As our contributor Bryan Gibberman pointed out so well, the Phoenix Suns defensive strategy to beat the Portland Trailblazers was sound and should have been good enough for the win.
Just like shutting down James Harden a week ago to beat Houston, the Suns employed a great strategy - and stuck to it all game - to keep the opponents' best scorer in check and maybe steal the game.
The reason it didn't work is because the Suns just couldn't make a shot.
After taking a 4-point lead with 9:26 left, 72-68, the Suns went on the following ignominious stretch: lost ball turnover, missed three point jumper, missed jumper, lost ball turnover, missed layup, missed layup, shot blocked, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed jumper, made jumper, missed short bank shot, missed layup, missed short bank shot, missed three pointer. Portland was up 85-76 by that point.
That's one offensive score in 17 consecutive possessions. They also had two technical free throws, to make it only a 17-4 run by Portland to take over the game.
A lot of that is on the Suns just missing open shots, but the type of shots the Suns took were exactly the type of shots Portland makes you take.
The Blazers have the league's 7th best defense and have won 46 games this year (versus 25 losses) because they run teams off the three-point line and protect the rim with Lopez. They allow the fewest three-point attempts in the league (18.9 per game) and the fewest makes per game (6.3). And they don't give away free throws. They allow the 5th fewest free throw attempts in the league.
Their entire scheme is to lull you into jumpers anywhere from 10-22 feet. If you can make those jumpers, you can beat them. The Suns couldn't make those jumpers.
"Yeah, the way they play back (sagging into the paint), we've had good success in the past of just coming off (of screens) and shooting it in," coach Hornacek said. "Eric didn't make many and Brandon (Knight) wasn't in there to do it either. That's what they're going to live and die with, giving you that shot. If we had another shooter there, that position would come off and maybe it was easier."
Marcus Morris lamented the Suns inability to make those shots too.
"I thought so, man," Mook said afterward of whether they got open shots. "They were in-and-out. They just didn't fall in. I thought that we defended them well the entire game and the fourth quarter could have went either way."
"I thought they were great shots," Bledsoe chimed in. "They just didn't fall. Everybody got a good look at the rim and they were missing, especially me."
The Portland game was not an aberration for the new look Suns since the trade deadline, especially with Brandon Knight out with injury. But even Knight's absence fails to explain why the Suns ability to make open jumpers has gotten SO bad since the trade deadline.
"We're not making shots," Hornacek said. "Our shooting percentage has been horrible since the All-Star break."
The team as a whole is only making 30.4% of their three point attempts since the break, and 43.7% of their field goals overall. They are 25th in offensive efficiency since the break, 22nd in effective shooting % (counting 3s) and 23rd in True shooting % (counting 3s and FTs).
The Suns best three-point shooter since the break is Archie Goodwin (38%), who only takes about one per game. Of the high volume shooters on the Suns, only Eric Bledsoe breaks the 35% mark since the break.
Marcus Morris is making only 31.6% of his threes since the break after making 39.7% in the first 54 games, and 37% for his career.
P.J. Tucker is only making 30.6% of this threes since the break after making 36% in the first 54 games and 38.7% last year.
(By contrast, Ish Smith is making 38% of his very infrequent threes with Philly - 13 makes in 18 games, but still)
Part of the problem is that these two guys are the only catch-and-shoot threats left in the lineup. They put up 9 per game between them. Eric Bledsoe attempts almost 4 per game (35% since the break) but his are off his own playmaking most of the time. Gerald Green was once upon a time a catch-and-shoot threat but he's making only 26% of those this year, so no. He's not anymore.
With Brandon Knight out, the pressure is on Bledsoe to make the entire offense happen. Since the break, the Suns are -14 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe is out, versus +3 with him on the court. That's a 17 point swing, by far the biggest swing on the team. Goodwin and Price just aren't getting it done when he's off the floor.
Getting Knight back will help.
But what will also help is to start making open shots again. Since the All-Star break, the Suns have made only 40% of their wide open shots (no defender within 6 feet) versus 43.7% before the break.
Of wide open shots at least 10+ feet from the rim (where the closest defender is 6+ feet away), the Suns have dropped from 40% shooting to 36% shooting. By comparison, the Golden State Warriors make 43% of such shots.
So while the Suns have improved their defensive execution since the break (now up to 5th overall in the league), their offense has gotten frustratingly bad.
It's amazing to think about how the personnel can make or break a scheme. With the same exact offensive and defensive scheme all year long, same coach, same staff, same video coordinators, the Suns are a completely different team before and after the trade deadline this year.
With Dragic, Thomas and Bledsoe as the focal points, the Suns boasted a Top-5 offense in the season's first three months with a bottom-10 defense.
Since the break, since Thomas and Dragic were traded, with Bledsoe as the sole point guard much of the time (Knight has missed 8 of 19 games), the Suns now suffer from a bottom-10 offense but suddenly have a Top-5 defense.
Same scheme. Same coaches. Much of the same personnel.
Which is better? Well, that's a bad question. Neither is good. Neither will make the playoffs.