How can the Phoenix Suns rally at home after losing the first two games of their Western Conference semifinal series to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets?
Despite the cliché that a series doesn’t start until the road team wins, history tells us the Suns are in a tough spot. Since 1984, teams that lose the first two games on the road have won just 8% of best-of-seven series.
The chances are much better for teams like Phoenix, which were favored entering the series without home court advantage. According to pre-series odds from SportsOddsHistory.com, four of the 13 teams (31%) like the Suns that started those series down 2-0 — including the Golden State Warriors in Round 1 — came back to win.
Still, Phoenix was favored in part because of how dangerous it appears at full strength. We won’t see that version of the Suns, at least in Friday’s Game 3 after Chris Paul was diagnosed with a groin strain that puts his status for the rest of the series in jeopardy.
What adjustments can Phoenix coach Monty Williams make to compensate for Paul’s absence and help the Suns even up the series heading back to Denver for Game 5? Let’s take a look.
It’s surprising how little two-man game we saw between the Suns’ two best players in Games 1 and 2 of this series. Kevin Durant screened for Devin Booker as the ball handler just eight times in the two games, per Second Spectrum tracking. With Booker likely at the controls more frequently with Paul out of the lineup, having Durant screen for him is a way to create better matchups against the Nuggets’ starters.
The key word there is “screen” — Durant actually has to make solid contact rather than slipping out or weakly attempting to screen Booker’s defender (typically Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, though both rookie Christian Braun and Bruce Brown Jr. have seen time on him as well), which allows that player to evade contact and stay on Booker.
When Phoenix can force a switch, it puts a smaller defender on Durant and gives him the opportunity to shoot over the top in an isolation. According to Second Spectrum, the Suns have scored nine points on as many chances when Durant makes what they define as “solid” contact on the screen, as compared to two points on four chances when he hasn’t.
The defining memory of the 2021 second-round series between these two teams is Phoenix’s shooters walking into open pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-rolls involving two-time MVP Nikola Jokic defending the screener. Second Spectrum’s data backs that up. In that series, the Suns averaged a sizzling 1.17 points per chance when they had Jokic’s man set the screen. That mark is far better than the league-leading 1.07 points per chance the Dallas Mavericks averaged on pick-and-rolls over the course of the 2022-23 regular season.
In this series against the Suns, that stat has dropped to .82 points per chance. This is thanks to a better-rested Jokic being more comfortable coming up to the level of the screen while Denver’s perimeter defenders are making life more difficult for Phoenix’s ball handlers with rear contests. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe discussed in his series preview, the Nuggets have been preparing for this rematch, and thus far they’ve aced the test.
If picking on Jokic in pick-and-rolls is no longer a cheat code for the Suns, they might want to make him work by defending more off-ball screens. When he’s on Deandre Ayton, Jokic often hangs back toward the paint while Ayton is on the perimeter. That creates the opportunity for Phoenix to generate an open look for its shooters by having Ayton set a solid screen for them without Jokic around to step out, similar to what the Golden State Warriors do when opponents try to play off Draymond Green.
Again, solid screens are a prerequisite. Ayton needs to put a body on Denver’s guards to free up his teammates, forcing Jokic to come out of the paint and cover more ground on defense.
Win the minutes Jokic sits
The most shocking stat of this series is the Nuggets outscoring the Suns by 11 thus far in 18:35 with Jokic off the court in competitive portions of games. (Phoenix was plus-4 in the final 3:13 of Game 1 with reserves on the court for both sides.)
Sure, Denver managed to outscore Minnesota by 27 points in the first round when Jokic rested, but that was an eighth seed that wasn’t extending the minutes of its starters as aggressively as Monty Williams has with his stars. The Suns have had either Booker or Durant on the court whenever Jokic sits, often flanked by Ayton and Paul.
One possible option for Phoenix: Making Durant their backup center to maximize their spacing and ballhandling against the Nuggets’ undersized second units, which feature no players larger than 6-foot-8 (both Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green are listed at 6-foot-8, 235). Thus far, we’ve only seen Durant at center in end-of-quarter situations with the team on offense.
Putting Durant at center with Jokic on the bench would force Williams to alter his rotation, which typically has Durant (like Jokic) on the court the entirety of the first and third quarters before resting to start the second and fourth. Still, with the season on the line, it’s worth trying.
Settle on a rotation
The contrast between the rotations in this series has been striking. While Denver coach Michael Malone has a consistent eight-player rotation he’s settled on during the postseason, Williams used 11 players in the first half of Game 2 alone. And that didn’t include veteran reserves Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren, who “could see significantly more time” in Game 3 after combining for just five minutes in the series thus far, Williams told reporters on Wednesday.
Williams’ indecisiveness over who to play is understandable. Trading for Durant midseason wiped out much of Phoenix’s depth while also giving the team two new options in Ross and Warren. After the top six players, nobody else on the Suns has managed to separate from the pack, forcing Williams to toggle through a variety of options.
Still, switching back and forth between a variety of options has made it difficult for any of the Suns’ bench players to find a rhythm. At this point, Phoenix would surely be better off picking eight or nine players and sticking with them both halves.
The good news for the Suns is that the easiest adjustment for Games 3 and 4 remains “make more shots.” After Phoenix lost the math battle in Game 1, when the Nuggets got up 17 more shot attempts thanks to their domination of the glass and the Suns’ 16 turnovers, the Suns managed to gain the edge in Game 2. This time, they had 19 more tries — albeit with 16 fewer free throw attempts.
Besides the injury to Paul in the third quarter of Game 2, Phoenix lost because of atypically awful shot making. Second Spectrum’s quantified shot making metric (qSM) measures how a team’s actual effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) compares to what we’d expect based on the location and type of shots, distance of nearby defenders and the ability of the shooter.
Based on that measure of shot quality, the Suns’ minus-11.6 qSM was their worst since acquiring Durant and fourth-worst for any team during a game this playoffs. A few tweaks and a shot-making boost could allow Phoenix back in the series even if Paul is unable to play.