Basketball games are never about one thing, but when one issue plagues a team on both ends, it makes it hard to ignore. In the case of the Suns’ four-point loss to Brooklyn on Tuesday night, switching was a pervasive issue looming over the entire collapse.
With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant out, the Nets turned into Rockets 2.0, with sized-down lineups and an entirely positionless scheme. That meant a lot of Jeff Green at center, but most importantly, a ton of switching on both ends of the floor, with Green often guarding Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton often guarding James Harden. The Nets winning that battle was the dynamic that turned the game in their favor and allowed them to come back from down 24.
The problems started immediately in the second half, with the Suns nursing a sizable lead. Rather than keep up with the 0.5 offense that works so well and gave them the lead in the first place, the Suns fell into the trap of forcing the ball where the Nets wanted it to go.
It was reminiscent of other games against Detroit or Oklahoma City in which the Suns took their foot off the gas, only Brooklyn is far more talented and experienced.
“The way we started the third quarter was not with the intensity we have been playing with, especially coming out of halftime with a big lead,” said head coach Monty Williams.
Was it because they got too cocky, coming off six straight wins and a 75-point first half? Maybe, but Williams didn’t want to go that far.
“We didn’t get into our ‘make’ offense well in the third quarter,” he added. “I don’t want to say we got cocky or arrogant, we just didn’t bring the type of urgency we needed to take that lead from 24 to 30, and maybe you put some fear into your opponent.”
It wasn’t all bad. The Suns had some stretches in which they did beat the switch, using set plays to spring shooters open or playing assertively to poke holes in Brooklyn’s defense when they opened up.
But more often than not, the Suns settled into bad shots, allowing Harden to oversee a slow-building comeback as the Nets’ offense got hot. One part of the problem was the Suns getting glutinous when they saw a tasty switch, but the other issue was that they weren’t forceful when they did go after a mismatch.
“We should be able to take advantage of that with our size,” Williams said. “I didn’t think we did a good job… there were times we threw it inside and our bigs brought the ball down and allowed their smalls to get a hand on the ball. And then we let them push us off the block a number of times tonight.”
Without saying his name, Williams is obviously referring to Ayton here. At several points throughout the game, Ayton was unable to get a shot up against smaller defenders. Brooklyn was smart and aggressive with double-teams most of the second half, but Ayton repeatedly made mistakes that ended possessions for his team.
When he did make the right read, the result was beautiful. The Suns’ normal offense can bust switches, which is what makes it so frustrating to everyone involved when they go away from it.
It would be easier to put all the blame on Ayton and that starting unit that came out flat and coughed up a lead, but the problems didn’t go away when the bench hit the floor.
The duo of Cameron Payne and Dario Saric, typically a steadying presence for the Suns, made many of the same mistakes the starters did, trying far too hard to win the mismatch game rather than play their usual brand of basketball.
It wasn't just the Suns starters that tried too hard to attack switches last night.— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) February 17, 2021
These two possessions from Payne and Saric, with the Nets on a roll, were killers. pic.twitter.com/zz8kUBOgQO
Those came with Booker on the floor!
All the offensive mistakes gave Brooklyn a crack to sneak back into the game, and they seized it. Because the Suns were turning the ball over and missing difficult shots, Brooklyn was able to get out in transition, and their smaller lineup and shooting thrived.
Communication breakdowns and a lack of physicality, two issues in transition defense that quietly hurt the Suns against Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo last week, reared their head against the Nets on Tuesday, even when Harden wasn’t in the game.
I harped on the Suns' transition D against the Sixers and Bucks, and Brooklyn dismantled them in transition last night, even when Harden wasn't in the game: pic.twitter.com/YHbgdRslgd— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) February 17, 2021
The Nets cut the Suns’ lead in half in the third quarter, bringing them just close enough to let Harden finish the job when he checked in at the 5:33 mark of the fourth.
“Guys are going to break you down in the league because you can’t put your hands on guys, but when that happens, we’ve gotta make sure we cover the three-point shooters,” Williams said.
Having seen how easily the Suns were giving up switches defensively and how passively they played in transition while he was on the bench, Harden initiated the offense with simple, quick pick-and-roll to get open shots for himself and his teammates.
Time and again, despite not being in foul trouble, Ayton evaded contact from Harden and let him get into the paint with ease.
The problem isn't that Deandre Ayton couldn't stop James Harden (what big man can?), it's that he hardly put up a fight.— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) February 17, 2021
Take a look: pic.twitter.com/50VpHJStT3
Don’t let the lowlight reel fool you, though. This loss is not entirely on Ayton. Just last week, we saw him successfully guard Giannis in the halfcourt for most of a victory, and he did a good job in the fourth quarter against Zion Williamson not too long ago as well. He’s earned trust from the coaching staff in those moments, and his ability to defend perimeter players in space will be key to his ability to make an impact in the playoffs.
Some have already argued Williams should have downsized as well, with either Saric or (more likely) Jae Crowder in at center. But the group featuring all three wings plus Booker and Chris Paul has not played a minute this season. Is it worth desperately transitioning to a completely new unit in crunch time in a game that you had already built a nearly 25-point lead in? Probably not, and that doesn’t even take into consideration what it would say to Ayton that they don’t believe in him enough to even see it through until the end.
Remember, the Suns had a lead until the very end of this game, when Harden hit a (well-contested by Ayton) pull-up three to put the Nets up 1. Is that the type of game worth shredding your entire rotation and team chemistry apart for? That seems extreme.
So yes, Ayton may have a frustrating film session to sit through after this one, but his teammates didn’t do enough to help him either. Mikal Bridges was the first guy to take blame for giving up those transition threes, making the cardinal sin of helping from the strong side to give up open threes. And Booker shot just twice in the fourth quarter, which should never happen in a close game.
Despite Chris Paul’s 17 points in the fourth quarter, including eight straight at one point, the Suns dropped a winnable game because they couldn’t stick to their principles. That’s not on any one person.