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Stephen’s Study: Two mainstays infuse Suns with much-needed offense

Tuesday’s 128-97 win over Charlotte was yet another step in the right direction for Phoenix

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

A hot start that saw Cam Johnson go perfect from the floor (16 points, 4-4 from 3) felt as if it were a reminder of just how prolific this Phoenix Suns team can be. It was combined with a staunch and stout defensive effort, with the Suns allowing just 15 points in the opening frame. A Charlotte run plus some zone defense stifled the Suns in the second, but they’d rebound and get one final push, finishing with a comfortable vs the Hornets.

Let’s break down some of the highlights you might not have noticed from the game.

1.) Playing off of Doubles

This season, a point of emphasis for the Suns has been the growth of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson, independent of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

However, another underlying dynamic was the operation of the team off of double teams or general extra attention is given to Booker and Paul - operating sans those two against playoff-style defenses - without losing their halfcourt flow. You know, like what happened in the playoff series against the Mavericks.

The Suns have two players that serve as an advantage on the floor just by being present, so it’s imperative to see their “others” not only recognize the advantage presented by opposing defensive schemes and tactics in real-time, but also how to play within and add to said advantage, to exploit in a sustainable manner.

Tuesday, Johnson got off to a hot start. However, how he was enabled and empowered to do so, was the key.

The Hornets were conceding extra attention to Paul on the outer thirds of the floor, and past the two closest defenders, even rotating the next two closest defenders past the help line (an imaginary line that splits the court in half, running from rim to rim) to neutralize Pauls prolific pick-and-roll play, and force others to make plays.

Paul, in trust of his teammates and their growths, would oblige and would stretch the Hornets defense time and time again, making their defensive domino’s fall with rotation stressing passes while also empowering teammates to connect within the advantage.

This was yet another compilation of invaluable reps under their belts this season. However, they uniquely came sans Devin Booker, which added slightly more value to them.

The Suns scored 36 points to open this one (shooting 60% from the field and 66.7% from deep), and had an offensive rating of 144.0, setting the tone with their offense early in this one

2.) Sustained Defensive Activity

Over this four-game win streak, the Suns have *really* tightened up their defense.

I mentioned recently, prior to Johnson and Paul returning, that even amidst the losses (much more a result of a lack of offense at the time) their defense had remained as solid as it had been all season. For the month of January (12 games), the Suns have posted the league’s 3rd best defense at 110.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s improved to 102.9 per 100 over the last four games.

A team is at its most optimal when you can see and feel them playing off of their efforts on one end, to the other. Then in a continuum and flow that results in double-digit leads.

The Suns saw some of that in the first quarter, with a 60.0 defensive rating, then in the second half, allowing just 50 points and registering a defensive rating of 94.3.

“In the second half when you hold a team to 50 points, that does give you some comfort,” said Coach Williams.

“I loved our defensive intensity to start the game to set the tone for us. Then in the second half we picked it back up. I told the guys we need to get stops to keep them out of the zone. Even if we are playing against a zone, we still have to keep the pace up. Pace doesn’t necessarily mean transition, we can still play with pace in the half court. That is our DNA, and I thought we did a much better job in the second half and it gave us a bit of a cushion.”

They were in a space where they compiled multiple efforts and played in a disciplined manner, to where efforts grew contagious and undeniable.

This is the flow you want to operate in, regardless of the opponent.

To that, they’ve had the best defense in the NBA over this win streak.

The defense has been the driving force, which is just what you want. Can’t always control the efficiencies on shots, but your defensive execution is nearly always in your control.

They truly stamped these efforts on the glass, where defensive stops are finished, ending this one +15 there.

3.) Ball Movement

Lost in the pyrotechnics of Booker’s scoring, Paul’s individual playmaking brilliance, and the shot creation growths from Ayton, Bridges, and Johnson, is the foundation of this team’s ability to stress a defense with passing.

I mentioned Paul pulling all the strings early in this one, helping to set a tone.

That would empower others to do the same, and they’d perfectly blend player movement with ball movement, and compile 38 assists.

That mark ties a season-high, and they’d set a new season-high in team assist points, compiling 97.

“We scored 70 (in the second half), the ball movement tonight obviously when you get 37 assists (stat adjusted to 38 postgame) you have to make some shots; we did that tonight,” mentioned Coach Williams.

An assist percentage of 80.9 is a clear indication that, even without a few other important pieces in the rotation, the team is turning a corner offensively and operating closer to that elite frequency that has made their offensive harmony arguably the best in the NBA the two seasons prior.

It’s resurfacing.

Tip of the cap:

· Dario Saric: 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists (and multiple passes that should’ve ended in a score). Saric has been moving much better on both ends of the floor, and with that has surfaced an activity level that’s made him more playable and more effective even more. A positive sign as, in their present state, he may be the most reliable frontcourt piece behind Ayton.

· Bismack Biyombo: 5 blocks in the first half. He just continues to be a positive on the defensive end in protecting the rim and raising the energy and activity levels on that side of the ball. He’s averaging 2.4 blocks per game over the last five games, and as a starter this season (8-1 by the way), he's at 2.4 per. On the season, per 36 minutes, he's at a career-best 3.5.

· Jock Landale: 15 points, 3 assists. He’s quietly compiled effective minutes over the last three games, with three consecutive double-figure marks in scoring. He’s averaging 12.3 points on 51.7/44.4/100 shooting, with 6.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in this stretch, as a +9.

Up Next: The 25-24 Dallas Mavericks come through The Footprint Center, as 5th best offense in the league this season.

Over the last two weeks, however, their offense is ranked 11th (118.4) and the defense is bottom third, at 27th (123.4). They’re 2-5 in this window of play.

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