We would normally write in this space about the big takeaways from the previous weekend in sports. But the Arizona Diamondbacks have lost 17 straight road games and own the worst record in all of Major League Baseball; and Arizona State Sun Devil baseball just got eliminated by a school named Fairfield in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. Both are extremely yuck and make us all the more fortunate for the Phoenix Suns’ deep playoff run this summer. Instead of takeaways, let’s dive into five things to watch in the Suns-Nuggets Western Conference semifinals, which tips off with Game 1 Monday night in Downtown Phoenix.
Devin Booker ascends to assassin.
Booker’s Game 6 heroics to close out the L.A. Lakers was a performance that will be long remembered. The Suns star guard made his first six three-point attempts, scored 22 in the first quarter and finished with 47 points and 11 rebounds. Booker became only the second Suns player in history to notch a 45–point, 10–rebound game in the playoffs (Charles Barkley did it twice). He showed his killer mentality in the closing moments with an emphatic breakaway dunk to end the Lakers season.
What To Watch For: Booker’s big games against L.A. came with a hot start that set the tone for the rest of the game. Denver is a much better opponent however, and won’t give up quite as easily as the Lakers did. Hot start or not, Booker will need to elevate his game in this round to score in the fourth quarter.
Chris Paul’s lingering right shoulder issue.
Paul’s bruised right shoulder has knocked him down several times this postseason, but the 11-time All-Star point guard keeps getting up. We’d argue his signature moment against L.A. came late in the fourth quarter of Game 6 when the Lakers were attempting to mount a rally, and Paul assisted on two huge three-pointers and made another field goal to close out the game.
What To Watch For: Paul missed two wide open three-point shots in Game 6 in the previous series. Will the Nuggets defense leave him open to attempt that shot and does he make them pay for it?
Deandre Ayton versus Nikola Jokic.
This matchup of big men will be hard to miss. Denver relies on their NBA MVP candidate Jokic to do everything on offense and defense (much like how the Lakers relied on Anthony Davis for everything). However, Jokic admits Ayton was the toughest defender in the NBA he faced this season. In the one Suns win over Denver this season, Jokic was held to 17 points and 9 rebounds. In both Nuggets wins, Jokic went off for 31 and 29 points and had one game with 22 rebounds. Jokic came up huge for Denver against Portland in the first round, with five games of 34 points or more. Ayton was equally important to the Suns in the first round even though his impact was minimal in Game 6.
What to Watch For: Ayton is growing up before our eyes. He will need to stay out of foul trouble but play with the same aggression as he did so masterfully against L.A. The team and the fans respond when he dunks the ball with authority.
What will motivate Jae Crowder?
The Suns starting forward got off to a very slow start in the Lakers series, but rallied for three big three-pointers to start Game 5 and had six threes in the Game 6 win to hand LeBron James his first career first–round exit from the playoffs. James had been 14-0 in the first round prior to facing Crowder and the Phoenix Suns. Observers could tell Crowder held a grudge that carried over from last year’s Finals when he was with Miami and lost to LeBron’s Lakers in the bubble. The two towering men renewed their rivalry last week and it ended with Crowder getting the last laugh and the last dance – a brief salsa dance near the Lakers bench in the closing moments to taunt James (see LeBron’s Mountain Dew commercial).
What To Watch For: Now that the LeBron grudge is settled, will Crowder play with the same intensity and fire in the belly? He may have been trying too hard early in the previous series in the name of revenge and needed four games to settle down. With the weight off his shoulders, we’re looking for Crowder to make an impact early in Game 1.
Dynamics of home court advantage.
The Suns played in front of 16,000 fans in Game 5 against L.A. and the setting should be no different for the first two games at home against Denver. The Nuggets meanwhile, are allowed to increase to full capacity crowds at Ball Arena in this round of the playoffs, according to NBA.com.
What To Watch For: We know the Suns responded to their own full building, but they faced a very small crowd on the road at Staples Center in L.A. The Denver crowd will present a much bigger challenge that the Suns haven’t seen in more than a year.