Four storylines to keep an eye on as Nuggets, Suns resume series

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker drives as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic looks on during the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball Western Conference semifinal game, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP Photo)

When the Denver Nuggets went up 2-0 on home court, many had essentially written the Phoenix Suns off. 

People pointed to an injured Chris Paul, the Suns’ lack of depth and the unstoppable force that Nikola Jokic had been so far in the playoffs. None of those above points are untrue, yet, the Suns have found a way past it, winning two games on their home court to even up the second-round series 2-2. 

Jokic, though his blistering offensive impact hasn’t slowed down whatsoever, has been counter-punched by the other-worldly duo of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, with the two combining for 158 points in the last two games. 

Their 86-point performance in Game 3 was the 10th-highest combined scoring performance since 1985 and the third-highest in the playoffs. Combine it with their 72-point onslaught in Game 4 and it’s the second-highest for a duo in that time. They trail only Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, who scored 159 over two games in 2009. 

As we head back to the Rockies, here are four storylines to keep an eye on in a Game 5 featuring a battle of juggernauts. You can watch the game on Sportsnet 360 at 10:00 p.m. ET / 7:00 p.m. PT. 

1. Is Devin Booker the best player in the league right now?

Since the playoffs began, the narrative of “who’s the best playoff performer” has seen the spotlight shone primarily on Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat. Not to take away from his efforts, but what Devin Booker has done, particularly in this series against the Nuggets, might be on another level. 

Not only has he improved his scoring from 27.8 points in the regular season to 36.8 in the playoffs, but he has also upped his assists from 5.5 to 7.4 and his steals+blocks from 1.3 to 2.9. 

His numbers have been absurd, but his efficiency has been historic. His effective field goal percentage of 67.9 and true shooting percentage of 71.1 ranks as the highest ever for a player averaging 30+ points in a single postseason. For more traditional numbers, his shooting splits of .617/.510/.870 aren’t anything to scoff at either. 

In Game 3 when he scored 47 while shooting 20-for-25 from the field cemented him as the only player other than Dirk Nowitzki to score 45+ points while shooting above 80 per cent from the field. 

What’s been just as impressive has been his work on the defensive end. Booker’s calling card was never his work on the other side of the ball, however, his efforts on that end shouldn’t be undermined. 

He’s currently leading the field in steals with 18 over his nine games. More astonishing maybe is that he’s leading all players who have defended at least 150 shots in defended field goal percentage with opposing players only shooting 37.7 per cent against Booker.

Though Booker didn’t receive a single vote for MVP this season (perhaps rightfully so after missing 29 games), it’s hard to dispute that his performance in the postseason so far could cement him as a player worthy of that upper-echelon.

2. Counterpoint: we probably shouldn’t write off Nikola Jokic as the best player in the league

Despite the Nuggets’ loss in Game 4, big man Nikola Jokic put on a performance for the ages, scoring a career-high 53 points on .667/.500/.846 shooting splits while dishing out 11 assists. 

Though the biggest story of the game will be how Jokic pushed Suns owner Mat Ishbia, don’t let it be forgotten just how easily he pushed around Phoenix centre Deandre Ayton. He scored 32 of his 53 points in the paint and has scored 19.8 points on 40 partial possessions per game over the course of the series.

So far in the playoffs, he’s in the top five in points, rebounds and assists per game while leading the league in player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and is second in usage rate. 

Though they relinquished their 2-0 series lead after dropping the two games in Phoenix, it wasn’t the fault of Jokic, as he averaged 41.5 points, 14.0 assists and 10.5 rebounds. 

Booker has been out of this world, but Jokic, as he’s been the past three years, should still hold the title as the best player in the NBA, filling up the box score in a way only he knows how.

3. Michael Porter Jr.’s continued struggles

This is still Jokic’s league, but if the Suns find a way to take a game on the road and snatch the lead away from the Nuggets, questions will be asked as to the formula of the way the team around him is built. 

Particularly concerning has been Michael Porter Jr., whose performances in the playoffs have been sorely lacking, averaging 12.0 points and 7.3 rebounds

What happens when a one-trick pony can’t do his trick anymore? Though Porter Jr. is undoubtedly more gifted than players like Duncan Robinson or Joe Harris, his repertoire so far in the playoffs has seemed just as limited. At least he can dunk?

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He’s a shooter. If the ball is in his hands, he knows exactly what to do, and that’s to go up with it. But so far in the postseason, particularly in the series against the Suns, this one very integral part of his game hasn’t gone to form. 

Normally a 41 per cent three-point shooter in the regular season, Porter Jr. has shrunk to 36 per cent in the four games against Phoenix. Discount Game 3 when he went 6-for-10, and he’s shooting a paltry 21 per cent from deep with his worst stinker coming in a 2-for-9 performance in Game 4. 

Other than shooting, the fifth-year wing can’t do much. His defence is sorely lacking as the Suns have routinely looked for Devin Booker to switch onto him to take advantage of his deficiencies. 

Despite his poor showing, Porter Jr. is a key cog to the Nuggets’ offence, serving as the best shooter on the team. He adds spacing, allowing guys like Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon to function as cutters and he’s and all-time threat for Jokic to send cross-court skip passes to. 

The Nuggets won’t go as far as Porter Jr. can take them, but if they want to out-gun the Phoenix Suns, he’ll need to at least perform better than Landry Shamet.

4. Can Phoenix sweep the games without Chris Paul?

Since joining the Suns in 2020 they’ve found success unseen since the days of Steve Nash in the 2000s or Charles Barkley in the 1990s. Though it’s never exactly been Chris Paul’s team, his impact in creating a winning culture in The Valley has been undeniable. 

After he injured his ankle in Game 2, the Suns won the two games without him and have proved now more than ever that Paul is able to take a backseat and enjoy the show before him. 

Paul is an incredible facilitator, maybe one of the best the league has seen. When he’s on the court, the Suns hummed to the best mid-range shooting team in the league and he found ways to elevate guys like Deandre Ayton or Josh Okogie. 

But the Suns can win without conforming to that game plan. Since going down, Ayton has averaged an invisible six points per game and they haven’t skipped a beat. 

Originally the Paul injury felt like the final straw for the Suns, as maybe the most shallow team in the playoffs would have to tighten their rotation even more. Instead, they’ve found solid contributions from role players such as Shamet and Jock Landale while the two-headed monster of Booker and Durant did the rest. 

They’ve also seen an increase in ball movement as the Suns have averaged 26.0 assists in the last two games as opposed to 21.5 in the games with their point guard. Booker has replaced Paul’s role on the team and more. 

If they can go undefeated in the three games without Chris Paul, against all odds the Suns could re-establish themselves as the scariest team in the West en route to another Conference Finals.

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