After taking down the best player of his generation in the first round, the second-seeded Phoenix Suns won again in the Western Conference semifinals, this time sweeping the third-seeded Denver Nuggets, who were led by the 2021 NBA MVP. The Suns were unstoppable for most of this series, and it seemed as though Phoenix was up double-digits more often than not when the games got into the second half.
Free Picks: Phoenix Suns vs. Denver Nuggets, 2021 Western Conference Playoffs Round 2
Series Results: Suns wins series 4-0
The Denver Nuggets were down one Jamal Murray for these playoffs, and considering he was the catalyst for the team’s improbable run to the Western Conference Finals last season, that was a big blow. However, they did still have this year’s MVP, Nikola Jokic. On the strength of the Joker and his gaggle of sharpshooters, the Nuggets were able to get through the first round against the defensively-challenged Portland Trail Blazers, but no further.
The Nuggets—who aren’t exactly a defensive juggernaut themselves—simply could not compete with the Suns in the Western Conference semis. With DeAndre Ayton neutralizing Jokic for much of the series, it was up to the Denver supporting cast to rally and keep the team in games, and in that quest they failed miserably. Even the return of Will Barton was not enough, despite Will the Thrill playing pretty well after missing an extended period due to injury.
Michael Porter Jr. and trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon were both particularly disappointing, and the backcourt duo of Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers never really stood a chance against one of the best backcourts in basketball in Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
The Suns beat the Nuggets in four straight games to sweep them on out of these playoffs, and they did it convincingly in each and every game, boasting an average winning margin of just under 16 points during this series. That makes it seven straight wins (five of which came by double-digits) for the Suns in these playoffs dating back to when they were down 2-1 in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Paul landing in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is not encouraging, but if they can get their leader back early enough in the Western Conference Finals, they should have no trouble booking their ticket to the NBA Finals. With Paul in there, the Suns are an easy NBA pick to make it all the way, but without him, you would do well to shift your top picks over to Phoenix’s opponents, which will be either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Utah Jazz.
June 7, 10:00 p.m., Phoenix Suns Arena
(Playoff Betting Record: 24-19, +3.78)
The second-seeded Phoenix Suns come into this second round matchup with a few more questions than there are for their opponents, the third-seeded Denver Nuggets. The main question is: how is Chris Paul’s shoulder really doing? He injured it in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers a couple of weeks ago, and the team deemed it a stinger.
Stingers are not generally lingering issues, however, and it was clear in Games 2 and 3, both of which Phoenix lost, that the veteran point guard was not right. He looked a little better in the final three games, which his team won to close out the defending champions in six, but he still doesn’t look like the same player that led these upstart Suns to a 51-21 regular season record, good for second-best in the NBA.
Paul didn’t really matter at all on close out night in Game 6 however, because emerging superstar Devin Booker decided to take matters into his own hands, dropping 47 points—including six triples in the opening frame—to wave goodbye to LeBron James’ Lakers. That’s tough.
Jae Crowder awoke from his slumber to contribute a 6-for-9 night from beyond the arc in Game 6 as well after having shot the deep ball at a 22 percent clip through the first five games of the series. The veteran forward shot the ball very well from three during the regular season, but not that well, so we’d expect him to regress back to his mean when they get this series started against the Nuggets on Monday night.
I would expect Booker to cool off a bit too, which is one of the reasons why I like the Nuggets to go into the desert and steal Game 1 from the Suns in their own building as our NBA pick here.
Much has been made of how well DeAndre Ayton can D up on presumptive 2021 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic in the post, and while I do believe there is some merit to that, the Joker seems like a player whose motor is running a lot hotter in the postseason than it is in January. And not to mention the fact that the big Serbian doesn’t need to dominate in the paint or the post to have success.
The seven-footer has a refined offensive game that allows him to score from all over the court, including with a lovely midrange stroke and a surprisingly effective looping three-ball. The latter is not a weapon Jokic used very much in earning a nomination for this season’s league MVP award, averaging 1.0 triple on 2.5 tries per night in the regular season.
In that first round series against the Blazers, Jokic was firing it up over twice as often from deep, putting in 2.5 treys on 5.8 attempts each night, which equates to an excellent 43 percent mark from three-point land. And the best player on the Nuggets is not the only one who’s been doing his best sharpshooter impression so far in these playoffs.
Aaron Gordon is shooting at 60 percent, which is likely unsustainable, Austin Rivers has been hot with a 48 percent clip from deep, Markus Howard’s at 45 percent and Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris are both just under 42 percent.
According to NBA.com, the Nuggets were hitting both high percentage and low percentage looks at a high rate: the Nuggets are averaging the eighth most wide open threes (closest defender 6+ feet away) and fifth most open threes (defender 4-6 feet) per game so far this postseason . They are also hitting those wide open threes at a league-high 49 percent clip.
They are also second in these playoffs with 42 percent success rate on tight threes (defender 2-4 feet), which is encouraging as well considering they will likely have to take a lot more shots like that with Phoenix’s premier perimeter defending. Mikal Bridges, Crowder, and Cameron Johnson are all solid edge defenders for Phoenix, so Jokic will have to attract double-teams and work his magic to find and get the ball to the open cutter.
The only way Phoenix can combat that type of Denver offense moving through Jokic is when all five defenders are focused and dialed in on each play, which is a tall order. Considering this is Game 1, we like the Nuggets to come out and win straight up as big time +165 NBA odds underdogs as one of our best bets for today.
Coach of the year candidate Monty Williams has not had a real look at this new Nuggets rotation: none of Denver’s top three guards from their last matchup in January are available, and Gordon and Rivers weren’t even on the team back then. I would expect the Suns to bounce back, but our top pick for Game 1 has to be on the Nuggets as Phoenix figures a way to key in on Joker and stop his onslaught.
Game 2 (Suns leads series 1-0)
June 9, 09:30 p.m., Phoenix Suns Arena
Playoff Betting Record: 27-20, +5.95)
The first game of this Western Conference semifinal began as we hope the rest of the series will play out: tight and competitive. The contest was within seven points for the entirety of the first half of this game as both teams went back and forth, responding to each mini-run by the opponent with one of their own.
The Nuggets actually seemed like the team that was pulling away early in the third frame, building up a nine-point lead with about seven and a half minutes remaining in the quarter. That’s when the Suns exploded, as they inevitably do.
The Suns proceeded to go on a 16-0 run that would put them in the driver’s seat for the remainder of this tilt, holding the Nuggets without a field goal for nearly five full minutes, which is certainly a change of pace for the visitors after dealing with one of the worst defenses in the association (the Portland Trail Blazers) in the first round.
Chris Paul struggled to start, going 2-for-8 from the field, but he put the game to bed in the fourth quarter, scoring 14 points in the frame while also dishing out 11 dimes overall. It was vintage Paul, and from that type of performance it seems as though he may finally be past that nagging shoulder injury that has held him back here and there over the past couple of weeks.
Everyone in the Suns’ starting lineup scored in double-digits on the night, with Mikal Bridges surprisingly leading the field with 23 points. His jumper was falling even under good defensive pressure, and his touch at the rim was the best it’s been in a while as the 24-year-old went 4-for-8 from deep and 8-for-12 from the field on Monday night.
Bridges is generally known for his length, perimeter defense, and overall instincts on that side of the floor, not for his offensive talent. He scored 20+ points in just 10 of 72 regular season games this season and did not do it at all against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round—we would not expect to see him do it again for the remainder of this series, which is one of the reasons that we like the Nuggets to tie it up as one of our top picks on Wednesday.
Paul going off for 14 points in the fourth quarter seems on brand for the 36-year-old because of the experienced and clutch aura that surrounds him, but that was one of the best quarters of his career. We’ll see how the shoulder’s feeling after he pushed it so hard during that stretch run, but either way, I wouldn’t expect him to dominate that way again in Game 2, which is another factor influencing our NBA pick.
While four of Phoenix’s five starters shot at 57 percent or better with 8+ made field goals, on the Denver side Michael Porter Jr. and Austin Rivers combined to go 8-for-20 from the field while the presumptive 2021 NBA MVP, Nikola Jokic, went just 10-for-23 from the floor, including a very ugly 3-for-12 second half to finish with just 23 points in the desert.
The Joker clearly slowed in the third quarter, when he went just 3-for-10, and became a non-factor in the final frame when the game started to get out of hand. Nuggets faithful can take solace in knowing that he was still doing his thing in the paint against DeAndre Ayton (which most pundits said would be where Ayton would have the upper hand), going 8-for-14 in the painted area.
It was outside of the paint where the big Serb struggled, going just 2-for-9 in those spots. Jokic would do well to continue to do most of his work in the paint now that it’s clear that he can dominate Ayton down there, but he shouldn’t give up those outside shots altogether. Those were some of his most quality looks of the night, he just could not get it to fall on Wednesday—our NBA pick is banking on that changing on Wednesday.
Another area in which the Nuggets can’t possibly get worse is with their defensive effort: they contested less than half of Phoenix’s 86 field goal attempts. The Suns, on the other hand, were getting out on shooters all night, putting in solid contests on 55 percent of Denver’s shot attempts, though that’s still not a huge percentage in its own right.
Denver head coach Michael Malone called out his team after Game 1 for their lack of intensity and toughness in that embarrassing loss, much like he did after their Game 1 defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers… and we all know how the team responded after that one.
The Suns are certainly not the Blazers. They are much more organized on defense and are a much better-coached squad overall, but I’d expect the Nuggets to respond well after that gutless display in the second half of Game 1. We’re taking the Nuggets to win Game 2 straight up at astronomical +205 NBA odds as one of our best bets for the day.
Game 3 (Suns leads series 2-0)
June 11, 10:00 p.m., Ball Arena
(Playoff Betting Record: 29-21, +6.92)
While they were able to get by without thinking about Jamal Murray in the first round because of how easy the Blazers backcourt made it for every guard in the rotation to get a quality look, they have surely been thinking about the absence of the Blue Arrow a lot since this second round series started. The lack of energy, focus, and even talent behind Murray is apparent now, and that’s why we like the Suns to take Game 3 with our NBA pick.
The Nuggets apparently had Aaron Gordon and JaMychal Green lay into their team after the poor showing in Game 1, and the team responded by jumping out to a 2-0 lead right out of the gate. That would be their last lead of the game. Denver really didn’t look much different from Game 1 to Game 2, which means that whatever yelling and calling out that Gordon, Green, and head coach Michael Malone were doing did not have the desired effect.
Newly-minted 2021 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and company kept the game close and entertaining for most of the first half, but they packed it in pretty quickly after that. They were down by 10 going into halftime, which felt like a blessing considering how poorly they played on defense and how brutal their shooting had been.
Malone was surely very critical of his squad during that halftime break, but again, his words seemed to be falling on deaf ears as his team came out of halftime even more lethargic than they had been going into it. Meanwhile, the Suns were ready to roll, and they jumped out on a 17-6 run that ballooned the Phoenix advantage to 21 just five minutes into the second half.
A lot of other teams have shown the ability to fight back against adversity after trailing by 20+ in a game. The Hawks didn’t give up when they went down big to the Sixers on Tuesday, the Sixers didn’t give up when they went down big to the Hawks two days before that, and the no-quit attitude of the Memphis Grizzlies was evident in their series against the Jazz.
Nothing like that could be detected among the ranks of the Nuggets for the remaining 20 minutes of the game. It was such a disheartening performance that I simply cannot bring myself to put another top pick on Denver after witnessing that display. Guys were quitting on their team as early as the third quarter, and by the time the fourth quarter came around the result was already a foregone conclusion.
They probably just could’ve skipped the final 12 minutes to be honest with you, because it was pretty much two bench units playing a pickup game at the local park. The Nuggets and their putrid defense gave up 71 points in the second half, including an embarrassing 37-piece from the Suns in the fourth quarter with the game decided.
Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton didn’t even play in the fourth quarter, and Chris Paul played only a couple of minutes before getting subbed out following back-to-back back-breaking triples. Paul looked the best he’s looked since he went down with his shoulder injury in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, and that is a big reason we like the Suns with our NBA pick for Game 3.
The way Paul is able to ensure that all of his comrades get into rhythm is second to none, and now that he’s also gotten his jumper back, it’s going to be really tough to beat this team. That’s especially true of the Nuggets, who are
trotting out deep reserves in Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers as their starting backcourt against Paul and Booker. Talk about a mismatch.
And considering Denver’s MVP has been getting clamped by Ayton through the first two games here, there’s really no backup plan for Malone and his coaching staff. Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. combining for more than a 4-for-20 mark from the field would definitely help their team’s cause, but they don’t play much defense anyway, especially MPJ, who is dealing with back issues once again.
The youngster is already a bad defender, so add in a back issue that will stiffen him up even more, and he’s going to struggle staying in front of or blowing by his opposition. The Nuggets had a great run in the face of a mountain of health issues, so they should look at this season as a win overall—because they’re not winning this series against the Suns.
Jokic might be able to steal a game just purely based on his MVP talent, but even that seems like a tall ask with the way Ayton has been playing him so far. The Nuggets are the favorites at home for Game 3 so we’re getting awesome +106 NBA odds on Phoenix’s moneyline, which serves as one of our best bets for today.
Game 4 (Suns leads series 3-0)
June 13, 08:00 p.m., Ball Arena
(Playoff Betting Record: 32-22, +9.03)
The Phoenix Suns exploded out of the gates again in Game 3 at Ball Arena in Denver, taking an early 21-8 lead before going into the first break up 37-27. The Denver Nuggets responded with a punch of their own in the second quarter, winning just their second frame of the series 28-22 to keep this one interesting heading into halftime, but that aura didn’t last much longer.
The Suns came out and put an 11-4 run on Denver to get their lead back up to double-digits, where it would comfortably stay for most of the rest of this game. The Nuggets played a decent quarter in the third, but every time they slung a few good offensive possessions together to get the Phoenix lead back into single digits, the Suns responded with a few baskets of their own to give themselves back their comfy double-digit cushion.
Phoenix would finish off the third on a 10-2 run, thereby outscoring the Nuggets 21-6 in the opening and closing moments of the quarter. Some say that finishing and starting off quarters strong doesn’t actually mean much in the grand scheme of things, but Suns head coach Monty Williams and his crew have certainly been proving otherwise lately.
Thanks in large part to Williams (who should’ve won the Coach of the Year award as well as the one that was awarded to him by his fellow coaches) and veteran point guard Chris Paul, this team knows when a big bucket is needed, and they have the perfect blend of young talent and energy and veteran experience and savviness to get those baskets whenever they’re needed.
Ever since the mockery that the Suns suffered at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench in Game 3 of their first round series, they have not lost. They have gone 6-0 in that span, and every single win has been by double-digits, as they have shown themselves to be the clearly superior team in both rounds.
Paul’s return to nearly full health after the shoulder injury he suffered in Game 1 of that first round series has been a huge catalyst for the Suns’ scorching play of late. The 36-year-old has been unconscious in this series against Denver, averaging 21.7 points, 11.3 assists, and just 1.0 turnover per game while shooting that thang at ridiculous clips of 58 from the field, 78 from three, and 100 from the charity stripe.
You simply can’t bet against Paul when he’s on like this, and considering the fact that Devin Booker has also been excellent and DeAndre Ayton has been keeping Nikola Jokic mostly in check, it seems pretty obvious where we should go with our NBA pick for Game 4 with Phoenix in a close out situation.
Ayton did a bang-up job on the league’s current MVP, Nikola Jokic, in Games 1 and 2, but after the Serbian received his award in front of the home crowd prior to Game 3, the Phoenix big man was dealing with a different beast. Jokic was relentless all night long, pouring in 32 points, 20 rebounds (a whopping 10 of which were offensive), and 10 dimes, a feat only matched by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain in a playoff game. That’s damn good company.
But even with a legendary effort like that, Joker’s squad still couldn’t support him enough to get them to a win or even into a close game—now he must know how Damian Lillard felt when he lost to Jokic’s Nuggets after putting up 55 points in a game in round one. If the Nuggets can’t win with a 30-20-10 game from the MVP, they’re not going to win, which is why we like the Suns to get the sweep done as our top pick for Game 4 on Sunday evening.
The backcourt mismatch in this series is just too much for Jokic and head coach Michael Malone to bear. Deep reserve Facundo Campazzo has played well since he’s been thrust into the starting role, but his small stature and lack of technical skills have overshadowed his pesky and relentless defending and energy.
New recruit Austin Rivers has also been quiet as a mouse during this series, and Michael Porter Jr. has been a huge letdown. Monte Morris woke up with 21 points in Game 3, and Will Barton’s return was fruitful, but it seems to have been too little too late for these Nuggets.
The Nuggets can take solace in knowing that none of these conference semifinal matchups seem to have the makings of long battles, so the sweep won’t be too embarrassing. We’re taking the Suns to get the brooms out on Sunday night and cover a -3.5 NBA point spread at -102 NBA odds as one of our best bets for the day.
More NBA Free Pickssee more
The Los Angeles Clippers will renew hostilities with the Dallas Mavericks, who they dispatched in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets and the league’s presumptive NBA MVP will look to get off to a strong start against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1.
The Golden State Warriors will host the Memphis Grizzlies in the final play-in game, which will determine the Western Conference’s eighth seed.
The Washington Wizards will host the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night with the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference on the line.
Alex is an alumnus of Ryerson University's RTA Sport Media program, a contributing NHL, NBA, and MLB writer in the BetPicks.ca team. He has been writing on sports, betting, and fantasy contests for several years, including pitstops as an NFL Editor for theScore and as one of the lead NBA news writers for fantasy sports site FantasyPros. As a lifelong athlete, bettor, and sports fan, Alex is uniquely qualified to help you reach the sports betting success that you've always dreamed of and your wife never believed you could achieve.