The dog days of the regular season are here. The Phoenix Suns have such a lead in the West that they are now looking ahead to playoff series, and trying new defensive schemes so that they can mix and match their defenses no matter who the opponent is.
That’s resulted in the defense struggling a bit compared to their season-long standards. Over the past two weeks, the Suns defense ranks only 12th among the 30 NBA teams, compared to 3rd for the whole season.
But what’s especially interesting: defensive rebounding has plummeted to dead last (30th, compared to 9th for the whole season).
For the season the Suns are 9th in total rebounds per game, 20th in offensive rebounds and 4th (FOURTH!?) in defensive rebounds per game. Those defensive rebounds really help prop up their 3rd ranked defense.
But since Chris Paul went out, in a small 6-game sample, the Suns are have just been simply awful: 28th in offensive rebounds, 30th in defensive rebounds and 30th in total rebounds.
What the heck is going on?
For one thing, the Suns these days are experimenting with different looks on defense, planning ahead for a playoff series adjustments.
Over the first 50+ games, the Suns focused heavily on ‘drop’ coverage to build up their 6.5 game lead on the rest of the NBA. The details and actions are nuanced, but the bottom line is that ‘drop’ coverage has your center staying in or very near the paint area no matter where his man goes. This opens up outside shooting to the other team but locks down the paint from drives, cuts and lob finishes that get easy points.
Deandre Ayton, JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo are very good at meeting any opponent near the rim to deter and contest shots. With them in the middle and the talented wings and guards around them, the Suns are one of the best teams in the league at preventing shot attempts in the paint (9th) and allowing makes (7th) despite playing exclusively with only one big man at a time.
The risk of ‘drop’ coverage is that you invite teams to take jumpers. Most of the time, that’s what the Suns want because their perimeter defense is so solid with shifts and switches. The Suns defense allows the lowest 3P% in the league and the 4th fewest makes.
Teams that have beaten the Suns have gotten hot from the outside — making an average of 15 threes in wins over the Suns, which ranks the Suns 29th among 30 teams in threes allowed in losses. On the other side, the Suns allow a 7th-lowest 10.5 per game in wins.
Of course, regular season context is that the Suns usual ‘drop’ scheme works — they are 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency and have won a league-best 51 of 64 games so far. I’m not saying they use it 100% of the time, but the actual number is very very high because one of Ayton/McGee/Biyombo are in the game about 99% of the time.
However, what if the Suns play a particularly good-shooting team in the playoffs that keeps all five guys on the perimeter, or a complex offense to take advantage of the Suns drop defense for a whole series? Take Note in Utah, for example. The Jazz are one of the best in drop coverage but regularly get exposed in the playoffs with the wrong matchup.
Last playoffs, the Suns got past the Clippers’ five-out scheme because Ayton was unexpectedly able to switch out on the perimeter and punish them so bad in the paint on offense that the Clippers had to play Ivica Zubac big minutes until he went down with a knee injury. But then they lost to the Bucks in the Finals when the Giannis train came to town because Ayton was given the Giannis assignment, which pulled him out of the paint and onto the ball handler (Giannis) almost every possession.
So now, the Suns are experimenting a bit to solidify the execution of defense where the center is out of the paint more often.
They are more liberally switching Ayton/McGee/Biyombo on pick and rolls, and even trying the two-man blitz on the ball handler (where the center jumps out and stays with the ball-handler to double-team on defense).
The results are not pretty so far. The Suns are getting killed on the boards, to the tune of a 10-per-game deficit. Ayton, with more time on the perimeter now, is in the middle of the longest stretch of single-digit rebounds (7 straight) of his career.
On Sunday, with Ayton/McGee/Biyombo not only checking Giannis on the catch but also blitzing Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton a lot, the Suns got out-rebounded 48-27. The Bucks’ 48 rebounds included 14 on the offensive end (against only 21 Suns defensive boards).
“It’s just the rebounding, man,” Ayton said of what’s eating him after the Bucks loss. “It starts with me. I ain’t been rebounding the way I’m supposed to be rebounding. It’s giving teams the momentum to really crash and get that pace going on the offensive end.”
Ayton is down four rebounds per game over the last six games while the team is down 10 per game on the whole. Ayton now has seven straight games under 10 rebounds, the longest such stretch of his career.
Ayton recognizes its not all on him. He’s outside the paint more often these days when the shot goes up. Yes, he could crash the boards by sprinting in but every big man risks an offensive foul if they collide on a rebound attempt from behind the guy in position.
“As a team, together. Us rebounding the ball,” Ayton said. “There’s certain things I have to adapt to, where, there’s gonna be times that I have to blitz (the ball handler outside the three-point line, along with another Suns defender) and different coverage where I’m away from the rim. We’re gonna figure out how to close out possessions. We are going to figure it out.”
When Ayton or any other center are out of the paint on the shot, at least one Suns player needs to crash in for the board, if not two or three. That’s a new learning curve for them, as they’re used to sprinting back to the other end while assuming Ayton/McGee/Biyombo will grab the board. They’ve got to be a collective.
This week, the Suns take on the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat back to back, then host Toronto and the Lakers over the weekend.
Keep an eye on the rebounding differentials to see if they’re making the adjustments.