Phoenix Suns scheme exposed by Houston Rockets, but that doesn't mean the scheme is broken

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets took advantage of the Phoenix Suns scheme by scoring 64 points in the paint and 28 more from the free throw line. But despite that, the Suns scheme is still a winning formula.

After last night's tough loss to the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns have to assess whether their system and scheme is up to the task of a playoff run.

The Suns scheme is designed to force teams into contested shots in the paint to get their points. The Rockets did just that, scoring 64 points at the rim and another 28 points at the line on foul calls. The result: 115 points on nearly 53% shooting.

But before we go into any panic moves, rotation changes or questioning of a scheme that is allowing the entire roster (sans Leandro Barbosa) have career years, let's look closer at the season-long numbers.

Screen_shot_2014-02-24_at_6

*Data courtesy nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

Points in the paint

After a game in which the Rockets scored 20 points in the paint in the first quarter alone, and 64 for the game, you might think the Phoenix Suns are getting clobbered in that area all season.

The fact is that, yes, the Suns allow more attempts in the paint per game than most every NBA team. But a closer look at the numbers reveals three things:

  • the Suns defense is designed to prevent three-pointers (which, by definition, count for more points) by closing out hard on shooters and forcing them to drive to the paint
  • the Suns defend the paint respectably (middle of the pack) on those drives
  • the Suns get in the paint a lot themselves, and only lose 4.3 points per game down there.

Small consolation after seeing the Rockets dominate the paint last night, but it's worth noting the Suns know in advance games like this will happen.

The problem is the conversion rate the Rockets enjoyed. The Suns are okay at defending down there and are 11th overall FG% allowed to the other team (44.8% per game), their best rating in several years.

But last night, the Rockets used those attempts in the paint to finish by making nearly 53% of their shots overall.

"This is our house," a frustrated coach Hornacek said after a game in which the Suns lost an 11-point fourth quarter lead. "If you let them shoot 53%, you don't deserve to win."

Free throws

The Suns allow a lot of free throws. Probably more than anyone would like. But that's part of the defensive scheme. While the Suns of mid-2000s prided themselves on committing the fewest fouls, these Suns are nothing like that. These Suns are intentionally aggressive.

Hornacek on calling a timeout 24 seconds into the second half against Houston--

"We came in the half saying we need to get back on defense and the first play they run right down and get an easy layup. It's that same starting group that got us in a hole in the first place (20 paint points in the first quarter) so I just wanted to get on top of it right off the bat and try to not let that happen again, what happened in the first quarter."

Gone are the days of giving up the layup in order to get back on offense as quickly as possible. These Suns are in-our-face aggressive from the perimeter to the rim.

That scheme has been effective, with the Suns allowing the league's 11th-best shooting percentage to the opposition and the 14th best defense overall (points per possession).

The Suns make most of the free throw deficit (including a 29th ranked free throw defense) by getting to the line themselves. A jump shooting team by nature, the aggressive Suns are 10th in the league in free throw attempts and lose less than 2 points per game at the stripe.

The difference last night was that the Rockets got eight more points at the line than the Suns usually allow.

"They shoot a lot of free throws" Hornacek said after the game. "They're good at getting the ball inside they're good at driving the ball and kind of leaning in. They got them but they made them - they were 28-for-32 that probably won them the game."

The Suns got to the line as well, but missed more than usual. Ultimately, what is usually a 2-point deficit at the line turned into an 11-point deficit last night.

Three pointers

This is where the Suns win their games. As you can see in the chart above, the Suns outscore their opponents by 9.1 points per game behind the arc.

But that's not just by being the best three-points shooters in the league (9th overall %, on all three-point attempts) but also by defending the three-point line better than anyone else. The Suns have allowed the lowest opposing three-point % in the league, and allowed the 7th fewest total attempts.

For the Suns to win game with this scheme, they must continue to defend that line with as much success as they have all season.

Summary

No team is perfect. The Suns personnel is not the most talented in the NBA. We have discussed the genesis of this team many times: two starters who played 55 total minutes last year, two more starters who spent multiple seasons out of the league, and a fifth starter with only 1.2 years of prior starting experience.

There are no All-NBA defenders. Nor are there any three-point champs. Or devastating scorers.

What the Suns have is a collection of guys willing to do whatever they possibly can to win games. And they have a coaching staff who put together a scheme on offense and defense that actually works.

  • force the opposing team off the three-point line and into the teeth of the defense
  • contest everything
  • at worst, make them earn their two points at the free throw line rather than a layup or dunk
  • Shoot a bunch of threes
  • get to the line nearly as often as the other team
  • Win the game

To that last point, the Suns are 33-22 after 55 games, their best 55-game start since 2007-08.

No need to change any schemes or rotations. The Suns only need to play better. The Houston game was an anomaly. The Suns prior three opponents (Denver, Boston, San Antonio) didn't crack 40% shooting, while Houston shot 53%.

The Suns have 5 home games to only 1 road game in the next week and a half before a long stretch of travel to end the season, and need only to go 15-12 to finish with 48 wins and a near-certain playoff berth. With Eric Bledsoe returning in the next 1-2 weeks, the Suns are igniting the present while still planning for the future.

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