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Phoenix Suns Temperature Check, Vol. 1: Cold, but sunnier days on the horizon

A dive into the happenings of the Phoenix Suns, of late

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are 21-23, and 10th in the Western Conference, with a net rating of 1.4, which ranks 10th. They are 12th on offense and 12th on defense.

Here’s what’s caught my attention in The Valley.

Defensive Order, Restored

After a tumultuous early December stretch that saw a five-game losing streak (@ DAL, vs BOS, @ NOP twice, @ HOU) where they allowed 623 points (124.6 points allowed per game), they’ve resettled themselves and gotten back to their base, even amidst the most impactful team-wide bout with the injury bug.

*Subsequent stats through January 12, before Suns-Wolves.

Prior to December 15th, even with that aforementioned stretch included, their defensive rating was at 111.1 (9th), and their half-court defensive efficiency was at 94.5 (10th).

Since December 15th, they’re at 114.5 in defensive rating (15th) and at 98.4 in the half-court (13th)

They’ve been increasing both more sharp and timely with rotations and communication, as well as with activity within their rotations.

Their game at Memphis was one of the initial signs, however, it was the two-game slate from last week, at Cleveland, then vs Miami, where it had more of the general feel we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from this team on that end.

With the offense presently operating at a league-worst efficiency, they’ve had to bank on the defensive (via turnovers or traditional stops) to allow for play against defenses that aren’t set, to better-aid flow and quality of looks.

Back to the defense though, the aforementioned injury impact has resulted in more lineup combinations and experimenting with what clicks from Monty Williams and company. He saw remnants prior to December but has now seen those remnants sustain in dominant fashion defensively between the tandem of Mikal Bridges and Josh Okogie.

Lineups including those two have compiled 345 non-garbage time minutes this season, and present have performed at a 98th percentile rate in the half-court, allowing just 87.9 points per 100 plays. Then, in general, defensive efficiency, lineups including them allow just 109.8 points-per-100-possessions, good for an 88th percentile slotting.

The possessions above are from November, but are what I hinted was the foundation of what we’ve seen grow since, as he’s been paired more with Bridges within the rotation.

As mentioned in the tweet, his dogged, instinctive, and ever-active physicality on-ball enables Bridges to function more as a wing stopper, helper, and captain rotations on the weak side, which increasingly seems to be where he’s most comfortable.

The Suns have been less aggressive with schemes of late, considering the lack of bodies they’ve had in the rotation of late, so the individual efforts of Okogie at the point of attack have been beyond timely. He’s carved out his niche with this rotation and has certainly earned the trust of his teammates and coaches on that end of the floor.

His high energy and contagious attacking mindset focused on dictating before playing in read and react, have been equally persistent and key in this window.

Mikal Bridges

The fifth-year product from Villanova has been in the crosshairs of many for his production (or “lack thereof”) on the offensive end of the floor.

Many expected Bridges, sans Booker, to have scoring upticks and outbursts - operating in the same sets and actions typically run by Booker - in the manner that Landry Shamet manned that position for a handful of games in this stretch.

That has not come to fruition, and that’s okay.

Bridges, since December, has averaged 13.8 points per game on 40.8% from the field, and 35.3% from deep.

He does not presently have the “step-up-ability” as a scorer for a sustained stretch, however, where he has seen success is via his passing and general processing as a playmaker.

He’s identified his strengths and is using the opposing scouting report in his favor, allowing for his drives, off-script, to serve as an advantage creator for the offense.

He understands the extra attention being given to his drives, as well as the subsequent opponent-specific rotations and has improved his passing catalog and ability to deliver.

Bridges is venturing outside of the play to generate offense, not just for himself anymore, and also with the intent on the fly.

He’s up to 3.7 assists since Booker has been out, and a lot of that has also come sans Paul, exacerbating the need for him to initiate offense as well as create.

As he continues to evolve as a general offensive player, in entities independent of scoring - like play initiation against pressure or playing outside the play in the half-court - this stretch could be one where we look back and say “this is where he turned a corner to prepare him for the playoffs.”

A key return from the mend?

Earlier today it was reported by Bleacher Reports Chris Haynes, that Cam Johnson has “recently begun participating in practices,” and told Bleacher Report that he “expects to make a return shortly after (the Suns) four-game road trip.”

That would slate him for a return as soon as January 19th.

Lost in the happenings of this season, and more impactful stints without their two best players in Booker and Paul has been the absence of Cam Johnson.

Johnson has been sidelined with a torn meniscus since November 4th.

Prior to that, he was enjoying yet another leap, averaging 14.9 points per game, on 45.7/44.0/72.7 shooting, along with 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals, and a +9.3.

He’s well-known to be one of the best shooters in the NBA, and presently ranks:

· 6th in catch-and-shoot points per game (7.4)

· 4th in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage for players taking as many attempts as him (5.6 at 42.2%)

He was in such a great space offensively, better-blending paint touches via drives in playing off of his shooting gravity.

Even more, his general presence in spacing helped to make the Suns functioning and process offensively that much more optimal.

As the starting forward in place of Jae Crowder, he was also tasked with much more accountability on the defensive end of the floor. To which, he was up to, and then some.

Johnson was ever-active with his hands and solid with his positioning/timing while making the requisite backline rotations (via helping the helper, tagging rollers, as well as closing out and recovering, needed for the Suns defensive base to remain efficient.

Johnson was also enjoying career-best levels of success holding up against switches, and as an isolation defender.

He was tasked with defending 1.4 possessions in isolation per game, and his frequency of 16.9% ranks second to only Nic Claxon of the Brooklyn Nets.

Now, the Nets are one of the more switch-heavy teams in the NBA, so his volume is a by-product of the system more than match-up hunting by opponents.

In Johnson’s case, oftentimes he was sought after by opposing scorers. To, Johnson was up to the task, posting points allowed per possession mark of 0.73, good for fifth amongst players defending as many possessions as him. Ranking in the 83rd percentile, per NBA Stats.

For reference, Dean Wade of the Cavaliers had received much praise earlier this season for his defensive infusion in Cleveland. He’s defended isolations at the same frequency and has a “PPP” of 0.67.

Johnson proved to be well-rounded in the games he has played this season. A slow ramp-up is expected, nonetheless, his dynamic in spacing - in transition, one pass away, or on the second side - and as a weapon offensively, combined with the viability as a defender (which was vastly underrated), will be a very refreshing addition to a group that’s had it rough.

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