PHOENIX | The NBA playoffs are just a few weeks old but excuse the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets for feeling like several months have passed in terms of drama.
If the regular-season series between these two teams is any indication, there’s more of it on the horizon.
The No. 2 seed Suns and No. 3 seed Nuggets meet in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday in Phoenix.
The Nuggets have MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who averaged 33 points and 10.5 rebounds in a first-round win over the Portland Trail Blazers. The Suns will counter with the All-Star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul, who helped vanquish the defending champion Los Angels Lakers and LeBron James in Round 1.
The Nuggets won the regular-season series over the Suns, 2 games to 1. All three were hard fought: One was decided by three points in regulation, one went to overtime and the remaining one went to double overtime.
Denver is a resilient team that continues to win even after losing starting point guard Jamal Murray for the season with a knee injury. The emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris — along with the continued excellence of Jokic — was the reason the Nuggets were able to shake the Trail Blazers and star guard Damian Lillard in the first round.
For the Suns, Booker continued to grow into a superstar, scoring 47 points in the closeout Game 6 against the Lakers on Friday night. His playoff career is just six games old, but he already feels like he’s learned a lot.
“Teams aren’t going to let you do what you did last game, it’s as simple as that,” Booker said. “So you have to find ways to improvise. You have to find little knicks and knacks to find ways to get it done. We did that game to game, we had to make adjustments.
“I think my first series was a great testament to that.”
Paul is fighting a sore right shoulder that he injured in Game 1 against the Lakers and the Suns hope a few days of rest will help. Suns coach Monty Williams said Paul hasn’t missed any practice time between series.
The big man who gives Jokic the most trouble down low? That would be Deandre Ayton.
The 6-foot-11 Ayton, the No. 1 draft pick in 2018, averaged 22 points and 12.3 rebounds in three games against the Nuggets this season. Jokic averaged 25.7 points and 13.7 rebounds, along with 8.3 assists.
“If you want to have a really good big man, in general, you can pick him because he’s young,” Jokic said. “I actually talked to him in the game, told him I really liked their team because they’re a group of really good guys. They complete each other.”
One reason the Suns managed to push past the Lakers was the quality play of backup guard Cameron Payne.
The 26-year-old Payne averaged 12.5 points and 3.3 assists and shot 42% from 3-point range, providing quality minutes when Paul was resting, hurting or both.
The 6-foot-1 Payne will likely have another big role against the Nuggets, regardless of Paul’s status. He has become the leader of a quality second unit that includes Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone was hired to be an assistant under coach Monty Williams for the 2010-11 season when Williams was in New Orleans. The team also had a point guard named Chris Paul.
Malone remains tight with both of them after spending one season with them.
“Monty is a class act. He’s passionate. He’s a hell of a coach. He’s a teacher,” Malone said. “Nothing but love and respect for Monty.
“Chris Paul, he and I hit it off the year we were together and stayed very close through the years because we’re very similar. We’re both very, very competitive. We’re both students of the game, always watching. We shared that. Chris is spectacular.
“Chris Paul is the greatest leader I’ve ever been around and probably the toughest competitor I’ve ever been around. That’s how he impacts every team and every locker room he goes into. Phoenix’s rise this year, yes, Devin Booker got better. Yes, Deandre Ayton got better, but a big part of that is bringing in a winner and leader like Chris Paul that could help elevate everyone else on that team.”
Denver guards P.J. Dozier (right adductor strain) and Will Barton (right hamstring strain) went through parts of practice this weekend. Barton appears closer to returning than Dozier.
“There’s definite hope and optimism that they’ll be available at some point in the series,” Malone said. “The great thing about both of those guys, Jamal (Murray), all out, is that they’ve fully engaged in doing everything they can to help their teammates and this team win while not being able to produce or be active on the court. That speaks to our culture.”
For Phoenix, all eyes will be on Paul, who looked better as the series progressed. But it was clear he wasn’t 100%, even in the series-winning Game 6. The Suns hope 72 hours to recover between series will help.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.