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2021 NBA conference semifinals previews: (2) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) Denver Nuggets

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The second-seeded Phoenix Suns and third-seeded Denver Nuggets meet in the Western Conference semifinals. The Suns and Nuggets respectively beat the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The two franchises last met in the playoffs in 1989.

Game 1: Denver at Phoenix, 10 p.m. ET on Monday (TNT)
Game 2: Denver at Phoenix, 9:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday (TNT)
Game 3: Phoenix at Denver, 10 p.m. ET on Friday (ESPN)
Game 4: Phoenix at Denver, 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (TNT)
*Game 5: Denver at Phoenix, TBD on June 15 (TNT)
*Game 6: Phoenix at Denver, TBD on June 17 (ESPN)
*Game 7: Denver at Phoenix, TBD on June 20
*if necessary

How they got here

Phoenix Suns

The Suns did not just beat LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers in the first round. They dominated them, winning the series-clinching Games 4, 5 and 6 by a combined 51 points.

Granted, the Lakers lost Anthony Davis to a groin injury in Game 4, and James was operating around 85% for the series, but the Suns were hobbled, too. Chris Paul, who helped transform Phoenix from lottery mainstay to legit contender, bruised his shooting shoulder late in Game 1 and played the remaining games without the threat of a 3-point shot. Paul appeared to regain strength throughout the series, despite a few re-injury scares. It remains to be seen how much three days off between series benefited his recovery.

In his first playoffs, Suns star Devin Booker was the best player in a series opposite James. Booker averaged a 30-6-5 on 49/43/94 shooting splits in 41 minutes per game. He scored 47 points on 22 shots in a deciding Game 6. He was masterful, and if we learned anything from a series that could have swung the other way had Davis remained healthy, it is that Booker will not wilt under playoff pressure. He covets it.

Phoenix got significant contributions seven deep into its rotation. DeAndre Ayton was a highly efficient double-double machine who presented defensive problems for a healthy Davis. In the second half of the series, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder found their footing as rock-solid 3-and-D swingmen. Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson were sound in their roles as a backup point guard and floor-spacing wing, respectively.  

Do not pretend the Lakers would have coasted to the conference semifinals at full strength. The Suns may be short a true superstar in his prime, but Booker and Paul can get there when it counts, and Phoenix is in line with the Utah Jazz as the most complementary and cohesive blend of talent throughout the rotation. 

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic is the most dominant offensive force in the NBA. That's how the Nuggets got here.

Denver started 30-year-old Argentine import Facu Campazzo and the well-traveled Austin Rivers, who the Nuggets signed off the scrap heap in late April, in place of the injured Jamal Murray and Will Barton. That was their backcourt opposite Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard and co-star C.J. McCollum.

It made no difference. Jokic ran the offense with aplomb, scoring against single coverage and finding open teammates when the double team came. In 39 career playoff games now, he is averaging a 26-11-7 on 52/42/86 splits — numbers that put him in a conversation with the all-time great postseason performers.

Second-year forward Michael Porter Jr.'s high-efficiency scoring prowess as a 6-foot-10 threat from anywhere on the floor translated against a porous Portland defense. Aaron Gordon did what Denver brought him to do at the trade deadline, committing on the defensive end and contributing offensively in every way possible. Monte Morris was a revelation providing playmaking punch to the ailing backcourt.

That was all Denver needed to lay waste to Lillard and the Blazers in six games. It is hard to lose scoring 122.9 points per 100 possessions on nearly 60% shooting for a series, although Portland nearly managed that, which should raise questions about the Nuggets' defense against a more balanced team.

Phoenix Suns center DeAndre Ayton faces another huge playoff test against Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, the NBA's likely MVP this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns center DeAndre Ayton faces another huge playoff test against Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, the NBA's likely MVP this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Head to head

Denver won its season series with Phoenix, 2-1.

All three games came down to the final minute, with the Nuggets' victories coming in overtime and double overtime. Murray played in all three games and was a monster down the stretch of both wins. His season-ending knee injury means Denver cannot rely on his ability to counter Phoenix's clutch-scoring backcourt.

All three games were also played without Porter, who missed three weeks in COVID health and safety protocols, and prior to the Nuggets acquiring Gordon at the trade deadline. It is hard to take much from their three January meetings, other than Jokic managing to keep games close without his full contingent.

Closing lineups

Phoenix Suns

Suns coach Monty Williams will rely on the starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Crowder, Bridges and Ayton down the stretch of close games. They are the backbone of Phoenix's success, playing the most minutes together of any five-man unit in the league, and outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. They outscored the Lakers by 33 points in 98 minutes.

Payne played the fourth-quarter point guard minutes vacated by Paul's injury, and Williams toyed with Johnson and Torrey Craig late in offensive- and defensive-minded lineups, respectively, but when your starters have carried you this far, it doesn't make much sense straying from what works, barring injury.

Denver Nuggets

A dream closing lineup of Jokic, Murray, Porter, Gordon and Will Barton is no more. Murray is out, and Barton missed all of the Portland series with a hamstring injury. He and P.J. Dozier (adductor) should both return at some point against the Suns, providing a little more depth in Denver's backcourt, but expect coach Mike Malone to mix and match his guards around Jokic, Porter and Gordon late in close games.

Morris and Rivers got the call in the clutch against the Blazers, and the Nuggets finished 3-0 in games that came down to the final five minutes. Rivers was especially sharp, making four of his five crunch-time 3-point attempts. As a whole, though, that unit finished -4 in 26 minutes against Portland, so Denver coach Michael Malone will surely run with any hot hand he can find to complement his productive frontcourt.

Matchup to watch

According to the NBA's tracking data, Ayton matched up with Davis for 23:34 over parts of 86 possessions in their first-round matchup. Davis shot just 11 for 29 and committed four turnovers in those matchups, but Ayton registered nine shooting fouls. It proved a net gain for Phoenix, but that was probably unsustainable if Davis had stayed healthy, especially since the Suns have no reliable backup other than Frank Kaminsky.

Ayton enjoyed similar success in 22:44 over parts of 84 possessions opposite Jokic in the regular season — more time than he spent defending anyone else. Jokic finished 13 for 34 from the floor and committed three turnovers in those minutes. More importantly, Ayton never once fouled Jokic. That is practically a prerequisite for the Suns, because they cannot afford to face the will-be MVP without anyone to guard him.

Conversely, Ayton scored 32 points on 13-for-22 shooting in a similar sample size against Jokic on the other end. Making the 7-foot Serbian work on defense can only help limit his aggressiveness on offense. The Suns have a monumental advantage in the backcourt, and if Ayton can manage to mitigate Jokic's dominance from the center position — a massive if — the series should tilt heavily in Phoenix's favor.

BetMGM series odds

Suns (-190)

Nuggets (+155)

Prediction

Suns in seven.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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