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Monday, June 14, 2021

Suns' Sweep of Nuggets Looks Inevitable Only in Retrospect

Historical events often look inevitable in retrospect even if the outcome was far from certain as the events happened; there is a whole fiction genre based on the concept of how changing one thing could alter the entire course of history, and the most famous Star Trek episode ("The City on the Edge of Forever") is just one example of this theme.

After the Denver Nuggets defeated Damian Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, it seemed plausible that the Nuggets could beat the Phoenix Suns in the second round; other than Chris Paul--who averaged a "triple single" in the first round versus the Lakers while dealing with a shoulder injury--the Suns have little playoff experience. Despite being without All-Star guard Jamal Murray and his backcourt partner Will Barton, the Nuggets defeated Portland's much-ballyhooed backcourt featuring Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, so it did not seem unreasonable to suggest that Denver could contain Devin Booker and a hobbled Paul.

We all know what happened: the Suns routed the Nuggets 122-105 in game one, won each of the first three games of the series by at least 14 points, and finished off the sweep with a 125-118 victory yesterday. The Suns' sweep looks inevitable now, but it did not look inevitable before the series began; even those who picked the Suns based on the Suns being the second seeded team and thus having home court advantage versus a Nuggets team missing both starting guards did not predict a sweep, let alone a sweep in which the games were not particularly competitive.

What happened?

Chris Paul had the best playoff series of his career. This was not "vintage Chris Paul"; this was a Chris Paul that we have never seen before, and I did not predict that Paul would play this well against Denver because he has never played this well in the playoffs. This was Paul's 21st playoff series. It is the first time his team ever won in a sweep. He posted his highest field goal percentage for one playoff series (.627), far exceeding his previous career-high (.545 in a 2011 first round loss to the Lakers). This is just the seventh time that Paul shot at least .500 from the field in a playoff series. He shot a career-high .750 from three point range (6-8; he is judicious with his three point shot attempts, which is notable in an era when so many players fire at will from long range); his previous career-high for three point field goal percentage in a playoff series was .474 (2011 versus the Lakers), and this is just the seventh time that Paul shot at least .400 from three point range in a playoff series. Paul has always been an excellent free throw shooter, but this is just the third time that he made every free throw that he attempted during a playoff series, and he had more attempts versus Denver (22) than he did in his two previous perfect series (15 and five). He scored a career-high 25.5 ppg, and he posted his sixth best assists average (10.3 apg). This is the first time that Paul averaged at least 10 apg in a playoff series since 2015. 

In the first round of the 2021 playoffs, Paul set playoff career-lows in scoring (9.2 ppg) and rebounding (3.5 rpg) while also posting his second-worst field goal percentage (.386). I don't know if the NBA tracks the biggest increases in ppg and FG% from one series to the next, but Paul's improvements in those categories from the first round to the second round this year probably rank among the best of all-time.

Paul mentioned after game four of the Denver series that critics had written him off. That is true to some extent, but--based on his recent performances and his injury history--there were good, logical reasons to write him off. Undersized, injury-prone point guards do not typically have career-best playoff series at age 36. Paul has been with a different team in each of the past three seasons, and in each of those seasons (including this year, when some touted him as an MVP candidate) both his scoring averages and his assists averages were below his career norms.

It has become chic to refer to Paul as the Suns' MVP. Paul finished fifth in the NBA regular season MVP balloting, and no other Sun received a single MVP vote. Paul is very valuable, and it could be said that he is a difference-maker for the Suns, but that is not the same as saying that he is the best or most valuable player. The Suns' rise began near the end of last season, when they went 8-0 in the "bubble" and narrowly missed qualifying for the playoffs. The addition of Paul prior to his season provided playmaking and leadership. However, the extent to which Paul "makes his teammates better" is somewhat overstated; the concept of "making teammates better" is misleading at best.

A strong case could be made that Devin Booker is the Suns' best and most valuable player. Booker led the team in scoring during the regular season (25.6 ppg), and he has lifted his scoring to 27.9 ppg through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Booker ranked second on the team in assists in both the regular season and thus far in the playoffs, and when Paul was limited by injury during the first round Booker assumed even more of the playmaking responsibilities. Booker's scoring and field goal percentage were both higher in the season prior to Paul's arrival than they were this season, and Booker has averaged at least 22 ppg for five straight seasons, so he established himself as a big-time scorer long before he played with Paul. 

Deandre Ayton was the number one overall selection in the draft that included both Luka Doncic and Trae Young, so his high talent level is obvious. Ayton is the first player from that trio to advance to the Conference Finals, though Young still has a chance to take the Hawks that far this year as well. Ayton is a three year veteran who is just 22 years old. His field goal percentage went up this season, but his scoring average went down and his rebounding remained steady. 

The Suns defeated the defending champion (albeit injury-riddled) L.A. Lakers in six games in the first round despite Paul ranking sixth on the team in scoring (9.2 ppg) while shooting .386 from the field. Booker averaged 29.7 ppg with shooting splits of .488/429/.938 during that series, and he played 245 minutes compared to Paul's 170 minutes, so Booker created a lot of his offense without Paul even being on the court. Even when Paul was on the court, he was often far away from the action serving as a one-armed decoy while Booker went to work. Ayton averaged 15.8 ppg and 10.7 rpg versus the Lakers while shooting .796 from the field. The Suns won that series with minimal contributions from Paul, so it is difficult to credit the notion that Paul is the team's most valuable player, because we saw that the Suns can "replace" healthy Paul with a 9.2 ppg player and still win a playoff series. 

The Suns deserve a lot of credit for how well they are playing and for how thoroughly they dismantled a good Denver team that features Nikola Jokic, the deserving winner of the 2021 NBA regular season MVP. That being said, there is mounting evidence that the short break between the conclusion of the 2020 "bubble" and the start of the 2020-2021 season has impacted player health and team performance. Three of the four 2020 Conference Finalists lost in the first round of the playoffs (including the two Finalists, the Lakers and the Heat), and the Nuggets got swept in the second round. This is not meant to be an excuse for those four teams, nor is it meant to denigrate the teams that beat them, but it is unusual for all four Conference Finalists to drop off that much the next season. In that sense, it could be said that the Suns were fortunate to face the Lakers and Nuggets on the road to the Western Conference Finals. It will be interesting to see how the Suns fare against the Utah Jazz or L.A. Clippers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:46 PM



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