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Suns pose ‘big challenge’ to top-seeded Nuggets – Jokic

Denver may be the NBA Western Conference top seed, but Nuggets star Nikola Jokic says their second-round playoff opponents Phoenix pose a massive challenge.

“I mean, probably, they are the favorites to win the championship,” Jokic said after the Nuggets completed a five-game first-round series victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 112-109 win on Tuesday.

“They have an amazing, amazing group of guys. Well coached. There is Chris Paul, who is probably the best floor manager, floor general in the game.

“(Devin) Booker, (Kevin Durant) — superstars, arguably the best players in the NBA right now,” he added, also giving a nod to Deandre Ayton as a player he admires.

Jokic, the two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, denied that the series carries an extra edge after the Suns swept the Nuggets in the conference-semi-finals in 2021.

“Nah,” was all he said when asked.

The Nuggets have home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs — a potentially big boost for a team that is 37-7 at home through the regular season and first round of the playoffs.

Their depth could also prove key against a Phoenix team whose bench has been suspect.

Denver’s bench outscored Minnesota’s 103-94 over five games, while the Suns have been reliant on their stars after losing key role players in the trade that brought Durant from Brooklyn in February.

Booker scored 47 points and Durant poured in 31 in the Suns’ series-clinching game-five victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nevertheless, Jokic said the Nuggets must expect a battle from whoever is on the floor for Phoenix.

“Whoever steps on the floor for them, knows their role,” the Serbian star said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

Denver and Phoenix were 2-2 in four regular-season meetings.

Durant had not yet joined the Suns when Denver beat them twice before the All-Star break and Jokic was sidelined by injury when Phoenix won two games against Denver in the space of a week bridging March and April.

With both Durant and Jokic at full strength, the series starting on Saturday promises plenty of fireworks from two of the top-rated offenses in the postseason.

Jamal Murray, who scored 35 points in Denver’s game-five win over the T’Wolves, said the Nuggets can’t afford the kind of slow starts that marked the series against Minnesota.

“We do a great job of fighting from behind, but we don’t want to be in that position in the playoffs,” Murray said. 

“So just come out aggressive even when we’re not making shots or getting the shots we want and we’re missing. We’ve got to be able to rely on our defense and get stops.”

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