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The Suns are finally starting to crack the code of small ball

Between Deandre Ayton and Torrey Craig, the Suns suddenly have many answers when opponents downsize.

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks

One of the best things you can say about a playoff team in the NBA is that they can win different types of games. That’s what the Suns have proven they can do so far in April, and that has mostly resulted from their improved ability to match up when teams go small. With convincing wins over small-ball squads like Miami, Sacramento and Milwaukee this month alone, the Suns have begun to slay a demon that hounded them early in the year.

Most impressively, the Suns have figured out how to beat smaller looks without changing their identity much at all. They have found simple ways to leverage what Deandre Ayton is good at and assembled wing-heavy lineups that do all the same things other Suns lineups do — pass, spread the floor, and play great team defense.

“We’ve learned from those struggles playing against smaller teams,” head coach Monty Williams said.

Late in games, when teams have gotten a little more desperate to outmaneuver the Suns, this team has leaned into what works. They can push the pace (averaging almost a possession more per game in April), they identify mismatches quickly, and they make the simple play. That’s a far cry from losses to Sacramento and Denver in the winter in which the Suns’ offense devolved into iso ball when those teams started to switch.

Here’s how Ayton has been able to close games as a scorer against overmatched defenses recently, including a clutch post-up bucket (!):

These moments highlight what statistically has been a strong case all year. While in the past coaches had tried to help Ayton by playing him next to other big men, the Suns this season are typically best when Ayton is the sole big on the floor. Now that Monty Williams has gone away from Frank Kaminsky as a starting 4 and seems to have finally settled on starting small, the Suns have gotten increasingly comfortable playing this way.

While Dario Saric continues to be a net rating god even in his slump, Ayton has been a beast as the lone big in a massive and growing sample:

Deandre Ayton has been great as the Phoenix Suns only big man.

That’s in large part because the roster is built to play that way. For his entire career, Jae Crowder has been a solid two-way role player, and he’s in the middle of perhaps the best shooting season of his career with typically solid team defense. And despite a reputation for poor defensive mobility (in part due to a hip injury in college), Cameron Johnson grades out as a positive on that end. The Estimated Plus-Minus stat at Dunks and Threes has Johnson at a plus-0.3, more than reasonable for a reserve forward in his second NBA season.

Since the addition of Torrey Craig, the Suns have had yet another weapon in their battle against small ball. Craig is bigger and more physical than Crowder, Johnson or Mikal Bridges, making him a more natural small-ball center due to his rebounding and ability to match opposing bigs. Like Crowder, Craig is benefiting from the space and smarts in Phoenix, shooting a career high from deep so far as a Sun. While that is unlikely to hold throughout a playoff run for a career 33 percent three-point shooter, the value Craig provides in other capacities should continue.

Since joining the Suns, Craig has been good for 2 points per possession on cuts, per Synergy Sports. That’s right — every time Synergy has logged a scoring possession off a cut for Craig, it’s resulted in a bucket. It literally does not get better than that.

Puzzlingly, despite career-high shooting and cutting marks and consistently solid defense, lineups featuring Craig have been among the worst for the Suns. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Craig is in the game, the Suns have been outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions, a truly ugly number. And the most common Craig-at-center unit has been outscored by 32.9 points per 100 possessions, though it has only been on the court for 10 minutes total, per NBA Stats.

“It’s tough to call a lot of plays (when we go small), and you’re just playing in concepts and environments,” Williams said. “Thankfully when you have Chris and Book and Mikal out there and Cam, who know how to play in our system, it hasn’t been as bad as I feared it might be.”

The super small looks may be a work in progress, but they have worked in spurts when the Suns want to switch and corral ball-handlers, especially in end-of-game situations. For the most part, they will stick with Ayton and feel good about it.

If we’re looking for hiccups and areas for improvement, of course there are examples there. Ayton is still a third-year big man with a whole lot on his shoulders.

In the Suns’ loss to the Clippers three weeks ago, head coach Ty Lue took Ivica Zubac out of the game to close, leaving Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum to man the frontcourt. Ayton did not score at all the entire fourth quarter. And even when the Suns have walloped opponents, teams have been able to make Ayton uncomfortable:

Ayton still struggles against finesse bigs and team schemes that deceptively clog passing lanes with smart help. He is a willing passer who still has a long way to go, and even less developed as a dribbler. That means if the ball sticks with him, teams will swarm and bad things will happen.

“When you hold the ball, it really helps smaller teams,” Williams told me this week. “But when we get off of it after they switch and play on the second side, it’s been good for us.”

The Suns can’t let that happen. As we saw in a win over Philadelphia this week (not a small-ball team of course), when Ayton doesn’t have a matchup that works, the Suns have to quickly move away from him and find other ways to score. That means players like Bridges and Johnson will need to step up.

Injuries to Crowder and Abdel Nader also make it difficult for Williams to stay small the entire game, meaning we could soon see Kaminsky return to the rotation or see Saric play the 4 some, as he did while starting against the Bucks. With tests against versatile, smaller teams like the Clippers and Lakers coming up in the final weeks of the regular season, the Suns still have a chance to grow here.

But what was once a weakness has turned into at least a draw against all but the most elite small-ball lineups. Few rosters are built to truly challenge the Suns in this way, and most won’t be on the docket until the second or third round of the playoffs. Phoenix has multiple looks to go to when they face versatile rosters, and even more flexibility if the team can save Saric from looking like Hawkeye in The Avengers after he loses his powers.

The Suns’ team game can easily dispatch opponents that aren’t in tune or who play aimless basketball. It gets tested against sophisticated game plans and elite talent. Yet increasingly, the Suns are passing those tests and developing easy adjustments to strategies that used to hurt them.

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