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Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns
Wednesday, June 9, 2021 at 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT) at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix

The Importance of Stopping Nikola Jokic

Especially without star point guard Jamal Murray available to the team, Denver’s motor in these playoffs has been center Nikola Jokic.

Because of his importance to Denver, its success in a game is tied with Jokic’s individual success, with his productivity as both a scorer and a passer.

Jokic averages more touches per game than any other player in these playoffs besides Maverick star Luka Doncic.

In the first round, Denver lost to Portland twice. In those two losses, Jokic was either limited as a scorer or a passer. That is, he either scored fewer than 30 points or accrued fewer than five assists.

Fittingly, Denver scored fewer than 110 points in both of those losses.

When the Nuggets played Phoenix on Monday, they mustered 105 points largely because Jokic’s scoring and passing was hampered by the Sun defense. He scored 22 points and managed three assists.

Clearly, Phoenix understands that it is important to stop Jokic. The question is, should we expect the Suns to limit Jokic in Game 2 as they did in Game 1?

Expectations for the Sun Defense Against Jokic

I like the Sun defense against Jokic largely because of center Deandre Ayton.

Ayton’s success on defense against Jokic on Monday was not a one-time thing. But rather, Ayton is consistently able to limit Jokic.

In the regular season, Ayton was one of two players to limit Jokic to shooting under 40 percent.

First of all, Ayton has the physical tools to succeed against Jokic. Ayton is lengthy, strong, and disciplined.

Part of Ayton’s on-court discipline is a product of the knowledge that he’s accrued off-the-court.

He clearly knows Jokic’s game well, such that he avoids being fooled by Jokic’s characteristic pump-fakes.

Without those pump fakes, Jokic has a harder time accruing driving or shooting space for himself, especially given Ayton’s physical traits.

Other Sun defenders stepped up. They cut off Jokic’s passing lanes, thus lowering his assist total, and accounted for the cutters who Jokic tries to involve in the Nugget offense in order to generate easy baskets.

Michael Porter Jr. and the Question of Supporting Jokic

So far in these playoffs, Michael Porter Jr. is by far the second-leading scorer for the Nuggets. He has 4.9 more points than any other teammate besides the leading scorer, Jokic.

A reason for Phoenix’s extra success in the second half was the physical limitation that Porter Jr.’s injury imposed on him.

This injury limited his movement and reduced his ability to play. In the second half, he managed 13 minutes because he tweaked his back.

His back has created ongoing problems for him, whose draft stock back in 2018 plummeted because of the injury risk that his back created.

Because of current, recurring issues with his back, he is listed as ‘questionable’ for tonight’s game.

Denver’s offense is already hurt by the absence of Jamal Murray. Most of the Nugget role players stepped up in the scoring department.

But even if those role players overachieve, the Nugget offense has a significant void without a healthy Porter Jr.

This void in support for Jokic will remain catastrophic given the answers that Phoenix’s defense has for Jokic in the form of Ayton and being glued on Denver cutters.

Accounting for Phoenix’s Options

Despite attempting 11 fewer field goals than Jokic, Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges led all scorers in Game 1 with 23 points.

One would think that the Nuggets should want to adjust in order to contain Bridges. Most problematically, Denver conceded a combined total of eight open and wide open three-point attempts to him.

But the Nuggets have to devote their attention primarily to limiting guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Plus, if they try harder to take away Phoenix’s open three-point attempts, then they open up the interior more.

Interior defense is already problematic for the Nuggets, who ranked last-place in the regular season in limiting opposing field goal efficiency within five feet of the basket.

The Verdict

Phoenix will continue to limit Denver’s top offensive component, Jokic.

Conversely, with guys like Ayton inside, the Suns will exploit Denver’s awful rim protection, while taking advantage of opportunities from beyond the arc.

As for the total, I find it impossible to like the “over” with the top Nugget scorer limited.

Moreover, Phoenix’s third-quarter spurt, ignited by turnovers and transition baskets, will give Denver more motivation to slow the tempo down.

Best Bet: Parlay Suns ML at -245 & Under 222 at -108 at +171 with Heritage

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