The Los Angeles Lakers can smell the blood in the water. They lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 with Game Four today in the friendly confines of Staples Center in LA.
The Phoenix Suns are desperately trying to stop the bleeding to go back on the attack, but without a healthy Chris Paul (downgraded to QUESTIONABLE today) how can they beat a bully-ball defending champion Lakers team?
I asked two coaches and film breakdown analysts who are NOT Suns fans to answer some questions about what adjustments the Suns can make in Game Four to win and get back the home court advantage.
Steve Jones Jr. is a former NBA assistant coach (Nets) and video coordinator (Grizzlies) who played college basketball at UNLV and ASU. He now co-hosts a podcast called The Dunker Spot, one of the very best NBA analysis shows around. Steve also does some on-the-spot incredible game analysis on his twitter feed at: @SteveJones20
Coach Nick is the producer and creator of BBALLBREAKDOWN, one of the most popular YouTube channels on the NBA. Nick also does a podcast, hosts a show on the Lockerroom app and manages a website bballbreakdown.com. Not to mention the twitter and other social media too.
I remind you: neither of these analysts is a Suns fan. In fact, since they cover the NBA as a whole, neither of them has watched very much of the Suns this year with a healthy Chris Paul. So their perspective is going to biased in recent data — namely the first three games of this Suns-Lakers series.
This is important, since we are talking about what to do in Game Four of the Suns-Lakers series! If you want independent analysis on what this Suns team, as constituted with a hobbling Chris Paul, can do to beat the Lakers, then read on.
1) Non-Ayton players shot 35% in Game 3. They say they had open looks but just missed them, and the data shows most of their jumps shots are ‘open’, but my eyes told me every shot was more contested than they’re used to. Either way, 35% is awful. What do you see, regarding the Suns shooting problems?
Steve Jones Jr.: It’s a byproduct of the Lakers defense and the Suns not generating the same kind of looks they had in the regular season. The question I would ask is of the open shots from the Suns how many of them did they want to take and how many did they have to take? Ultimately the Suns are going to have to make the Lakers defense pay but the Lakers defense is doing a great job of disrupting and not giving the typical reads. The Suns haven’t had the same pressure points in the sense that Chris Paul hasn’t been able to put the same pressure on the Lakers defense and the majority of the attention to Devin Booker doesn’t always result in an open look. As the series has progressed you see the Lakers staying at home more on Phoenix’s shooters. There’s just not a ton of possessions where the Lakers weakside defenders are coming in to help on the roll which opens up the skip passes that Phoenix has generated before. Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges were huge all season at making defenses pay for helping, they haven’t been able to get the same looks. The big key for Phoenix is just making the shots they do end up creating, that scenario puts a lot of pressure on those shots.
Coach Nick: Analyzing the 3 point misses in Game 3, I’d say about half of them were good shots that were open while the others are being contested. Crowder’s rhythm is completely off, and the Lakers are now inside his head daring him to shoot open ones. He hit his last one so maybe that’s all he needs, but I have no doubt he’s in his head and it’s affecting the release. The Lakers were the 3rd best 3pt defending team in terms of 3PT% so don’t expect the percentage to get back to the Suns normal percentage.
2) What can the Suns do to get more threes up? Their number of attempts is down 20% compared to the regular season.
Steve Jones Jr.: The problem is with the Lakers leaning more into drop coverages and late switches in pick and roll it takes the pressure off their weakside defenders to help which lowers the amount of threes the Suns can get off skip passes. Phoenix is going to have to find a way to bend the Lakers defense and bring them higher to open that up. To get more threes up, Suns are going to have to get creative. More pindowns and off-ball screens, got Mikal Bridges a great look early in Game 3 off a fake pick and roll into a screen for him. Using Devin Booker off the ball and forcing the defense to shift so he can kick out to shooters. Also just have to be ready to shoot the ones you get. If the Lakers continue to throw doubles at Booker and rotate out of it, when the ball moves and you have a look, have to take it. Passed up a few shots in Game 3 just looking to drive closeouts which is good but there has to be a mix.
Coach Nick: The Lakers were 8th best in limiting opponents 3PT Frequency - they do a good job of denying middle penetration which would normally lead to close outs and open 3’s. Their rotations are also good, so 3’s that would be open on 2 swing passes aren’t. The best way is to get into the middle, and that’s going to have to be Chris Paul, considering Booker is much more likely to shoot it if he gets into the lane off of a drive versus kicking it out to an open 3. This is why offensive execution has to be much better - little things like running proper angles on cuts and making good contact on screens.
3) Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy was simple: take more threes, and DON’T FOUL. Those SSOL Suns had close to the lowest foul rate in the NBA. He’d rather just give up 2 points and get back on offense than give up and-one that stops the clock and gives them another point. Do you think that philosophy would work against these Lakers?
Steve Jones Jr.: Much easier said than done against LeBron James and Anthony Davis and with the way the Lakers defense has upped the intensity. I’m not sure I would want to hand them 2 points and have to take the ball out of the net and face them in the half court consistently. This is a Laker team that can bog down and rely heavily on their stars at times so my focus would be to make everything tough on them and get stops to push in transition and attack before the Lakers defense can get set.
Coach Nick: I don’t think you necessarily need to sacrifice points in the name of fouling less. I think they need to do a better job matching up with the personnel they have. They can’t put Crowder on AD - he’s not long enough -he’s perfectly suited to guard LeBron. Now, if Bridges guards AD, they’ll go right to the low post, in which case they must double early and often. But it’s better than what they’ve been doing. Also, give more opportunities to Cam Johnson to guard LeBron. I don’t like Ayton guarding AD, either. He’d be better on Drummond and roaming a bit to protect the rim.
4) Is this injured version of Chris Paul hurting the Suns more than helping? The Lakers are ignoring him and doubling Booker instead.
Steve Jones Jr.: I find it very difficult to say Chris Paul doesn’t help, even this injured version of him. His presence helps and even while injured he’s had a couple stretches in second quarters over the past two games where he’s been able to find it offensively. The issue is how much can he give you? And can he give you enough that the Lakers pay more attention? The main issue is the injury is allowing the Lakers to drop back when he comes off pick and roll, in Game 1 they were up and at the level which allowed him to make a whole lot of plays early. Now they are keeping the big in front and sitting on the pull-up. When he’s off the ball they are helping off him. I think doubling Booker is more to try and keep him out of rhythm than anything else. It’s clear for the Suns to get back in this they will need some version of Chris Paul to help balance things out.
Coach Nick: I think Chris Paul is doing good things defensively, and from what I saw in Game 3, the jumper looked okay - he hit his first few, and it certainly doesn’t look like what he was doing in Game 2. Also, he wasn’t straight losing the ball with the right hand dribble in Game 3, so I think he’s still helping, but they’re going to need him to make a full recovery by Game 4 if there’s any hope for the Suns.
5) The Lakers are huge and they’re playing as big as they can. We get it. The Suns cannot match their size. What can the Suns do to negate that effect on the final score?
Steve Jones Jr.: Protect the paint defensively, force kick outs, close out and make the Lakers beat you that way. Offensively, get more movement, get their defense to shift. Size doesn’t always equate to speed so trying to get to more drive and kick and find openings that way.
Coach Nick: What I mentioned above in terms of matching up better would certainly help - as well as run more, and make more 3’s. The Lakers in the regular season had a bad record when teams scored 5 more 3’s than they hit. So that’s the name of the game and speaks to the earlier question - so long as they keep turnovers to a minimum, and hit more 3’s than the Lakers, they should be in good shape.
6) What questions am I not asking that I should be asking? What other adjustments can they make to win Game 4?
Steve Jones Jr.: How do the Suns loosen things up for Devin Booker? Is it more pin downs, more handoffs, more pick and roll on the side. Can they get him in rhythm to where he is scoring and making plays with the attention the Lakers are giving him?
Can the Suns stay strong with Deandre Ayton’s defensive assignment? Thought he did a good job on Anthony Davis in the first couple games defending post ups and contesting shots/drives. Struggled navigating screens and defending AD in space. Suns have put him on Drummond which has opened up LeBron/AD two man game against Crowder/Bridges. Which poison are they going to choose?
Can the Suns get some easier baskets? Phoenix has been a really good half court team all season and hasn’t had to force the tempo. Issue is that plays into the Lakers hands a little bit this series. Can they push off misses and attack in transition to build momentum? Half court vs. half court gives the Lakers a chance to have their defense keep them in games.
Coach Nick: Somehow find the real Dario Saric - he should be playing the 5 and killing the Lakers with spacing and passing. So whatever the coaching staff did to destroy his confidence (and they may think they were being the most positive people in the world), they’ve got to stop and try and something else to get him ready to contribute big time.