NBA

Nuggets embracing “underdog” mentality, again, heading into Game 1 vs. Suns

PHOENIX — Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn’t mince words on the eve of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

“I don’t know how many playoff teams in NBA history have won a series with their starting backcourt out,” Malone said Sunday, having dispatched the Blazers in six games in the first round. “We’re gonna be the underdogs again this series (vs. Phoenix). We don’t mind that. I think we’re really comfortable with that.”

The starting backcourt of rookie Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers survived its first test in Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Now they’ve got Chris Paul, a future Hall of Famer, and a devastating, quick-trigger scorer in Devin Booker to contend with.

“The ‘no pressure’ still applies,” Malone said when asked about his team’s mentality. “Nine out of 10 people are picking Phoenix to win this. Understandable, they’re a really good team, but we’re going to embrace the challenge.”

If the Nuggets obeyed perception, they never would’ve risen in the standings in the aftermath of Jamal Murray’s ACL injury and gone on the road to end Portland’s season. Their 126-115 win over the Blazers last Thursday unveiled new levels of maturity for a team that tended to play series out to their entirety.

The biggest difference between Portland and Phoenix, according to Malone, is the teams’ defensive acumen. The Blazers finished the season with the second-worst defense in the league, and the Nuggets exposed that in the first round, shooting over 40% from 3-point range. Phoenix, under the watchful eye of coach Monty Williams, finished the regular season with the sixth-best defensive rating.

Malone said his team’s game plan is to play with pace, force the issue in transition and play aggressively. The faster the Nuggets clean up a defensive possession and flip the floor, the harder it will be for Phoenix to set its elite defense. Still, Malone said they’d need to be sharper than they were against Portland.

The Nuggets get no breaks defensively. Not when Paul, Booker and center Deandre Ayton are spearheading an offense that attacks at all three levels. Booker will put immense pressure on Denver’s perimeter defenders, while Paul excels in the mid-range and Ayton is a dangerous roll threat. Malone said the Nuggets have prioritized all three, including winning the battle of the boards. Phoenix doesn’t have a lot of frontcourt size, but Ayton is big enough to cause havoc.

The Nuggets know what the outside perception is at the start of this series and they are just fine with it.

“Everybody wrote us off because everybody don’t watch Denver Nuggets basketball or be in our practices,” said guard Monte Morris. “If I was on the outside looking in, I would’ve counted us out, too.”

Inside secrets: Williams said during his news conference Sunday that Torrey Craig has been vocal during team meetings and shared some of the Nuggets’ tendencies in anticipation of the series. Craig parted with the Nuggets last offseason in free agency, signed with Milwaukee and was then traded to Phoenix in March.

According to Michael Porter Jr., the two former Nuggets wings still talk almost every day, prompting Porter to ask his buddy, “‘Bro, are we even allowed to be friends during this series?’”

Porter said they worked out together before the Nuggets headed to Orlando for the “Bubble” and know the other’s game intimately.

“I can’t remember the last time he beat me 1-on-1,” Porter said with a grin.

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