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Stephen’s Study: Pick-and-roll defense struggles as the Suns struggle to solve the Wolves

Wolves electric guard tandem proves too much for Suns on the road

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns succumbed to the rigors of operating as - much - less than whole, in last night’s 116-121 road loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. This time, unique from many of the losses in this window, was at the hands of a lack of execution defensively. Scoring 116 points would win north of 50% of your games with even average defensive production. The struggles on that end are largely what saw them come up short.

1.) Woeful pick-and-roll defense

The Wolves pose a unique meshing of dynamics in pick-and-roll. There’s arguably the best big in terms of roll gravity (the reaction from a defense that’s requisite to defend against, tugging at defensive strings) with Rudy Gobert. Then, they also have an explosive Anthony Edwards who’s grown as a shooter off the dribble, and a smart yet also explosive and crafty D’Angelo Russell.

You’d love to go under their screens, not just to keep the guards out of the paint, but to also chip Gobert on his roll to the basket.

That, however, isn’t an option the way both Edwards (33%) and Russell (35.3%) can shoot from range off the dribble. Which, therein, lies one issue the Suns had defensively.

There were multiple instances, while the Suns were in their base defense of drop coverage, was exploited. It came via trouble from the drop defender (oftentimes, Ayton) struggling to recognize when to help and contest in the mid-range, vs when to stay back and not overhelp.

There were also struggles from two-guard Duane Washington Jr. and 10-day signee Saben Lee, who both struggled with discernment in either fighting over (to which some can be credited to Gobert for good screening angles), or, without reasoning, deciding to duck under. That allowed for in-rhythm looks from deep for Edwards and Russell.

Those two blitzed the Suns for 17 points in the first quarter, prompting for adjustment in scheme to start the second, where Williams and company brought Landale in. He’s typically in drop but is mobile and versatile enough to flat hedge or hedge out at the level of the screen, helping to dictate (rather than read and react in drop) defensively.

This would help some, but that coverage relies on smart, timely, and prompt rotations from the back end in covering for Landale.

The Suns weren’t as up to the task as they needed to be, and the result was open looks generated by the Wolves.

They’d counter by changing the start points of their pick-and-rolls, while also allowing for others to connect and beat the defense in 4v3 behind the screen, and also three other dynamics into the fold like altering the spacing and angles of screens via emptying corners and entire sides of the floor.

The Suns would try tagging from the backside with the low man as well as the high-i defender, to little to no avail, as the Wolves did a solid job with ball movement to stress the rotations and keep the advantage.

The slow defensive start saw the Suns post a rough defensive rating of 145.8 in the first quarter. That laid the foundation for what turned out to be 101.1 points per 100 plays mark in half-court defensive efficiency, higher than both the Suns standard and average (96.3, ranking 14th).

The Wolves guards would go on to combine for 48 points and spray the defense in a multitude of ways.

2.) Damion Lee, on task (reprised)

Yet again was Damion Lee readily available, in abundance, for the Suns.

He’d register a career-high 31-points, but in an all-encompassing manner: as a moving target off-ball via screens, re-spacing, dribble-handoffs, in the paint (challenging Gobert in his drop) at the cup or with floaters, and on the second side in spotting up or attacking closeouts.

This is the blend and scoring catalog given on a nightly basis by Devin Booker that this team misses.

I spoke recently about Lee’s ability to provide a greater return in production on the investment that is his veteran minimum contract.

It’s his shooting combined with the versatility offensively, and viability as a defender, that makes him a premium role player.

He will be instrumental to the Suns winning efforts as games grow more meaningful.

Over his last three games, he’s averaging 21.3 points on 48.6/53.3/100 shooting, along with 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and is +2.3.

He’s an elite time on task-er.

3.) Bridges Coming Along

Mikal Bridges (24 points with a true shooting percentage of 80%, 6 assists good for 16 assist points) had a great blend of playmaking and scoring last night.

He’d knock down three mid-range pull-ups, which he’s hitting at a 40.6% clip now. Then, he’d also score in isolation, and in transition.

The matchup was perfect for him to regain his feel in the half court as there would be a heavy dosage of deep drop coverage he’d see, inviting the shot he knocks down most proficiently, and he took full advantage.

He’d also make great reads as an initiator of play, hitting Damion Lee, especially, off movement while initiating pick-and-roll to exploit the Wolves' defense.

He also had another solid defensive showing, per his standard.

The weight he’s had to shoulder sans so many of his running mates has been hefty and has at times left more to be desired, but he is surely coming into his own, and that’s both including and independent of just scoring.

Tip of the cap: to Craig and Okogie, yet again, for their ancillary two-way efforts.

Up Next: The Suns will have a few days off before a(nother) matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, set for Monday on Martin Luther King Day.

They’re 7-0 over the last two weeks, with their last loss coming to these Suns.

They combine the best defense (101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions played) with the fifth-ranked offense (120.1) in this window.

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