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Stephen’s Video Breakdown: Suns standouts from Thursday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers

A dive into the film on the Suns turning a collective corner in their two-way process, against Portland.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Game three of the Phoenix Suns preseason jam-packed plenty to analyze, even without the likes of Beal, Allen, Eubanks, or Okogie. The Suns posted first-half scoring totals of 37 in the first quarter (142.3), and 39 in the second (144.4), making for a first-half offensive rating of 143.1.

Defensively, they registered a rating of 103.8 in that half, and specifically in the second quarter, 55.6.

For reference, last season’s best defensive rating went to the Cleveland Cavaliers, at 109.9. If the Suns were to have sustained their first-half mark on a season-long run, it would equate to the best defensive rating mark since the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks (102.5).

Let’s dive into a few things that caught my attention.

1.) Nurkic Involvement

Having a dynamic frontcourt piece with a skill set that complements everything presented by the top-end pieces of your roster is awesome.

How you go about featuring him, to piece together with the others in meshing dynamics into a connected puzzle determines just how effective — and hard to figure out — your offense truly becomes. There is an abundance of positive residual effects that stem from blending in the uniqueness of Nurkic to your offensive process.

Take his cuts to the basket, for instance:

These serve as pick-and-roll-adjacent type plays, as his ability to screen, doing so effectively, and the guard dynamics combine to enable access downhill — which ultimately attracts attention from his match-up, in support.

Meanwhile, he is slightly behind that progression downhill, as he transitions from screener to cutter.

Or, take his traditional rolls to the cup:

Or the value he can provide at times, as a spacer, to shoot:

Then the ability to be a playmaker off-script:

With the plethora of roles he can toggle over 48 minutes, featuring him should never be an issue.

Sequencing his screen setting, post-up ability, handoff hub-ability, short-roll playmaking, and value provided as a spacer enable him unique opportunities to impact offensive flow

When sequenced and featured in a blend adequately, you unveil a myriad of advantages to manipulate — all independent of the inherent spacing (and ways they can space) conflicts they present.

Those, then, get you opportunities like here:

He’s perfectly positioned to optimize the center position for the Suns and is also perfectly positioned to have his specific skill sets optimized, and featured appropriately. That all leads to him having his complementary skill set, ultimately, be what puts the dagger in possessions, one way or another like here.

It is still early, but there are corners being turned with their offensive process, and how players are being featured, plus, how actions are being sequenced — to optimize their arsenal.

2.) Ironing Out Defensive Kinks

Sans Josh Okogie, the Suns were tasked with guarding a dynamic group of Blazers guards (Henderson, Simons, Brogdon) on Thursday. It was fun to see the manners in which they decided to do so, giving an idea as to the level of ability + Vogel’s mindset as he gathers film on their efforts in execution.

In Okogie, it feels as though he is given more free reign to hound initiators of offense. Whereas with others, it feels as though the Suns are being a bit more directional with influencing opposing ball handlers, funneling them to specific areas of the court — in a dictating manner.

This could have been specific to this game against Portland, however, it feels like a solid hint at something that will be featured in the base of their defensive process.

You can see immediately that Nassir Little, starting in place of Josh Okogie, is insisting that Henderson stays towards the outer third of the floor, and down towards the corner/baseline area.

This coverage is known as “Ice,” or “Down,” or “Blue.” The scheme is successful, but its execution in it is lacking. Little needs more pressure on the ball here, as you can see Henderson comfortably progress into a mildly contested floater, in rhythm.

If Little attaches himself to his hip in applying ball pressure, to dictate more, the execution is then taken care of.

I’ve spoken about there being a level of scheme versatility that Vogel and company can blend into the Suns defensive process — in efforts to dictate with Nurkic.

We see just that, here.

Firstly, Booker does an excellent job getting into the hip of Simons. He crowds his airspace, then pushes this catch as close to the half-court line as possible. That is then followed by great screen navigation, plus Nurkic up at the level of the screen and putting two to the ball, to speed up Simons and for Ayton to create on the short-roll.

Again, the scheme is successful, but the execution in it is lacking here.

Aggressive on-ball defense requires rotations underneath to be early, active, and communicative. An advantage is presented with putting two on one, the chess part in it is swiftly taking it away. Ayton has a beeline to the cup on this roll, undeterred.

The rotation is missed by Gordon.

As he sees Nurkic stepping up to the level, it is his responsibility in their system, as the lowman, to pre-rotate to the nail and jam the roller.

We see the famine on the possession before, then the feast, in accountability and adaptability on the fly, by the Suns.

The very next possession, Portland goes right back to the same action, with everyone stationed in the same spots. This allows the Suns a chance to correct their errors in real time, and they do just that. Booker, again, pushes the catch as far north as possible. That’s followed by good two to the ball activity by Nurkic.

The next layer, in Gordon being early with his rotation, is right on schedule, followed by Little dropping back to take the first pass from the roller. Defensive shell protected, and look at Nurkic finish the play in support of Little’s recovery from the closeout.

Next, we see the Blazers put Booker in action, using “Pistol action” for the switch, before the empty corner pick-and-roll.

Booker, however, is solid with his influence, by way of Nurkic’s “Ice” communication, then Nurkic is great in his phase of the coverage. Takes away the drive then slides over for a perfect contest on Ayton’s middy.

Now, it’s Durant’s turn to apply pressure to the ball in “Ice”.

He does a very good job navigating the initial screen, keeping play towards the corner — where Nurkic is — then corralling the ball to the corner. From there, Nassir Little is then peeled in with good timing to jam the roller, in covering up for Nurkic.

Booker is then in perfect position as he zones up on the second side. His responsibility here is to first, drop below the level of the ball, while also taking away the angle for the corner skip pass, then rotate the first pass out — which buys time for Little to rotate to the other player.

This rotation is known as an x-out, as the player’s rotations form an x shape as they recover.

A low pass from Ayton aids them, but the rotations are sharp and faster than the ball movement of the Blazers, as Booker is great on his close, recover, and contain, absorbing contact. Then Gordon finishes it with a solid contest.

Very solid defensive play.

Here, there are a few players at fault.

Firstly, credit Portland for operating quickly to burn the coverage. However, more ball pressure is needed at the point of attack from Booker (This is where Okogie is most valued.) Nurkic also has to be better with the intent to dictate.

Behind that, and even more, if two-to-the-ball is indeed the coverage they’re in on this rep (which it seems so), Durant (the lowman) has to be up early in his pre-rotation to the nail area. None of these things occur, and the result is a foul from Little as the coverage is blown. You can see Durant confirming from the sideline whether that is on him, or not, after the foul.

This is why these reps are important, and having guys play in preseason matters. Practice reps are one thing, the live game reps against other teams are the most important.

Great screen navigation here from Durant. Influences to weak hand then flows through as Brogdon snakes, to evade the corral part of their “Ice” coverage. Durant, however, is so attached, that Nurkic doesn’t even have to react here.

The shell is intact, and that’s followed by Gordon being up the line in denial, for the steal.

We see a great test of their connectedness defending when things go off-script.

Durant’s caught off guard by the switch with Booker here, pinning him behind as the Simons flow upward off staggers. That forces an emergency switch, as now Nurkic is on Simons at the top of the key with 17 seconds on the clock.

Look at how they navigate the mismatch with defensive decision-making on display.

Gordon flies up from the corner, essentially serving as a “kick-out” switch, to both remove Nurkic from that mismatch and dictate to the offense. That triggers a triple switch, as Durant takes Gordon's initial matchup, and Booker scrambles out to the last remaining offensive threat.

Then, contains in isolation with great support on “stunts” from both Gordon and Little. This is a great hint at where they are in terms of chemistry and problem-solving as a group — mind you, this isn’t even the deemed starting unit.

Lastly, another hint at where they are plus a nod to players' chemistry with each other.

Little things like here, and what we saw in the prior clip, plus being directional and active at the point of attack see how the Suns can effectively insulate Nurkic defensively.

It’s not all scheme, and not all activity around him, or efforts from him — rather a happy blend of all three — on consistency, that’ll just how effective their defense ultimate is in this new rendition.

Defense in the NBA is not always “black and white.” Context always has to be applied, and, when in that context, there are the factors of player dynamics, game flow, “hot hands,” and so much more, it ultimately comes down to which teams can best problem solve — on the fly — and in respect to their defensive principles.

Finding ways to keep yourself from simply reacting defensively is paramount in the defensive decision-making process, and the more reps this team has doing so, the better.

There will be plenty to gauge with the Suns on that end moving forward, but Thursday at Portland certainly showed plenty of positives and adjusting to mistakes in real-time as well.

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