After a pair of impressive victories over the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, the Phoenix Suns were thumped in Miami, losing to the Heat 123-96. The problem wasn’t strictly that Phoenix’ defense was its usual sieve, but that the offense wasn’t prodigious enough to compensate. Let’s examine the specific performances by Phoenix’ cast to discover the biggest culprits.
Excluding fast breaks, extreme early offense, broken plays, and the extended garbage time of the fourth quarter, I’ve charted Phoenix’ defensive responsibilities and offensive sets to assign credit or blame to Suns players.
Taking a look at the Suns’ defense first, they had too many breakdowns to stay competitive with a potent team like the Heat. Charting possessions and assigning individuals as the "most important defenders" to specific plays (the individual defender in an iso or post up, either the ball handler or screen defender on a screen/roll, and the appropriate player in a zone, a closeout or rotation), you can see the disappointing totals on an individual basis.
Jason Richardson was the second most egregious defender, allowing 15 points in nine possessions. On five possessions where J-Rich needed to close out on a shooter or simply gave his man too much space, the Heat scored nine points in five possessions. Totaled in that includes J-Rich not tagging a wide open Chris Bosh in transition, and leaking out on a brake after contesting a Bosh miss, only to have the Heat grab the offensive board and find Bosh for a basket. Not fighting through screens and poor rotations made up the remaining numbers.
Grant Hill was decent, mostly because LeBron’s jumper was iffy. He gave up seven points in six possessions.
Channing Frye had a hit-or-miss game on defense. His final total was 20 points allowed on 21 possessions. He was posted twice by Bosh and was mercifully forced to foul him, leading to four Heat points. He was also attacked directly in isolations for eight points on six possessions, leading to 12 points on eight possessions, a poor number.
In his screen and perimeter defense, Frye was guilty of at least four bad shows (including twice where he hedged on the wrong side of the screen!), but wasn’t heavily punished, allowing six points in 10 possessions.
When stationed under the rim or asked to rotate to protect the hoop, Frye actually only allowed two points in a trio of possessions, holding his ground on a Wade assault, and rotating to force a Wade miss near the basket as his two highlights.
Still, while the numbers don’t back it up, Frye was largely responsible for not checking Bosh on a number of plays, and his screen defense needs to be much improved, at least at his 2010 postseason level, for the Suns to be respectable at that end of the floor.
Jared Dudley was a huge plus. He did foul Wade on a jump shot (he hit one free throw), but two exceptional rotations led to a block on Dwyane Wade (which he got credit for) and a half-block on Bosh (which Turkoglu got full credit for). Indeed, Dudley is a shining defender blessed not only with athleticism, but terrific awareness.
Earl Clark also acquainted himself well, jumping straight up as Wade tried to sucker him into making contact with a pump fake, and rotating over on a LeBron drive, forcing a miss.
Hakim Warrick is another non-defender, with Heat players shooting 5-7 for 13 points on 10 possessions against him. He was iso’d or posted up four times for eight points, and had several poor shows on screens, leading to five more points on three possessions.
His stat line would look even worse if not for two offensive fouls drawn, one when Udonis Haslem tried to create space with three Suns draped around him (after Warrick completely botched a rotation leaving Joel Anthony wide open at the rim where he missed a point blank layup), and one on a Wade forearm extension navigating a screen.
Despite his reputation, Steve Nash’s defense wasn’t too bad—seven points on nine possessions. Most of his defense involved helping elsewhere and allowing Carlos Arroyo to shoot long jump shots, but against the Heat, that’s simply executing the game plan.
No, Hedo Turkoglu was the biggest disaster. In 13 possessions where Turkoglu was the most important defender, he was responsible for 23 points allowed.
Turkoglu’s defensive deficiencies were exposed right from the opening tip when he was posted and toasted by Chris Bosh on Miami’s first possession. Later on Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and even Juwan Howard got in the act, taking Turkoglu into the post and having points come out of it, whether directly, with an assist pass, or a series of plays that directly transpired out of Turkoglu being posted.
For the duration, Turkoglu was posted four times with the Heat going 4-4 for 8 points against Turkoglu’s overmatched defense. Turkoglu was also asked to defend the paint once, in which Dwyane Wade blew by him and hit a layup, plus a foul (though on another possession a Heat player simply threw the ball right at Turkoglu under the hoop). This means that in six possessions of Talk the Turk defending the basket, Miami shot 5-5 with 11 points, for an incredible ratio.
Naturally, Turkoglu is out of position as a power forward and defending post players is not his repertoire. However on close outs and screen defense, the Heat shot 5-7 for 12 points on seven possessions, another awful ratio from Phoenix’ end. The fact is that Turkoglu is a deplorable defender, and without Dwight Howard erasing his mistakes, his miscues are even more egregious.
On a small-ball team like the Suns, Turkoglu doesn’t have the shot-blocking behind him to compensate for his mistakes, and he isn’t quick enough to gamble for steals and deflections that would fuel Phoenix’ running game.
This means he must compensate by producing on offense, but no plays were directly produced out of his screen/rolls, and three isolations led to four points. He did move the ball with alacrity, but his five shot attempts are not enough for a team needing a second offensive front for teams that can stymie Phoenix’ screen/roll game.
That second front was needed because Miami made excellent hedges on Steve Nash’s high screen/rolls, often taking away the roll man by blitzing Nash, while closing hard on three-point shooters. In plays that didn’t result in an offense reset (most of Phoenix’ halfcourt possessions start with a Nash screen/roll somewhere), that staple of Phoenix’ offense resulted in the Suns going 7-17 with 18 points in 20 possessions, a suboptimal number. Nash did end up simply isolating on six possessions, resulting in six points. He also was involved in a curl which resulted in Channing Frye missing a jumper on one possession, and a baseline flex sequences leading into a pin down for Nash was run twice with Hedo Turkoglu getting one free throw in two possessions out of the action.
With Miami’s defense sufficiently bottling up Nash, Phoenix had trouble generating offense from its supporting cast members. Grant Hill shot 1-6 on various isolations, leading to five points on seven possessions. Hill screen/rolls were marginally better—four points on three possessions. Against the exceptional defense of LeBron James, Hill simply looked like an old man.
Action run by Jason Richardson on the perimeter had some success—seven points on five possessions, but he was ineffective in the post against Miami’s physical position denial, well timed double teams, and perimeter closeouts—three post ups, zero points. Richardson was awful from downtown—0-5—though many of his misses were open looks that he usually makes with reliability.
Goran Dragic had trouble operating for the same reasons Nash did—six points in eight possessions.
As for the rest of the team, Josh Childress had some success in limited possessions in the post, Jared Dudley left his three-point shot at home, and Hakim Warrick was near useless without open rolling lanes to catch and finish.
Against teams lacking the personnel, the wherewithal, or the desire, the Suns won’t need to worry too much about secondary options as Nash’s screen/roll game is one of the most difficult plays in the league to corral, especially with Phoenix’ roster of athletes, gunners, and spare parts that fit perfectly into a normally well-oiled machine.
The Suns also play with admirable unselfishness, and are explosive in an open field. Plus, Alvin Gentry is a creative play caller and the Suns’ base sets get enough spacing and weak-side action (usually on a baseline brush screen for Jason Richardson) to overwhelm average teams, or good teams playing average basketball.
The problem comes against teams like Miami, which executed a well-conceived defensive gameplan to trap and hard hedge Nash’s screens, and used its superior defensive talent to limit an explosive Suns offense. Whereas in the past, Amar’e Stoudemire high post isolations would put severe pressure on a defense as a second option, Jason Richardson isn’t quite as dangerous.
Defensively, the performance displayed just how valuable Robin Lopez is to the team as he gives the Suns a toughness and a ruggedness that Frye and Warrick can’t fathom to match.
Overall, while the Suns don’t have the defensive chops to seriously contend for a title (they aren’t winning four shootouts with the Lakers in a postseason series), they could be able to storm to the conference finals again in a good, but ultimately wide open West, even without Stoudemire.
Phoenix would be well-served from here until then to try to develop a reliable secondary offensive attack better than Grant Hill creating or Jason Richardson posting up. If they can’t, with their inability to stop anybody, they may not be able to go on a run like last season’s screen/roll through the postseason.