The list of people who predicted a second-round matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets is pretty small, but both teams got through some serious challenges in the first round and will now meet with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line.
At one point, the Suns trailed the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers 2-1, and Chris Paul was a shell of himself due to a shoulder injury. They won the next three games, however, and were dominant in Games 5 and 6 after the Lakers suffered some bad injury luck of their own. Now, they'll try to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2010.
Speaking of conference finals appearances, the Nuggets lost in that round to the Lakers last season, and are chasing some history of their own. If they beat the Suns, they'll make back-to-back conference finals for the first time since 1975 and 1976, when they were still in the ABA. They're pretty shorthanded, though, so doing so may prove difficult.
Here's a look at the series schedule and three things to know ahead of the showdown between the No. 2 Suns and No. 3 Nuggets.
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(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
Suns win series 4-0
- Game 1: Suns 122, Nuggets 105
- Game 2: Suns 123, Nuggets 98
- Game 3: Suns 116, Nuggets 102
- Game 4: Suns 125, Nuggets 118
Injuries front and center
The nature of an NBA season means that by the time you reach the playoffs, injuries play a big role in who moves on and who goes home. It's unfortunate, but it's just the way things go, and this series is no different.
On the Phoenix side, the big story is Chris Paul's shoulder. He initially hurt it in Game 1, and then re-aggravated it in Game 5. Though he played in every game of the series, he clearly wasn't himself for most of it, and averaged just 9.2 points and 7.7 assists on 38.6 percent shooting. He noted earlier in the week that he's been in touch with Kyle Lowry about how to play through this kind of injury, and barring some sort of setback he'll be out there for Game 1. But there's a difference between being out there and being at his best. The closer he is to the latter, the more likely it is the Suns advance.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been beat up all season. Most notably, Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April and won't play until some time next season. Missing their playoff star from the bubble last summer would be bad enough on its own, but the Nuggets are also without Will Barton due to a hamstring strain, and PJ Dozier because of an adductor problem. Both of them are out indefinitely. Denver was able to figure things out against the Trail Blazers in the first round, but only after Damian Lillard went absolutely nuts. Going up against Chris Paul and Devin Booker with their backup backcourt is going to be a problem for the Nuggets.
Can Ayton slow down Jokic?
The main reason the Nuggets are still here is that they have this season's presumptive MVP, Nikola Jokic. He was dominant in the first round, putting up 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, while shooting 56.6 percent from the field and getting the Blazers' bigs in constant foul trouble.
Jokic controlled that series and will look to do the same against the Suns. Any player as talented as Jokic is going to have a baseline level of success, but the big question will be how much Deandre Ayton and the Suns can slow him down. On the one hand, Ayton is a better defender than anyone Jokic faced in the first round, and the Suns are an elite defensive team overall.
At the same time, Ayton is a young player going through his first playoff run, and this will be the biggest test of his career so far. Plus, he's the only true big the Suns have, and if Jokic is able to outplay him and/or get him into foul trouble, it could end up being a long series for the Suns.
Booker making star turn
No one has ever questioned Devin Booker's talent, but prior to this season, he was often written off as a great scorer who didn't do much to impact winning. That was an unfair characterization, however, especially given how little talent was around him for the early part of his career.
Now that the Suns have put an actual team around him, we're really seeing what he can do. Against the Lakers, Booker was fantastic, putting up 29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and five assists per game, while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point land. Not too bad for the first playoff series of his career.
As Booker begins to make his star turn, it's hard to see his momentum slowing down against a Nuggets team that's playing an all-reserve backcourt. We just saw Damian Lillard torch the Nuggets in the first round, and Booker should be able to have similar success. Assuming he gets off to a great start in this series, it will be interesting to see how the Nuggets react.