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If the Phoenix Suns' offense can only improve from here, the West may be in trouble
If there’s one thing anyone should know about professional basketball players, it’s that most of them are expert problem-solvers.
Faced with a dilemma on the court, you can trust veterans to process the game and find their way out of the mud. It might take a ‘feel out’ game to open a series, but if a group is poised and on the same page, they will respond emphatically.
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For the Phoenix Suns, the problems they’ll face in this playoff run all come down to two things: Trying to build on-court chemistry with Kevin Durant and countering how defenses will treat him.
The Suns entered the postseason with only eight games (159 minutes) of the Mid-Range Mafia playing together. They were embarking on a journey that no team has accomplished — is it possible to win four consecutive playoff rounds after you trade for your No. 1 superstar at the deadline? Can you learn to jell as a team in the middle of a tense, stressful environment after a late-season trade of this magnitude? Are championship teams able to build chemistry on the fly and lean on talent in the early rounds?
We’re still waiting for Phoenix to answer a couple of those questions, but this isn’t such a bad start.
It also helps when the franchise leader, Devin Booker, showcases his legendary shotmaking and underrated defensive chops at the point of attack to lift the Suns into the second round. If this opening matchup proved anything, it’s that Booker can be the Suns’ best player on any given night.
Go back to 2019-20, before the bubble. If you would’ve said he’d outshine KD in a playoff series in the next three years, would anybody believe you? In a relatively short amount of time, Booker has grown into one of the fiercest playoff performers in the league.
The worst thing he could’ve done to begin this playoff run is play in the background and take a backseat to Durant. If you remember early in the 2016-17 season as Golden State was trying to integrate KD into the offense, Steph Curry lowered his on-ball usage in the first couple months to get Durant comfortable. While they were winning, rough patches did occasionally appear. Once Durant and the team told Curry to ‘play your game’ and start leading the charge, the Warriors were unbeatable.
Booker is wired differently. His first instinct is always to be aggressive on the ball, regardless of who’s on the floor with him. Instead of fitting his game around Durant, we’re seeing the inverse — Phoenix is more dangerous with KD filling in the gaps, attacking off the disruption caused by Booker initiating the offense and reading the myriad of coverages thrown his way.
With the undermanned Clippers largely selling out their defense to contain Durant, this series was the first real test for Phoenix. It might sound silly because of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s absence, but the defensive strategies implemented by LA forced the Suns to shift around the puzzle pieces a bit. You could see them, in real time, figuring out solutions to every defensive look they faced.
Not only was it a chance for Phoenix to get valuable practice against an unconventional defense, but it also allowed Booker to highlight the ways in which he’s evolved as a scorer and decision-maker. With Durant hounded on every touch and mostly being pushed off his spots before he caught the ball, Booker was able to attack in more one-on-one scenarios, explore advanced reads out of the pick & roll, and show the world how much better of a table-setter he can be in those environments.
“T-Lue didn’t take off the junk defenses on (KD),” Booker said. “They were trying to take him out. Double-teaming every time he touched it, denying when he doesn’t have it. Like I said, he just opens everything up for everybody.”
That was definitely evident on Tuesday. Knowing his teammate was being swarmed, he asserted his dominance. Booker lit a match, poured gasoline all over the Footprint Center, and exploded for a playoff career-high.
His 47-point closeout performance in Game 5 gave him 1,020 career playoff points in just 37 games played. Hilariously, it tied Durant for the 11th most points of any player in their first 37 playoff games.
In the third quarter alone, he outscored the Clippers 25-24 while shooting 10-of-11 from the field.
“It was spiritual,” Durant said about his teammate’s huge night. “I don’t scream too much in the games anymore as I’ve gotten older, but when he hit that three at the top of the key, I felt the energy. And I know everyone in our crowd felt it. So we feed off his aggression.”
Booker became the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 37 points on 65% true shooting or better across any 5-game span in the playoffs. Jimmy Butler actually made it eight last night when he sent Milwaukee packing.
Booker joined elite company, including names such as Durant (3x), Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Elgin Baylor (6x), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (4x). It’s somewhat fitting Donovan Mitchell is also on the list, considering the “Booker or Mitchell” debate was a hot topic on social media for a few years:
Although chemistry concerns shouldn’t typically be dismissed when a team adds a new star at the deadline, it was silly to suggest Booker and Durant couldn’t accelerate the process with their individual greatness. From the leadership Booker has exhibited in a Suns uniform to the accountability a veteran and champion like KD commands, there was a strong sense of urgency to lock in from the moment the trade went down.
Those two being so focused on improving every day — along with the maturity and no-nonsense attitude both of them have — is clearly rubbing off on their teammates. And if you ask Booker, playing alongside KD is already having a profound impact on his skill-set.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Booker said. “Even getting that work you guys don’t see — in the practice facility together, All-Star break, I remember working in there together playing two-on-two. I don’t take none of it for granted.”
Booker, Durant, and Paul illustrated mid-range brilliance in the first round, shooting a combined 49-of-90 on two-pointers outside of the paint. That’s 54.4% across five games, and you can’t consider it an aberration when you’re talking two of the most precise mid-range snipers the league has ever seen (KD and CP3) and a guy that’s just now entering his prime as a shot creator (Booker):
If the first round was any indication, Durant’s presence is only making Booker a more well-rounded scorer. It’s worth pointing out Booker attempted virtually the same number of threes as he did long pull-up twos, which could be a sign moving forward that Phoenix is aware of the math battle they’ll be facing. For a team that needs to generate more looks from the outside, the second half of Game 5 was a step in the right direction on that front.
But seriously, Booker was unconscious from everywhere against the Clippers. There wasn’t an area of the floor he abandoned. And there wasn’t a defender he couldn’t handle. He shot 47-of-72 against ‘tight’ or ‘very tight’ coverage in those five games, meaning he was converting 65.3% of his looks with only 0-4 feet of space between him and the defender.
How wild is that?
Considering Durant, who has at least seven inches on him, shot 26-of-55 (47.3%) in those spots … it’s unbelievable that Booker was that productive on contested jumpers and rim attempts.
With all of the attention on KD, it was Booker’s responsibility to break down the defense and either get to this spot (pull-up jumper) or put the Clippers in rotation with his penetration.
To that point, we just witnessed the most aggressive version of Downhill Book, who got to the rim more frequently in this five-game span than any other point of his career. He registered 17.2 drives per game in this series, a huge increase from the 10.2 per game in last year’s playoffs and 14.3 during the 2021 Finals run.
He currently ranks eighth in drives per game for the 2023 playoffs, but that’s not the most impressive part. Among all 19 players to drive at average at least 12 drives, he’s leading the playoffs in efficiency when attacking the paint (66.0% conversion rate on drives, with a 4.7% turnover percentage).
Not only does it help the Suns potentially earn more free throw opportunities, but it lowers the workload and responsibility for Durant and Paul, who are both older and seeing their minute totals rising pretty quickly.
Plus, it helps that KD can always transform into his 2017 Finals Game 3 self, controlling the game with the ball in his hands.
Speaking of that: This upcoming series with Denver might be when Durant is more involved down the stretch of games. The Suns could certainly use a heavier dose of Durant-led pick & rolls, especially in crunchtime. In the first round, Monty Williams didn’t experiment with enough ball-screens involving his two best players. While he likely anticipated the defense switching then bringing a late double to force one of them to give it up, it was still worth more than a few reps in this series.
After all, the Suns need to keep finding answers when Booker or KD attract two to the ball. The more opportunities they have to figure out how to generate offense after putting a team in rotation, the better.
As the Clippers were making their ferocious comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the gameplan was obvious. They wanted to bring late doubles to get the ball out of Booker’s hands, forcing ‘the others’ to make plays or shots.
The Clippers were willing to live with late-clock attempts from anyone else but the two mega stars. Sometimes, they made LA pay:
Other times, they didn’t:
If Josh Okogie is on the floor, any defense is going to consider it a win if he’s taking shots instead of Durant or Booker. It might sound simplistic, but the Suns’ championship hopes will mostly hinge on whether or not those shots fall.
If he goes cold, Torrey Craig will earn those minutes with the core four. The downside to that is you lose some of the energy, hustle, and speed Okogie gives you on the wings … and a guy that continues to defy logic while grabbing offensive rebounds.
It will be intriguing to see how the Nuggets elect to defend these crunchtime actions, particularly when Booker is calling for a high pick & roll. If it’s Ayton screening, the Clippers were comfortable putting two on the ball and forcing the big man to make plays.
Again, I don’t think this was a bad thing for Phoenix to see over and over in Round 1. If Ayton rolls hard, it’s going to create open shots for their spot-up guys. Paul can’t be inefficient on these possessions against the Nuggets if they hope to survive:
But that’s where KD comes into the picture — it’s probably not wise to just use KD as a strong-side corner spacer on multiple trips up the floor, especially in a tight game. For as dynamite as the Suns’ offense was in this series, you do see room for improvement simply by involving Durant in a few more actions each quarter.
You can even tell Booker feels guilty about having Durant parked in the weakside corner while he engages in high pick & roll, but there’s a method to the madness. As you can hear him say in this clip below, KD providing space is just as deadly as him being on the ball.
When defenders are told to tag the roller and rotate from the weakside, that becomes a chore when you know Booker can sling a cross-court dime to Kevin Freakin’ Durant for an open triple:
We’ll see more progression from them and how they handle different reads as the reps continue piling up.
The Suns’ core four is now up to 602 total possessions across 13 games.
First off, it means Williams is relying on that unit a lot. That can be a good and bad thing. While it’s expediting the process of getting Booker, Paul, and Ayton familiar with Durant’s tendencies and how he likes to operate … it’s also a potential concern for wear and tear as the starters continue to pile up minutes. There’s also the component of Williams not having enough bench contributors and backup creators that can hold things down for a six-minute stretch. Typically, if you have a shortage of playable guys in the first round, it’s a precursor for more severe problems in later series.
But when the results are leaping off the page with how terrific that group has been, it’s hard to blame a coach for rolling with it as long as possible.
On those 602 possessions, the Paul-Booker-Durant-Ayton quartet has posted a 121.9 offensive rating and 106.3 defensive rating. In the first round alone, against a hyper-aggressive defense that toggled between switching everything 1-4, blitzing the ball-handler, and hard-hedging, Phoenix was +13.7 per 100 possessions with the core four.
Even in the 52 minutes those four played together in Games 1-2 (when Leonard was available), that unit held the Clippers to a 97.2 offensive rating and won their minutes by 27 total points.
You can argue they just played against the most versatile and switchable lineups they’ll see in the West playoff field, led by a coach that always gets the most out of his players. Ty Lue does not leave an adjustment on the table when his back is against the wall. Although he was down two All-NBA wings, he still had length and speed to throw at Durant and Booker. The Clippers’ physicality caught Phoenix off guard to begin the series and did not concede many open shots throughout the five games.
Though it looked different stylistically, it reminded me a lot of how the 2018 Warriors were bothered by the Rockets’ defensive approach — Houston was dictating the terms and forcing the Dubs to play their way. Talent ultimately won out, but Durant and Curry had to nail a ton of contested looks. It’s also sort of hilarious three players from this series (Durant, CP3, and Eric Gordon) were also involved in that war a few years ago.
Phoenix was baited into playing an isolation-heavy style on more possessions than Williams would prefer, but he also recognizes this is what playoff basketball sometimes devolves into against the best defenses.
For the Suns, 11.5% of their first-round possessions ended in isolation attacks, significantly higher than their regular season figure of 4.5%. Thus, it’s no wonder they appeared a bit rattled in the halfcourt to start games. Like anything else, this stuff takes time to figure out.
“Ty (Lue) is one of the best I’ve seen at making adjustments and most people call it ‘junking’ up the game, but it’s not junk,” Williams said. “In reference to how he operates. Whether it’s switching, or putting bigger guys on smaller guys and vice-versa.”
Once they located the Clippers’ pressure points and knew how to exploit the coverages, though, it was about trusting your big dogs to carry you across the finish line.
On those 63 total isolation possessions in this series, the Suns’ efficiency was torrid. They scored a ridiculous 1.19 points per isolation chance with a 58.8% effective field goal percentage on those looks. Taking a look at the highest usage ISO teams in the first round and the efficiency they posted … it almost seems fake:
76ers: 75 ISOs, 18% of their possessions, 0.79 points per, 40.6% eFG
Clippers: 70 ISOs, 12.3% of their possessions, 0.86 points per, 44.0% eFG
Knicks: 64 ISOs, 11.8% of their possessions, 0.89 points per, 42.0% eFG
Suns: 63 ISOs, 11.5% of their possessions, 1.19 points per, 58.8% eFG
In all honesty, compared to last year’s flameout versus Dallas, it’s probably something Phoenix needed more of during this playoff run. They lacked someone with size that could punish guards or wings on switches. Then, if the Mavericks blitzed Booker or Paul, nobody else on the team could make the defense pay for selling out.
The Suns only had a 5.7% isolation frequency in last year’s postseason. The happy medium for a team with this kind of shot creation should be somewhere in the middle — although in the latter rounds, if you run into another switchy team like Boston in the Finals, it will likely be higher than the 11.5% we just saw.
What makes it acceptable for a team like Phoenix to embrace one-on-one attacks is not only how effectively they score, but how impressive their ball security has been. In the first round, they only turned it over on 6.3% of their isolations and 12.2% of their total offensive possessions, the latter number being the best mark in the playoffs.
There’s still room for the Suns’ offense to improve, and we’ll see how they react to Denver’s defensive strategy. In theory, Phoenix will try to put Nikola Jokic in as many pick & roll actions as possible and see how the Nuggets choose to guard them. If Jokic is playing in a drop, we could see more of the same mid-range madness. If they elect to get aggressive (playing Jokic at the level of the screen, or just trapping on some possessions), the Suns now have film of how to counter those coverages. Booker and Durant have proven they are willing to get off the ball quickly once doubled, letting the offense create good looks on the backside.
The biggest area of concern for the Suns moving forward: They only generated 54 ‘wide-open’ threes in the first round with six-plus feet of space, fewer than 11 per game. It was significantly lower than the Clippers’ 95 wide-open attempts, nearly 20 per game.
It still yielded the second-best halfcourt offense in the playoffs so far. But as the competition gets more challenging, they can’t forfeit the math game. The Nuggets are too smart, too efficient, and too great at home. For the Suns to steal homecourt in Game 1 or 2, they have to narrow the 3-point margin to counter some mid-range regression that could be on the way.
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