For Denver Nuggets fans, it was easy to react to the Kevin Durant trade with doom and gloom.

On February 9th, just before the NBA trade deadline this year, the Phoenix Suns took the biggest swing possible at a championship this year, adding Durant to a team already featuring Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton. It took an arm and a leg to do it, or more accurately, four long arms, sending out wings Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson as well as four first round picks to acquire the Slim Reaper. At that point in time, the Suns were merely 30-27, but trading for a superstar is no small move. It completely reinvigorated the Suns and gave them new life, an opportunity to capitalize on what was clearly an open championship window at the time.

The Nuggets were 38-18 on February 9th, having accomplished the difficult part of their schedule and jumped out to a lead for first place in the West. Denver was building up serious championship equity. When that trade went down though, it shifted the hierarchy immediately. Sportsbooks immediately shifted title odds toward the Suns, placing them in the top tier of contenders where they have remained ever since. After both teams navigated their first round series with relative ease, most believe the Suns will find a way through Denver as well, despite Denver’s continuity and elite talent in their own right.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why. Two seasons ago, the Suns demolished Denver in the playoffs using a similar style of play, albeit with some different personnel on both sides. That memory hasn’t completely eroded though, and it’s centered around a simple fact: the Suns are going to pick and roll Nikola Jokić to death.

Those plays are almost all in a row, and they tell a pretty bleak story for the Nuggets that year. Nikola Jokić was exhausted, having played all 72 games of the Covid shortened season immediately after the Nuggets went to the Western Conference Finals just a couple months prior. Jamal Murray’s ACL injury loomed large in that series, as did Denver’s lack of trustable backcourt options. Denver’s backcourt has been entirely remade since that point, and Jokić should be better defensively this time around…but there’s still layers of concern there.

On top of the fact that Chris Paul torched Denver in that series is the new reality that he’s their third best creator off the dribble now. Paul will turn 38 during this series and doesn’t appear to have the same top level as in 2021, but that’s where Durant and Booker come into play. They’re extremely dangerous off the dribble in their own right, perhaps the top scoring duo in the entire NBA. Booker leads the league in points scored per game on pull up shooting in the playoffs so far at 15.2 points per game. Durant ranks 12th at 9.8 per game while Paul ranks 15th at 9.2 per game. All three can score from anywhere on the court, and even shooting over outstretched contests has become second nature to Booker and Durant in the playoffs so far.

The Nuggets know just how dangerous the Suns can be if they get into rhythm.

“We know that to defend a team like that, we have to give them different looks,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone shared after Thursday’s practice. “Whether that’s personnel wise…as well as our coverages in those pick and rolls…you give a great offensive team a steady diet of anything, and they’re going to get into a rhythm and pick you apart.”

In the 2021 series, the Nuggets played primarily two coverages to guard the pick and roll: “At the Level” and “Drop.” Denver started in their “At the Level” coverage which involved bringing Jokić higher up the floor. That puts a lot of strain on the defense to make perfect rotations behind Jokić and cover for his lack of mobility. It’s something they didn’t do very well.

Denver had too many instances of bad weak side rotations early on in the series, and Jokić was just so, so tired, that they decided to change up their coverage back to “Drop” which puts Jokić further down the floor away from the screen. If you want to know how that went, just scroll up and click on the first video.

Denver didn’t have an answer then, and to be honest, they may not have an answer now. Durant adds a completely new wrinkle to Phoenix’s attack that Denver’s going to struggle with. The Nuggets can probably drop a bit more comfortably against Paul this time around, as long as they make the point guard work on the other end of the floor. There are things Denver will probably have to live with, and contested mid-range jumpers for Paul will probably be high on the list. Denver’s also likely to give up open threes to Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, whoever serves as Phoenix’s fifth starter in this series. Craig shot 10-of-18 from three-point range in the first round. If he does that against Denver, they’re probably cooked.

Still, it’s important to note that the Nuggets are way better prepared for this series physically and mentally than they were the last one. Aaron Gordon has had two full seasons to become fully integrated into Denver’s system and culture. Michael Porter Jr. is finally healthy and playing the X-factor role Nuggets fans always hoped he could play, even stepping up on the defensive end when asked to be better. Jamal Murray is of course finally healthy too, and he produced 27.2 points and 6.2 assists per game in the first round of the playoffs, shooting 47.1% from the field and 42.9% from three-point range. He’s pretty clearly back and ready to help lead the Nuggets to a championship.

On top of Denver’s primary core being better, they’re now fully stocked with helpful role players. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown are Denver’s perimeter defense duo, providing different defensive looks that helped Denver get through the first round relatively unscathed. Rookie Christian Braun also helps out in the perimeter defense category, but at 6’7″, he provides just a bit more height than Caldwell-Pope and Brown when necessary. Jeff Green, he who played for the Seattle Supersonics, has been a steadying presence on the second unit, stepping up as a defender, rim runner, and isolation scorer every now and again.

Denver’s depth gives them an advantage over the Suns, as long as the Nuggets can survive those minutes. Durant (43.8) and Booker (43.2) rank first and second in minutes per game in the playoffs so far while Chris Paul (38.5) ranks 12th. It’s a heavy burden to bear, and if the Nuggets can get good rotation minutes from their subs while keeping their stars more fresh this time around, the Nuggets can certainly outlast the Suns in this series.

“Just make it tough. Contest every shot they have,” Bruce Brown shared on how to slow down elite shot makers. “Be physical with them. Wear them down. We know they’re playing the most minutes in the NBA right now.”

The Nuggets know it will be tough to guard the Suns, but they’ve mentally prepared themselves for the challenge as best they can. Knowing that elite shot makers will make tough shots is half the battle. Having the perseverance to continue battling and make the next shot just as tough is what the real challenge will be. The Nuggets have battlers, grinders on their roster. They know the challenge that’s facing them and appear ready to meet it head-on.

The Nuggets can also take solace knowing that offensively, they’re playing at a very high level right now. The Suns bring different defensive personnel to the table this time around, but there are weaknesses to be had. Ayton isn’t Rudy Gobert on that end, and while he did a great job on Jokić in the 2021 series, the most recent matchups Jokić and Ayton have had have been one-sided to say the least. Denver’s superstar has to win that matchup thoroughly this time around, dominating the paint against a shoddy Suns defensive group.

In addition to Jokić, the Suns are going to have their hands full guarding Murray. Ayton will spend most of his time in drop coverage, something that Murray punished well during the Timberwolves series. Murray scored 13.4 points per game on pull ups while making them at a 56.8 eFG%, numbers comparable to Booker due to a higher volume of pull up three-pointers. If Phoenix decides to blitz Murray instead of drop against him, it compromises Phoenix’s weak side defense as long as Murray gets the ball to Jokić on the short roll or can hit some skip passes.

Next up will be Michael Porter Jr., who hit 42% of his threes against the Timberwolves and should be in line for another series where he’s the X-factor. The stars will play like stars, but this will be an opportunity for Porter to step up onto that stage in a big way. He wasn’t ready in 2021. Two years later, he has to be ready to at least play a major part. His shot attempts will be big for shifting momentum, because if the Suns continuously let him beat them while trying to contain Jokić and Murray, Porter could win a game for Denver just like he won Game 3 against Minnesota. He’s ready to contribute in all aspects too, not just as a spot up shooter.

This series will have to be the most precise Denver’s offense has ever been. Not because of the defense they’re facing, but because of the offense they’re trying to outpace. Denver’s stars don’t have to do it all by themselves either. The Nuggets offense is built upon ball movement, player movement, and sharing success with each other. That could mean Murray going off for 40 points one night and 15 points the next night as long as the Nuggets are scoring every time down. There’s no need to try to outpace Durant and Booker as scorers, because the Nuggets will likely lose that matchup if it turns into a 1-on-1 battle. The Nuggets will have to work together for easy shots, keeping everybody involved, and capitalizing on the legitimate gaps in Phoenix’s defense. They’re vulnerable on the offensive glass, at the rim, and in the long game due to the heavy minutes load for their stars. If the Nuggets outwork the Suns on that end of the floor, it will lead to layups and dunks consistently.

But for the Nuggets to accomplish any of that, they will have to stay poised and maintain composure. The pressure is high for this series. The Nuggets know they have a chance to do something special, and the Suns might be the team that truly stands in their way. It’s going to be a tough battle with ups and downs, but the Nuggets are better equipped for that this time around.

Time will tell if the Nuggets can get the job done here, but it promises to be a great matchup no matter what. If Denver’s stars can rise to the occasion and the role players hit shots, the Nuggets have as great a chance as any team of knocking out Durant, Booker, and the Suns.