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Stephen’s Study: Stagnant Offense, Defensive Lapses, and a Familiar Weakness Recur

Near listless start sees the Suns too far behind to climb back against the Knicks

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A lackluster showing from the Phoenix Suns, starting with an ice-cold shooting display that they then allowed to impact their defensive connectivity, was at the root of their 83-102 loss on Monday to the New York Knicks.

1.) Stagnant Offense

The Suns started out Monday’s loss with a good process, getting into their continuity sets with their ball and player movement blended, and the premise of touches around the paint for Deandre Ayton (6 points on as many shots in the first).

As a team, however, they’d register a season-low in points in a quarter, with just 11. That 11 would come via frigid 22.7% from the field.

They’d pick it up as they went, and would even win both quarters in the second half, but when you lose both opening quarters, by 12 and 11 respectfully, just winning the ensuing quarters isn’t nearly enough.

“The frustration comes in for us because we’ve been a team that can overcome that when we are not shooting the ball well. Mentally and emotionally, I have to get our guys stronger. We haven’t been able to handle those kinds of lapses this year.”

Spending 84.5% of your offensive possessions in the half-court, against a set defense, especially when you’re struggling to run sets crisply and generate good looks, is far from ideal.

This would result in their fourth worst offensive showing per 100 possessions, of 96.5.

They’d also not shoot a single free throw, and the Knicks wouldn’t register a single foul either, pinpointing the lack of aggression collectively from the Suns as they wouldn’t put any Knicks defenders in situations where they were forced to communicate, forced to rotate, or forced to wall off paint threats.

The Suns would also have a single attempt at the rim.

2.) Defensive Lapses

The Suns defensive efforts in the second quarter were bad, and the Knicks scored 31 points, via 16 from Jalen Brunson (5-6 from the field, 2-2 from 3).

That would be where the essential stamping on the game would come, as the Suns really lost their feel, and that in turn kept them in the half-court offensively, as they took the ball out of the net over and over.

Half to full step late rotations, lacking hand activity, lapses in discipline to both the game plan and the individual scouting report, lacking communication. These things were all ever-present, especially early on.

The mentally tough teams do not let one side of the ball have any sort of impact on the flow and connectivity of their efforts on the other side.

Phoenix has had bouts with lacking production on one side, or the other, numerous times over the last two seasons and some change. I’m not sure we’ve seen these lapses occur with the regularity we’ve seen through December and to the start of 2023.

3.) Familiar Weakness Recurs

I mentioned recently that the Suns have bouts when an opposing frontcourt has size as well as physical bodies, particularly when it’s in the starting lineup.

That reared its ugly head again yesterday, against the blend of physicality and athleticism that Julius Randle (28 points on 18 shots, 16 rebounds, 4 makes from 3, 10-12 from the line), and Mitchell Robinson (10 points on 5-7 at the rim, 10 rebounds) presented.

In their current rendition (sans Cameron Johnson, whose return is imminent, as well as Devin Booker), the Suns have slight spacing issues, especially if a team decides to pack the paint, playing heaving blocks and elbows.

Torrey Craig, having a career-best season from deep (39.2%), however, we’ve seen teams help off of him, and that’s just what Julius Randle did yesterday, opting to do (very) late contests on his shot attempts.

Not being able to stretch a defense, as a counter to their physicality, is an issue. It’s exacerbated when no other Suns frontcourt piece can space the floor in a viable manner. Neither Ayton (36.8% on less than an attempt), Landale (20.5%), Saric (31.3%), nor Biyombo (n/a) can pull defenders off the porch.

Point is, the Suns are hamstrung by not being able to counter with spacing, or small ball, due to a severe lack of optionality in the frontcourt.

As a result, Monty Williams has reluctantly gone to double-big renditions that compromise what little spacing the Suns have had, while also rendering them vulnerable defensively, as they lose their versatility defensively, in the process.

If physicality, to that extent, isn’t going to be addressed in roster construction (obviously in favor of spacing and then versatility defensively), the counter to have is a small ball option.

That’s part of my thought process in the Suns attaining a bigger modern-day forward, that can double as a small ball center option, in addition to operating in a similar manner to how Crowder did defensively - if not better - to counter these types of lineups, is imperative.

Lineup versatility of that variety, and the ability to stay in a position of dictating or always having a counter (especially in Ayton off minutes come postseason play), will need to be addressed as much as adding a bigger scorer/creator to this team.

Yesterday, as well as games against the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Celtics, and Pelicans, have emphasized that of late.

Up Next: The finale of this six-game road trip where they’ve gone 1-4, will see them matchup with a Cleveland Cavaliers team that just swept a home-and-home slate with the Chicago Bulls.

They’ve gone 3-3 over the last two weeks, with the 10th-ranked offense (119.4/100 possessions), and the 28th-ranked defense (121.0/100 possessions), in this window.

Sidenote: if you’ve yet to see the 71-point performance from Donovan Mitchell, it’d be a fun performance to tune into prior to Wednesday’s matchup against Mitchell and the Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Field House.

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