The inevitable conversation around a team that gets off to an unexpected hot start is to categorize what they’re doing as either sustainable or unsustainable. Hot shooting, an unlikely jump from an unknown player, or good luck on some of the more random aspects of basketball are all areas where it is expected fortunes will flip. Playing solid, disciplined defense is not something that should turn so dramatically.
While the Suns sustained some luck in the first portion of the season, their 7-4 start didn’t appear to be a fluke. Defense is a pillar of the team’s culture, and they spent much of the offseason and training camp fleshing out a scheme that would work for their roster. Right now, it looks like the players just aren’t putting in the requisite effort to pull it off.
Sunday’s loss to Memphis at home sure looked like rock bottom defensively.
“We did not have gameplan discipline at the start of the game,” said coach Monty Williams. “I called a timeout with less than two minutes off of the clock because we just did not execute the gameplan.”
Where early in the season you could say nothing about the Suns’ defense if not that they helped more aggressively than any team in the NBA. Their rotations were intentionally early, intentionally tough. Recent opponents have gotten to the rim with ease.
Sunday’s game was a clash of the Grizzlies’ interior prowess versus the Suns’ ineptitude preventing layups. Memphis spaces the floor well and gets the second-most points in the paint per 100 possessions in the NBA. Teams are shooting 61.2 percent at the rim against the Suns, per Cleaning the Glass, and nearly a third of opponents’ shots come at the rim.
Yet in facing the Grizzlies for the third time this year, Phoenix looked frequently over-matched. After an initial rotation, one or two extra passess allowed Memphis to slip in undeterred for an easy bucket.
It should take more than a simple high pick-and-roll for teams to get to the basket against the Suns. In the clips above, you’ll see Suns players simply make the business decision not to contest at the rim rather than stop the Grizzlies bigs, foul them, or try to draw a charge.
Everyone is a culprit. But in particular, with Memphis spacing Jaren Jackson Jr. several feet out above the three-point line, the Suns needed to adjust. That alignment took Deandre Ayton out of plays completely, and Kelly Oubre Jr. still hasn’t gotten used to being the guy on the weak side to come in and block shots.
Memphis shot 74 percent at the rim. “We just did not have a level of focus to take away what they wanted to do,” Williams said. “We executed it in walkthroughs and just didn’t have it. We waited until the last eight minutes of the game to start playing the kind of basketball we want to play consistently.”
It all started with perimeter defenders letting Grizzlies guards get into the paint at will. Devin Booker defended Memphis’ point guards most of the night, something the Suns have done in spurts but rarely for entire games. Ja Morant was too quick for him, which meant the rookie point guard could dice inside consistently and and set up teammates.
It wasn’t just Morant, though. Even backups Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton had their way, creating easy shots for themselves and teammates.
The last clip in particular is so evidential of the limitations of the Suns’ defense when they get even one step behind the play.
It seems like the gameplan against Memphis was to switch more often to limit their one-on-one scorers, but the Suns gave up on plays frequently when they didn’t need to switch, especially early in the shot clock. Booker and Mikal Bridges start the play off with Booker switching onto Brandon Clarke, then Cameron Johnson correctly rotates over to tag Clarke.
The Grizzlies are already so comfortable within new coach Taylor Jenkins’ “random motion” offense that Melton finds the skip pass to the corner. That forces Johnson to recover back out to his man in the corner, but Okobo goes toward the corner, too, misreading the play. At that point, Johnson -- by no means the quickest player on the roster -- is too late to get back to Okobo’s man, Jones.
The Suns are playing small and switchable at this point, meaning they need to contain dribble drives to have any chance of defending. But because of Melton’s smart pass, Johnson’s slow-footedness and Okobo’s mistake, Jones confidently charges past Johnson into the paint for a layup.
This play shows much of why the Suns’ roster wasn’t expected to defend at the start of the season. They lack high-level floor readers on that end, they’re far from the most athletic team, and they are very young. Still, they’ve shown an ability to stop teams when they dedicate themselves to attentive, aggressive D.
To get that layup for Jones, the Grizzlies executed their offense to perfection. The bigger issues came when through frustration or lack of diligence, the Suns simply didn’t try very hard.
This as bad as it gets for all involved against a simple high screen and roll. Suns’ defense is close to rock bottom right now. pic.twitter.com/oa9aQAqL1N— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 6, 2020
Many of the most bone-headed mistakes came from Ayton, likely still making his way back to game shape physically and mentally. That just can’t be an excuse with the Suns trying to make a playoff push, especially when so many of the mistakes are reminiscent of Ayton’s rookie year.
Ayton spent much of Year One defensively in no man’s land, especially when he defended the screener. That’s exactly where he ended up after Clarke set a high screen and Oubre let Dillon Brooks get to the middle of the floor. Ayton ends up caught between Clarke and Brooks, and the dismal possession is finished off when Booker swipes at the ball rather than make a legitimate effort to defend the rim.
Blaming a breakdown like this on one player, again, is futile. The lack of attention to the gameplan and to detail is clear from all three players in that moment, and everyone on the roster over the course of this game and the past several weeks.
“Sometimes we just lack ‘it,’” Mikal Bridges told me. “Then you’re giving teams confidence, (and) it’s tough to guard them when they’re high on confidence.”
As the future center and defensive anchor of this team, Ayton gets more of the blame from me than others. He can’t afford games where he takes a step back defensively. And this wasn’t the only play where his lack of awareness was exposed.
Each clip above shows a different thing. In the first clip, Ayton plants himself away from the action, watches the ball, and allows his man to get an easy tip-in over smaller Suns players. Second, Ayton fails to communicate with Baynes and they allow a simple high-low play between the Grizzlies’ bigs to turn into another easy layup.
Again, playing the nominal power forward is tough on Ayton. It’s never going to be ideal, but it can bring out some of what he’s best at. In space, Ayton can cloak ball-handlers with his length and lateral mobility. If he can focus on smaller responsibilities like rotating from the weak side or boxing out, that simplicity could help him as well.
While I give Ayton a little more of the blame considering his place on this team, the failure against Memphis by no means falls on him entirely.
“We’ve only played with everybody probably a couple times this year, which is tough,” Bridges said, “but it’s more the mindset. … We can see in practice and we know what we can do, but then we have those slips in games and other games where we don’t show it as much.”
What made Sunday’s loss more discouraging was that it was an entire game of malaise. As Bridges notes, the Suns have had many peaks and valleys -- even within a quarter -- this year. The way they played against the Grizzlies was a 48-minute valley. Playing that way makes the playoffs or any of that discussion seem distant. The problems are much more immediate and drastic than that.
Defense is a team proposition, and everyone who saw the court on Sunday night failed. As a result, the Suns lost a winnable game and ground in the West.