The Denver Nuggets will confront the same two issues they had in last season’s playoffs when they get a rematch with the Phoenix Suns in the clubs’ opener on Wednesday night.
The Nuggets won two of three from the Suns in the regular season last January but got swept when the teams squared off again in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals.
Phoenix went on to the NBA Finals, where it lost to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns will host Denver on Wednesday.
The Nuggets played the entire postseason — they’d beaten the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2 in the first round — without star guard Jamal Murray, who blew out his left knee in April.
Thanks in large part to having acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, Denver managed to hang onto the No. 3 seed in the West by going 13-5 down the stretch without Murray.
However, Murray was sorely missed in the playoff series against the Suns, during which the Nuggets averaged just 105.8 points while losing the four games by an average of 15.7 points.
Murray will start this season on the injured list. There is no timetable for when or even if he will return.
“Just five months ago, I couldn’t lift my leg off the bed,” he said recently when asked when he expected to be back. “I’ve come a long way … (but) I can’t rush time.”
Not only will the Nuggets be without Murray, but they will be up against an opponent that looks almost identical to the one they faced in June.
The Suns made just one trade in the offseason, acquiring Landry Shamet on draft night, and added only a pair of cheap free agents — JaVale McGee (who finished last season with Denver) and Elfrid Payton.
They return their entire starting lineup, including the driving forces of last year’s playoff sweep — Chris Paul, who averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists in the series, Devin Booker (25.3 ppg) and Deandre Ayton (14.3 ppg, 10.5 rebounds per game).
Forwards Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, both of whom shot better than 50 percent in the series, also contributed.
The faces are the same, but one thing has changed this season, the veteran Paul warned this week.
“It’s not going to be easy getting back,” he said of a return to the Finals. “Like Coach Monty (Williams) says: We’re not sneaking up on anybody this year.”
The playoff series wasn’t at all similar to the regular-season meetings between the teams last year. Denver won two of the three duels, but needed one and two overtimes in order to do it.
Phoenix’s lone win was by three points.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, the league’s MVP, averaged 30 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in Denver’s two regular-season wins but was below all three of those numbers (25.0, 13.3, 5.8) in his head-to-head with the defensive-minded Ayton in the playoffs.
If the Nuggets have a surprise in store for the Suns this time around, it could come from rookie Bones Hyland, who led Denver in the preseason in points (76), 3-pointers (13) and assists (23).
–Field Level Media