him to score.
The three-time All-Star Jokic responded by tallying at least 34 points in five out of their six encounters. He finished with MVP-esque numbers, increasing his regular season norm from 26.4 to 33 points plus collecting 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists–almost half of his 8.3 average.
Against the Suns, Jokic will have to face off with the much more athletic DeAndre Ayton who was a revelation versus Los Angeles’ experienced frontline. Ayton averaged 15.8 points on 79.6% shooting with 10.7 rebounds against the Lakers and has the physical tools that will allow him to defend Jokic more effectively than Nurkic did. On the other end, the ability and willingness of Ayton to get out in transition as a trailer on the fast break will be a challenge for the slow-footed Jokic and the Nuggets.
Ayton averaged 22 points–his second highest against any team this season–and 12.3 rebounds in three regular season meetings against Denver and his performance will be crucial for the Suns. The top pick of the 2018 NBA Draft has also proved to be an ideal partner for Phoenix’s All-Star tandem of Booker and Paul on pick-and-rolls which have become a staple for the team.
Phoenix’s backcourt will be facing a short-handed set of Nuggets guards with the injuries to Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and PJ Dozier. The absence of Murray in particular, who starred for the Nuggets in the team’s run to the Western Conference Finals in the NBA Bubble, was anticipated to be a death knell, but Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, and Facundo Campazzo have filled in admirably with the best basketball of their careers.
The trio held their own against the Blazers, with Morris and Rivers starring in their double-overtime Game 5 win with 28 and 18 points, respectively, while Campazzo’s playmaking and pesky defense have been a consistent source of strength for the Nuggets. If these three Denver role players can match the output of the prolific Booker and Paul duo or at least bother them, it can spell the difference for the ailing Nuggets.
However, the player with the most potential to swing it in favor of the Nuggets is the 22-year-old forward Michael Porter Jr who poses a difficult match-up for the Suns’ wings. Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder are two of the league’s better defenders, but stand at just 6’6 and give up four inches to the 6’10 Porter.
In their two regular season games, Porter averaged just 10.5 points, but the pair came in January when he was still coming off the Nuggets’ bench. After moving into the starting line-up two weeks later and overcoming his initial adjustment, he averaged 22.3 points per game after the All-Star Break and looked confident in the last two wins against Portland with back-to-back 26 point outings.
The first two games will be played in Phoenix, where the Nuggets won both of their contests this year against the Suns. The Nuggets are raring for one more shot at winning the Western Conference title, even with their undermanned squad, after losing in 2020, but the up-and-coming Suns are not yet ready for their breakout season to come to an end.
These two emerging teams are primed for a best-of-seven affair that will feature some of the most brilliant scoring and passing talents in the NBA today. This will be the first of what promises to be several playoff battles between Booker and Jokic who enter this second round meeting in the premier form of their career and ready to take the next big leap to superstardom.