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Stephen’s Study: Defense Drives a Much-Needed Win to Snap the Skid

Resurfacing of a few key entities leads to much-needed win

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to “Stephen’s Study,” a postgame series where Stephen will be giving his immediate takeaways, on a game-by-game basis, on the performances of the Phoenix Suns in a quick-hitting fashion.

On Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns (17-12) snapped a rare five-game losing streak in LA, pasting the shorthanded Clippers — who rested 4/5ths of their normal starting lineup on the second night of a back to back — with a comfortable 111-95 win, spotlighted by taking a 20-point first half lead and holding it the rest of the way.

1.) Dictating with Defense

Regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup for opposing teams, or even for your team for that matter, when you have a standard that’s upheld, there will be a concerted effort in specific areas that fall in alignment with the team's identity as well as the brand of ball established.

Coming off of a five-game losing streak, with five of their last seven games being away from home, and yet another road game in the docket, the Suns had a sharp focus on the defensive end of the floor.

Timely rotations, solid on-ball containment, hot hands, good contests, and solid activity on the glass, were all on repeat.

They’d hold the Los Angeles Clippers to 37.8% from the field, a mark registering as the Suns lowest field goal percentage allowed on the season, as well as the Clippers second-lowest mark. Holding the Clippers to an 81.0 mark per 100 plays in the halfcourt, tying for their fifth worst on the season, by the way, registers as the Suns seventh-best halfcourt showing defensively.

Mikal Bridges, Josh Okogie, and Chris Paul would all finish with 3 “stocks” (steals + blocks), and the Suns would finish with 16 deflections.

Beyond statistics, the feel was just there and ever-present. It was the driving force behind them garnering a 27-point halftime lead, and they’d never look back.

Part of the reason their defense was so dominant was the continued efforts and activity from the aforementioned Josh Okogie (11 points, team-leading 11 rebounds), who was the lone bright spot to emerge from the team’s five-game skid, in a “diamond in the rough” fashion. He continues to add value, as Damon Allred recently pinned here for the site, forcing Monty Williams's hand in finding minutes and lineup combinations to include him within the rotation.

This side of the ball set the tone, enabling the offense to consistently play in flow (only 72.7% of their plays came against a set defense, which ties for their third-best mark of the season).

2.) Mikal Gets Back on Track

After one of his worst-career showings in shooting (4 for 24, 16.7%) during Tuesday’s loss at Houston, he’d bounce back in an undeniable fashion.

A game-high 27-points, coupled with more “Middy Committee” maneuvering saw him finish 9-13 from two. In that, he’d also shoot an impressive 7-7 from what can accurately be deemed his most comfortable area of the floor, 4-14 feet.

He’d get there in an assortment of ways: off screens (specifically variations of their “away” action, via cuts, and via self-creation from his one-to-two dribble pull-ups (including some nice reps in read and react off pick-and-roll).

On Thursday, I wrote about how important it is to trust his process offensively, as he continues to get better and grow more confident, and a bounce-back game like this one further supports my premise.

These shots (especially against a playoff-style switching defense) with plenty via his patented left-hand maneuvering, are just what this team needs from him to manipulate the math more in their favor and continue evolving their elite attack in the halfcourt. This shot profile - 13 attempts from two, five from three, and four from the line - is the template for what his best blend in operation is for both him and this team.

Highly efficient shots (TS% of 71.1), in a multitude of ways, and operating as a fire starter both independent of, as well as while sharing the floor with Booker and Paul, is exactly what this team needs from him.

Having multiple players that can do multiple things independently of each other, on and off-script, specifically in the halfcourt, is what pushes the needle for teams on the playoff stage. His evolution (along with Ayton and Johnson) indicates the Suns inching closer to that.

3.) Landale vs Small Ball

One of the most obvious values Landale added to the fold for the Suns was his ability to play off of feel. Sometimes that leaves more to be desired from him in the aggressive department of the volume of shots, nonetheless, he plays the correct way offensively.

This rings especially true as he matches up with second units, where teams most frequently go with smaller lineups and a ton of switching. This would tee up a multitude of opportunities for Landale to assert himself both on the glass (tied for a season-high 10 rebounds) and enable him chances to stake his claim in the paint offensively, where he combines fundamental footwork and feel with a soft touch - dominating for stretches against said lineups.

This is now the second time he was able to have an impressive showing against this specific team. Of course, they weren’t whole, but process-wise this is the way they operate off the bench.

Landale’s continued to stay ready amidst up and down minute totals, adding offensive versatility to the optionality Monty Williams has to choose from in his Rolodex.

4.) The Point God’s Playmaking Precision

Chris Paul had 13 assists (29 assist points created), accounting for 48.1% of the team's assists, with just one turnover in the process that came late in the game.

His table-setting nature is one that keeps this team prepared for playoff-style play.

However, a ton of the assists from this win over the Clippers came via free-flowing play as they changed ends of the floor.

Customarily, he was able to dupe defenders and hit cutters or shooters in a timely manner, with passes that could be scored off of, in a manner that was refreshing to see.

Having him at the controls and operating with a solid blend of not just floor generalship, but also knocking down some shots is also a ton of what this team needs from him.

Having his offensive blend resurface in a “get right” game was just another plus to come from this game. One they’ll surely need more of, in a sustained manner, moving forward.

The Suns now return home to Phoenix for a four-game homestand against the Pelicans, Lakers, Wizards and Grizzlies. Once again, the schedule is tough and the Suns will have to get back to their crisp play to rise back up the West charts.

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