Perhaps the lowest point of the Nikola Jokic era — and low is a relative term amid sustained high-level success — came two postseasons ago in this same round against this same opponent: With the short-handed Nuggets down 3-0 against the Phoenix Suns and bleeding points, Jokic, frustrated at a non-call, wound up and swung hard to dislodge the ball from Cameron Payne — making contact across Payne’s face.

Devin Booker confronted Jokic. They went nose-to-nose. Referees assessed Jokic a flagrant foul 2, and ejected him. The Nuggets’ season — a gutsy trudge to the conference semifinals without Jamal Murray and other rotation players — was over.

The two teams meet again in the same round, but with greater stakes and star power. The Suns came two wins short of the title in 2021, then flamed out in this round against the Dallas Mavericks in 2022 after winning 64 games. This season, they exchanged an ascendent potential All-Star in Mikal Bridges and other key pieces to pair Kevin Durant with Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton.

This is Denver’s fourth conference semifinals appearance in five seasons; it has won five playoff series in that span. Sneeze at that if you’d like, but keep in mind the Clippers and Brooklyn Nets have won four series combined in four seasons after their respective offseason splashes in 2019. The Nuggets have reached further than this with Jokic once — in 2020, when they lost in the conference finals. This is their best team of the Jokic era.

It’s tempting to frame this series as team continuity against a quick-fix superstar conglomerate, and there is some truth in that. Murray and Jokic have more shared sweat equity than any major pairing here. On the flip side, the Paul-Booker-Ayton trio has logged substantially more minutes than the Murray-Jokic-Aaron GordonMichael Porter Jr. quartet — largely due to injuries.

There is almost no relevant film to go on. Durant and Jokic have not played against each other since May 2021.

Murray is back, scorching again in the postseason: 27 points on 47% shooting, raining step-back fire and working with Jokic in a one-of-a-kind staccato pick-and-roll partnership. Jokic is Denver’s best player, but Murray might be the toughest individual riddle for the Suns’ defense — at least in terms of individual matchups.

The Suns will likely want to keep Paul away from Murray on defense — probably stashing him on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Hunting Paul will be one pathway to points for Denver; the Suns will try to make sure that pathway involves Caldwell-Pope — a great shooter, but probably the least dangerous threat in Denver’s starting five.

Phoenix could try Torrey Craig on Murray; Craig is a smart, rangy defender who played three seasons with Murray and knows his tendencies. But Craig is at a quickness disadvantage against an artful jitterbug scorer, and slotting him there means Booker might have to defend a bigger player — perhaps Michael Porter Jr.

Booker might be best equipped among Phoenix starters to take Murray. That could be the matchup when the series opens. Josh Okogie may bring the best blend of speed, size, and tenacity for the Murray assignment. He was Phoenix’s fifth starter until coach Monty Williams swapped him out at the start of the playoffs in favor of Craig because Craig was the Suns’ best option defending Kawhi Leonard. Craig shot well enough to keep the job. Depending how the series goes, might Williams make another matchup-specific tweak?

Meanwhile, Porter has reached a new level on both ends since 2021, and flashed a refined off-the-bounce game in Denver’s first-round win. At times in this series, he will find himself facing smaller Phoenix defenders. The Suns switch a lot across the perimeter, though they will presumably be less likely to switch actions involving Jokic than they were in the first round against Ivica Zubac. Okogie, Craig, Booker, Paul, and maybe Landry Shamet and Damion Lee will all guard Porter at times.

Porter is 6-foot-10, a career 42% shooter on 3s. He can launch right over those guys. For Denver to win this series, he might also have to use his size to manufacture more gritty buckets with the shot clock dwindling.

Gordon spent a lot of that 2021 series chasing Booker — currently averaging 37 points on 60% shooting in the postseason. The Nuggets acquired Gordon in 2021 to guard the league’s big apex wings — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George. The Suns did not have that sort of player then. Now they have Durant. This moment, now, is why Denver traded for Gordon. (Caldwell-Pope should start on Booker; Gordon could toggle onto Booker when Durant rests.)

The Suns have cobbled their rotation on the fly since sending out two heavy-minutes starters — Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson — for Durant. There have been predictable hiccups in their midrange-heavy offense: bouts of your turn/my turn stagnancy, stretches where Durant stands in the corner as the most decorated decoy ever. Those stretches haven’t lasted too long; everyone realizes who Durant is, and he can seize the reins whenever he likes.

That said, Paul probably shouldn’t dominate the ball quite as often as he has in some games. I’d expect Durant to be more involved, in more varied roles — as pick-and-roll ball handler, screener, and one-on-one threat all over the floor. The Suns can use the Paul-Durant and Booker-Durant two-man games to try to get Durant size mismatches — via switches — against Murray and Caldwell-Pope. Booker has also done well hunting Porter on switches, and blowing by him.

(The Suns since Game 1 of the Clippers series have kept at least two of Paul, Booker, Durant, and Ayton on the floor — and minimized the minutes Durant and Booker rest together. Those minutes might have to shrink to near zero now. Surviving Jokic’s rest periods is a never-ending challenge for Denver. The Nuggets were plus-27 in those minutes in the first round. Denver coach Michael Malone has settled on small-ball lineups featuring Gordon and Jeff Green sharing the center spot and at least one other starter — usually Porter or Murray. In the tightest spots, Malone should lean toward Murray — and maybe both.)

The chemistry growing pains still pop up for Phoenix:

That should be a no-brainer pass to Ayton. Booker defers to Paul instead, who seems determined to get the ball to Durant. Good intentions can undermine precise basketball.

That’s a classic Suns play — a “Spain” pick-and-roll in which Ayton screens for Booker and then receives a back screen from Durant. The timing is so off, Booker almost collides with Durant.

The Suns have made up for any systemic clunkiness with expert shot-making. The math says they are over-reliant on midrange artistry. About 53% of their shots in the first round came from the midrange — a preposterous share that would have ranked No. 1 in the regular season by 13 percentage points. Only 25% of their attempts in that series were 3s. Only 22% came within the restricted area. Both figures would have ranked last overall. Jokic and the Nuggets struggle protecting the rim; an opponent who rarely gets there would seem to be a good thing for them.

But, umm, expert shot-making is the point of the entire thing. Booker, Paul, and Durant are three of the greatest pull-up shooters ever. They make so many pull-up jumpers as to render entire defensive schemes unplayable. Their shot profile also normalized somewhat as the Clippers series proceeded. They got more shots around the rim, thanks in part to bulldozing offensive rebounds. They got to the line a ton.

Durant has changed the Suns’ entire free throw profile. Before Durant, they fouled more than anyone and rarely got to the line themselves. Now they generate tons of free throws and send opponents there less. The Nuggets are not a big free throw offense anyway. They are a good offensive rebounding team; Ayton has to be diligent on the glass and in his rim protection. He slips now and then on his box-out fundamentals, and brutes can shove him around.

The Suns in Round 1 also discovered more pace, spacing, and rhythm in their pick-and-roll game. They got into actions earlier, and spread the floor in ways that made it hard for defenses to help on time:

(The basketball gods smile whenever Ayton attacks the rim.)

Durant zooms into Ayton’s pick with 19 on the shot clock. Zubac is between coverages — not high enough to snuff a Durant jumper, not far back enough to prevent Ayton from zipping behind him.

Look at Russell Westbrook in the left corner. That’s the weakside corner, and so normally it would be his job to swarm Ayton. But he’s motioning for Marcus Morris in the right corner to rotate across the paint and tag Ayton. That’s because Morris is guarding Okogie — the only below-average shooter on the floor for Phoenix. The Suns have been careful about putting their least threatening scorers — Okogie, Torrey Craig — in the strongside corner for exactly this reason: It is generally a no-help zone. Rejiggering the rules to turn it into a help zone is hard to do. It requires longer rotations, pinpoint timing, and revamping habits on the fly.

Here’s Craig in the strongside corner on this Booker pick-and-roll — with Morris making the standard rotation away from (gulp) Durant in the opposite corner:

Paul drifts up toward the top of the arc as Ayton rolls — widening the distance between himself and Durant, lengthening the rotations LA would have to make to account for everyone. More of Paul’s 3s have been of the catch-and-shoot variety since Durant came aboard, and that’s healthy. He downloaded right away that some defenses would leave him open almost by default. Paul has to let it fly.

Phoenix has also sprinkled in sets in which its stars cooperate in ways beyond a standard pick-and-roll:

That’s Durant flying into a handoff from Booker and then taking a screen for Bismack Biyombo — with Okogie on the strong side, Booker staying high, and Lee alone on the weak side.

Despite the inevitable learning curve, the Suns have scored like gangbusters with Durant. They are 12-1 with him. They poured in almost 123 points per 100 possessions against a game Clippers defense — far above Sacramento’s league-best regular-season efficiency.

All of this is a souped-up version of what Phoenix ran in sweeping Denver two seasons ago. Those Nuggets were undermanned, but the result stuck with them. They remade their perimeter rotation, restocking with defense-first types skilled at chasing ball handlers around picks: Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun. If they could stick with ball handlers, Jokic would not be left on an island corralling two players — ball handler and screener — in open space.

For most of that 2021 series, the Nuggets had Jokic meet Booker and Paul at the point of the screen — high on the floor, above the arc. That aggressive style briefly places two defenders on one ball handler. Behind the ball, the remaining three Nuggets must cover four opponents — Ayton rolling, three shooters dotting the arc.

That is the scheme Jokic has historically preferred. It made sense (and still does) against the Suns. A drop-back scheme is near untenable against Paul, Booker, and Durant. You cannot let them walk into open or semi-contested 18-footers. They can beat you with that shot, math be damned.

In that 2021 series, the Suns stretched the Nuggets’ defense to its breaking point. They drove and passed ahead of Denver’s scrambling rotations until they found an open triple or layup.

The Nuggets won’t stop the Suns’ offense. That’s fine. The Suns won’t be able to stop their offense either. Whichever team wins will have found some way to at least contain the carnage.

Denver’s route to such containment is perhaps a little murkier — which is not a major indictment or indication the Nuggets will lose here. It just is. The Nuggets can dabble in different schemes, but they might have to default to meeting pick-and-rolls at the arc — exposing them to the kind of pass-drive-pass sequences that undid them two seasons ago. They are better at that now than they were then.

With Porter and Gordon, Denver is enormous and fast behind the point of attack — capable of traversing huge chunks of space almost in sync with the ball. Porter has made giant leaps executing those rotations.

Part of the idea in acquiring Brown and Caldwell-Pope was to unlock other schemes — at least in small doses. If Denver’s guards could sneak around picks unscathed, might it be safe for Jokic at times to hang back — allowing other Denver defenders to stick closer to home?

Denver has used that setup against specific actions and opponents — including on side pick-and-rolls involving Mike Conley in the first round. Is it workable in any circumstance against the Suns? Maybe against only Paul, trying to coax him into more contested 2s at the expense of attempts for Booker and Durant?

The Clippers busted out a different gambit against Phoenix: placing a wing player — first Leonard, then a rotating cast — on Ayton, hiding Zubac on Craig, and then switching pick-and-rolls with Ayton as the screen setter. Could Denver mimic that?

The Nuggets could try. But if Jokic is on Craig, who’s on Ayton? You might suggest Gordon, but if he’s on Ayton, who covers Durant? Do you really want Porter on Ayton — at the center of the Phoenix pick-and-roll maelstrom?

The Suns are ready for that scheme anyway. They got more comfortable using Craig and Okogie as screeners when the Clippers stashed centers on them:

Bumping up Brown’s minutes at the expense of Porter brings more options, but Brown is only 6-foot-4. Denver needs Porter’s shooting. Either way, the Nuggets aren’t quite as physical as the Clippers; they will not beat up Durant and Booker the way LA’s howling cinder-block guards and wings did. The Nuggets are a much bigger challenge — co-favorites in this series — but the Suns will nonetheless feel some physical relief on the perimeter. Ironically, Denver is probably saying the same thing right now after battling the twin towers of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the ferocious, head-down driving of Anthony Edwards. Denver might be able to feast on the glass here.

The Nuggets have shown glimpses of zone defense, too. They could pre-switch Jokic out of the pick-and-roll when they see it coming. They will try everything.

But mostly they will say to the Suns: OK, stop us. Stop our MVP and our resurgent star point guard.

Ayton has held up well enough against Jokic that the Suns have not sent many hard double-teams — which Jokic tears apart with passing anyway. Ayton is also nimble enough to (sometimes) contain Murray on the pick-and-roll without straying too far from Jokic — and yielding easy 3s or pump-and-go drives.

But even Phoenix digs down, shades extra defenders toward Jokic, tries to at least make him think. The other Nuggets will have to pounce on kickout chances:

The Nuggets will pry more space for Jokic by getting him the ball on the move — cross screens under the rim, pin-downs to spring him into the high post. (He has gotten traction facing up against Ayton.) Jokic has become a sneaky good cutter. There is no real stopping him.

This series looks like a toss-up. The Suns have two of the three best players. The Nuggets have more experience together. Both teams have depth issues. Denver is 37-7 at home, with home-court advantage. Fatigue and altitude could sap Phoenix after its stars played huge minutes in the first round.

I have no idea who’s going to win. This could go either way — two great teams, well-matched. I’ll throw my hands in the air and go: Suns in 7

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