Many were hopeful the 2021 season might the one, but the Denver Nuggets roster took hit after hit derailing a very promising season.
It ended with disappointment. Not due to a last-second shot, not with a missed free throw, not with a desperation half-court shot. The season ended with a Nikola Jokic ejection. Yes, it was warranted as he did hit Cam Payne in the head. No, it was not intentional but as the refs said: by rule.
Denver Nuggets roster 2021
It was a metaphorical gut-punch to all Nuggets fans.
The true gut-punch came two months earlier when Jamal Murray got hurt in the closing stages of a game versus the Golden State Warriors. Even though the ambitions of the team did not change, it was clear the Nuggets had no shot of going all the way. Not without Murray who was their best player in the playoffs last year. To make things worse, Will Barton got hurt 13 days after that. Eleven days later PJ Dozier was also hurt. In a month the Denver Nuggets roster lost all its guard depth. They were down to three bodies with one being a rookie.
Knocking out Portland in the first round was a tiny miracle considering the lack of firepower they had compared to the Blazers. Their saving grace in that series essentially became the fact that the Blazers literally could not defend anything. In the 2nd series against the Suns, they got swept by a much better team. Injuries in the playoffs are a common theme and they have altered the NBA history more than once. Nothing changes a season like injuries so this result from Denver was expected.
Even though the Denver Nuggets roster was severely depleted many believed they would put up a good fight against the Suns. Some even thought Denver would win that series.
How the Suns won
So, what happened?
The Suns simply played four great games top to bottom. Deandre Ayton defended Jokic as well as one could. Mikal Bridges was everywhere, Devin Booker was deadly and Chris Paul showed everybody he is the best pure point guard in the League. Denver’s style also suited Phoenix extremely well on both sides of the ball.
On offence, they looked flat. Without Murray, they did not have a player who could break down defences with his dribble. What’s even worse is that they didn’t have a player capable of creating angles for entry passes into the post. That is why Jokic spent the majority of time on the elbow or the three completely rendering his passing useless.
Jokic is an excellent passer from everywhere on the court, but the majority of his damage comes from the low post. The Suns took that away and as great as he still was it totally annulled the Nugget’s offence. Jokic failed to draw Ayton to the three which clogged the paint even more.
Concerns over Porter
Michael Porter Jr. had back issues so his performance in this series is going to have an asterisk, but even if he was healthy it’s hard to see any different result. Mikal Bridges was all over him and it showed. On the other side, he was hunted mercilessly by both Booker and Paul completely exploiting all his weaknesses on defence. He and Aaron Gordon literally could not hit anything and they ended the series with 15 and 9 points per game while shooting way below 50%. That wouldn’t have cut it in 2007, let alone today.
The Nuggets roster lacked a creative player which is why their offence looked abysmal in all four games. Things would have been completely different had they had Murray simply because of his scoring threat which would have opened more space for his teammates. What undid the Nuggets the most is their criminal defence. When you look at the games overall you get the feeling they could have stolen one or two but that’s wrong. Every time the Nuggets came close the Suns just shifted into a higher gear and pulled away.
Defensive woes continue
There was no panic, there was no real threat because the Nuggets simply could not stop single possession when it mattered. The Suns had two ways of scoring. The first was Porter’s individual defence. He was hunted on every switch and by this method alone they won two games.
The 2nd two were won due to the drop coverage in the pick and roll. Chris Paul destroyed that defensive concept on his own ending the series with 26 points per game while shooting 63% from the field. He dominated from the midrange getting to his spot every single time and hitting the vast majority of those shots.
There was never any adjustment made and Paul continued exploiting it. The fact that Malone did not try anything else is shocking. Sure, a zone gives the Suns the chance to fill you from the outside. Hedging gives Paul the chance to create from the three opening the paint but when you are getting carved up, why not try something else?
Even with all of this, the Nuggets will get their second chance. The Denver Nuggets roster is a good group and they will be a great team next year. Jokic is a superstar and an MVP. Murray is a star capable of becoming a superstar. Porter if healthy is really really good. Gordon fits well into their scheme. They will lose Dozier, but McGee and Millsap will free up some cap space as well.
Externally they can’t upgrade the team but internally there is a lot of room to grow. If they are healthy next year they will be in the mix for the title they so desperately want. But they will need to be ready for the moment and ready to adjust which is something they did not do this year.