Three things to watch: Phoenix Suns vs. Denver Nuggets

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The Suns and Nuggets both pulled first-round upsets as the higher seeds.

Which team will advance to the Western Conference finals and get the credit it deserves? Three things to watch in the Phoenix-Denver second-round series:

1) How the Suns defend Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic imposes his stylistic will onto nearly every game he plays. He’s just that different from other centers. Matchup advantages practically follow him.

He’s such a skilled ball-handler and shooter, defenders must stick with him on the perimeter. But he can also bully smaller players in the post. His best skill is passing, so overplaying him also brings consequences.

That’s a big reason Denver’s rag-tag guards – Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and Markus Howard – played so well in the fist round. They got space from the Trail Blazers paying so much attention to Jokic. The Nuggets guard corps could also get a boost from Will Barton and P.J. Dozier getting healthy.

Phoenix center Deandre Ayton has the size and athleticism to match up reasonably well with Jokic. Even Jokic recently acknowledged Ayton gave him (relative) trouble. Ayton avoiding foul trouble will be essential.

The Nuggets should win this matchup. The question: By how much?

2) How Nikola Jokic defends the Suns

Nikola Jokic imposes his stylistic will onto nearly every game he plays. He’s just that different from other centers. Matchup advantages practically follow him.

In this case, that’s not so great for Denver. Jokic is slow and seemingly exploitable defensively.

That said, Jokic has played six career playoff series and no opponent has really taken advantage of this supposed liability. And he has gotten only more agile and sharper defensively this season.

But maybe Phoenix has the guards – Chris Paul (if healthy) and Devin Booker – to take advantage.

Jokic usually defends at the level and does a decent job of preventing penetration given his athletic limitations. Yet, when ball-handlers get by him, the Nuggets run into serious trouble. Paul and Booker are the type of dynamic guards who could make hay.

The Suns should win this matchup. The question: By how much?

3) Benches

Denver got outscored with Jokic on the court against Portland. Phoenix performed slightly worse with Devin Booker on the floor than when he sat against the Lakers.

Both the Nuggets and Suns have good depth, and backup-heavy lineups could tilt the outcome of this series.

Cameron Payne especially stepped up for Phoenix and Monte Morris especially stepped up for Denver in the last round. Those point guards could dictate plenty. Even if Morris moves into the Nuggets’ starting lineup, a healthy Barton would bring more firepower to Denver’s second unit.

More on the Suns

NBA first-round playoff-series MVPs Watch Jae Crowder get ejected for celebratory salsa dance (video) Suns prove to be too much, overwhelm LeBron, Lakers to win Game 6, take series

Three things to watch: Phoenix Suns vs. Denver Nuggets originally appeared on NBCSports.com