2023 NBA Playoffs: Nuggets vs. Suns preview

Published April 28, 2023, 8:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Nikola Jokic and the top-seeded Denver Nuggets will face Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and the Phoenix Suns.

Back in 2021, the Phoenix Suns were the best team in the West while the Denver Nuggets were in the middle of the pack. These two teams ended up facing each other in the semifinals, where the Suns swept the Nuggets out of the playoffs. The Nuggets ended their season back then with a whimper as Nikola Jokic was ejected in Game 4 after a frustrated swipe at Cam Payne.

These two teams are facing off in the semifinals once again. But a lot has changed since their playoff series two years ago.

This time around, it’s Denver that’s at the top of the West, still led by their MVP, Nikola Jokic. The Suns had an injury-plagued season and finished in the muddled middle of their conference. 

The cast of characters are different as well. Back then, the Nuggets didn’t have Jamal Murray and several key players who have propelled them to the top of the conference. The Suns also didn’t have a huge piece in Kevin Durant, who they acquired at the trade deadline for their championship push this season.

Both these teams have championship aspirations. Can the Nuggets avenge their 2021 loss or will the Suns make a return to the NBA Finals like they did that season? 

Most compelling storyline

Nuggets are exactly who we thought they are. 

Coming into the playoffs, they owned the fifth-best offensive rating in the league, scoring 117.6 points per possession while topping the league in terms of their effective field goal percentage. That comes as no surprise as they’ve been developing this offensive machine for a couple of seasons now. The engine of their offense is Jokic. He’s the one that makes sure that the team can get buckets easily and efficiently.

In the playoffs, the Nuggets have been even better. Their offensive rating is up to 118.9 while still keeping their efficiency numbers high. Jamal Murray is making up for lost playoff time by resuming where he left off before his ACL injury. He’s come up big for the Nuggets, leading the way in the first round.

The Suns have been a surprise in the playoffs.

During the regular season, they were a better defensive team (7th in DRtg) than an offensive team (15th in DRtg). Of course, given that they overhauled their team near the playoffs, a new team emerged in the first round.

Phoenix leads all 16 teams in the playoffs in scoring, notching 123.6 points per 100 possessions, up from their 115.1 number in the regular season. Having two offensive savants in Devin Booker and Durant definitely helps with putting points on the board.

However, the Suns have been one of the worst defensive teams in the playoffs. They’re 12th out of 16 teams in defensive rating and have bled points to the LA Clippers who played most of the series without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

That’s something the Suns have to clean up, especially now that they’re up against one of the most efficient offensive teams in the playoffs. Can the new-look Suns figure out how to stop the rampaging Nuggets offense? 


As dumb as this sounds, Durant is the X-factor in this series. Yes, one of the best players in the league today can be the game-changer for the Suns. It’s dumb, but here’s why.

The leading scorer of the entire playoffs so far has been Phoenix’s Booker, averaging a ridiculous 37.2 points per game. Booker has been unstoppable and the Suns have ridden his hot hand. While that’s worked well for the Suns, there have been nervous stretches where even Durant has taken a back seat to Booker, relegated to the corner as a release valve for the main action.

The Suns can’t forget that they have Kevin-freaking-Durant on their team. He’s a multi-faceted weapon that can be used in so many ways beyond just a spot-up shooter. Durant can run the offense as a point forward, can be used similarly to Jokic in the post, or can be the screener for Booker as a big man. He can shoot, pass, and get to the rim with ease.

The Suns are still figuring themselves out and naturally old habits will rise to the top. But for them to keep up with the top-seeded team in the West, they’ll not only need Booker to keep this pace up but also for Durant to play like the world-beater that he is.

Winning blueprint

This series will have a ton of offensive highlights with players like Booker, Durant, Jokic, and Murray on the floor. But it’s the defensive stops that will dictate how this series goes.

The Suns have a lot to figure out defensively, including their identity on that end of the floor. Chris Paul has lost a step defensively due to age, while Deandre Ayton and Booker aren’t known for their work on that end of the floor. That’s why it will fall on Durant to lead the way. As dangerous as he is on offense, KD can also make an impact defensively with his length and mobility. Can he be counted on to captain the defense of the Suns?

As for the Nuggets, they actually have shown a marked improvement on defense in the playoffs. They’re only allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions, an improvement from their 114.2 number in the regular season. They finished off the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round not with a flurry of baskets but with several key defensive stops. The Suns are a whole different beast from the Wolves. Denver will have to bring their A-game defensively to avenge their 2021 loss to Phoenix.