Closing games has become an early season “thing” for the Phoenix Suns through ten games. Now, of course, these are assessed with a grain of salt given the injury adversities they’ve withstood, nonetheless, they’re noteworthy trends. The Suns have not performed well in the fourth quarter of games, and it is becoming a trend.
Here are a few of their defensive rating rankings, through 10 games:
- 103.9 in Q1 (9th)
- 104.7 in Q2 (7th)
- 104.3 in H1 (6th)
- 123.7 in Q3 (25th)
- 114.3 in Q4 (15th)
- 119.0 in H2 (23rd)
Their comprehensive rating defensively stands at 111.1, slotting in at 13th in the league.
These are a very mixed bag of returns and speak to a team that knows how to set a tone and dictate early. However, it also shows that when opponents begin to adjust, and teams get deeper into their rotation’s second and third shifts, some of the Suns’ weaknesses have grown louder.
We saw some of the weaknesses that lend themselves to the second-half defense becoming a bottom-third team on efficiency shine through against the Los Angeles Lakers, on Friday. They had a defensive rating of 136.0 in the third, and trended worse into the fourth, as they registered a 143.5 rating to close.
In this one, it became a culmination of a few different things, ultimately allowing the Lakers to climb back, take the lead, and shut the door.
Start here, with a somewhat recurring theme in their drop coverage scheme over the last few games.
Drop coverage is a more conservative defensive scheme, built around keeping a pick-and-roll as a traditional 2v2 match-up. Hence, this squeezing of support from Gordon at the elbow is “overhelp,” and his general reaction time is well behind schedule.
Goodwin navigates the screen and stays attached, Eubanks is in position as well, this is just a mishap. It’s good to show an extra body to create a one-way closeout, but that closeout must be prompt — which it wasn’t here.
This got the Lakers some momentum, especially from deep.
Here, the Suns are a beat behind and disorganized in getting back in transition defense. That nets a mismatch as James scans the floor, and finds Eubanks on Reaves. From there, the Suns ultimately — not send — but concede a double, as Eubanks influences Reaves to his weak hand before Gordon comes from a pass away.
Goodwin’s on time with his rotation, but part of me feels he should be closing out on an angle, a “no corners closeout” to entice the drive into Eubanks — who lingers around the restricted area initially — rather than conceding a swing-swing pass to the corner.
Because the “no corner closeout” isn’t there, which would’ve funneled a drive into Eubanks and enabled Goodwin to peel off the drive, to the corner — keeping the shell intact — the Suns are burned with the + 1 pass, and their defensive dominos fall byway of the Lakers, while their lead shrinks to one.
Live. Ball. Turnovers. The Suns had nine in the game, and FOUR came in the fourth quarter. This plus not being quick enough in getting back enables the Lakers the best advantage, and transition play, and it becomes a 2v1 with James’ advance pass.
Lakers grab the lead, Suns are forced to call a timeout.
Now the Lakers unlock a layer of their offense, in the James-Reaves “inverted” pick-and-roll, with Reaves as the screener. Suns initially “show and recover” with Goodwin, who’s guarding Reaves. James initiates a re-screen, which then gets two to the ball — but Bates-Diop is far too off here and because the airspace isn’t closed, this is an easy pocket pass into the advantage on the roll.
That ultimately leads to a skip from the roller to a hot Reddish, because Beal had to step up as the single-side tagger.
Lakers get back to the James-Reaves inverted pick-and-roll here.
This time the Suns go switch-and-double between Goodwin and Bates-Diop.
However — as you can see via Vogel on the side exactly when he prompts Bates-Diop to come on the double — the angle taken for the double is far too friendly in respect to where James is, and where Reaves is spaced. Their domino’s again fall as the Lakers swing it from James, to Reaves, to others, and the Suns are burned backside by a Wood three.
Phoenix will need to be more aggressive in execution within the schemes being applied in these stretches.
Here, Bates-Diop is reacting to James, which you cannot do at the point of attack with him.
Initially, he’s into his hip, but the moment he takes the step back, James gets the screen and is downhill — Bates-Diop has to keep the air space closed (much easier said than done, but is the task in this moment).
The other half of the issue here is Nurkic in his drop. Angle choice, and the method of approach here all concede a driving lane for the best driver in NBA history. Nurkic has to stay much more square in his positioning and presentation in drop, firstly.
Secondly, the footwork here is not good, as, I’d you ever see a defender cross their feet over, nothing good will come of it.
Thirdly, conceding a top foot is giving too much of a clue to James where he can go, and where you cannot.
Each of these dominos falling in execution on this pick-and-roll rep undo the Suns coverage, and ultimately gets them burned. Even in a drop — after they flirted with more aggressive coverage out of the half — they have to dictate to the offense and take something away, with physicality.
More slot pick-and-roll here, this time with Reaves and Davis.
Allen does a solid job being directional at the point of the screen, keeping Reaves funneled towards the sideline. However, like in the clip above with Bates-Diop, that airspace has to also be closed.
Being directional is just ½ of dictating in this defensive context. “Steering the wheel” in remaining attached to the hip with a hand in the lane is missing here to finish off his part in the job.
Nurkic is better with his presentation here, as well as his mobility in sliding to flatten the drive — but isn’t close enough to affect Reaves pull-up at the mesh point.
Lakers go 1-4 spread pick-and-roll here, with an exit screen in the strong corner to manipulate space. That enables Reaves space to intentionally engage Durant and stretch that rotation, to manipulate the switch without the fear of hand help from anyone. On the retreat dribbles, James relocates to the elbow.
Here is where what preceded plays into the moment. There’s now an obvious mismatch, with James guarded by Allen late in the clock. Gordon doesn’t send a double because Reddish’s hits from earlier are in mind. James peaks over his shoulder on the catch, and you can even Booker is on the sideline with his arms in the air.
Nonetheless, no double comes, leaving James in his office with a mismatch 1v1 doesn’t work in your favor.
This possession speaks for itself. Not enough collective pursuit of the ball.
Though Davis was said to have been in the paint (entirely) too long here, as per the NBA, the general ball pursuit and intent on ending the defensive possession simply isn’t there. They got solid coverage in the initial pick-and-roll, as well as a solid rotation from Beal in his isolated tag and close.
Nurkic just touches James, rather than boxing out. That allows the Lakers the rebound, and we ultimately see the Lakers convert a three on their fourth attempt on goal, in one possession. As seen above, it’s urgency and attention to detail in the waning moments — and even before, as they have no problem gaining late-game leads — where they need to be better, collectively.
That, in addition to better general execution, and care with the ball on the other end, can change things. It’s not right to task Booker with solving all of this, though he very well will help in plenty that was spoken on, above.
Saw similar issues and moments recur two days later, against Oklahoma City.
Solid enough initial defense, however, you can see early stagnation on the initial switch between Durant and Eubanks, on Williams.
That is ultimately concluded with another stagnant switch, pinning two to the ball on a player whose dribble was terminated, and in the middle third of the floor — all of which are not ideal.
Holmgren is then left wide open for a top-side look, and cashes in.
I find it hard to believe the coverage on Jalen Williams, who was hot and is generally a fairly solid and troublesome scoring piece, would receive both drop coverage as well as an under — especially after how he’d performed the first three quarters (23 points on 3-4 from deep).
This lends me to believe this was supposed to be either a switch — hence, Durant ducking under — or Durant was supposed to go over.
I err on the former here, nonetheless, this is evident of a team lacking the requisite trust and chemistry needed to execute in the waning moments of a game — something not uncommon, and takes time and game reps to massage out.
This also brings me back to a tweet of mine that rings truer than true over the last week or so of play:
A consistent thing that's occured for the Suns defensively in this early portion of the season (even in the preseason) has been the "soft switch"— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) November 3, 2023
They're sometimes soft at the mesh point &, especially if there's a shooter involved from the offense, that's a rhythm look conceded
This is not exclusive to this previous stretch of games, or the closing quarters, but it does ring louder and more impactful to the trajectory of games in these moments.
Here, we see drop coverage between Goodwin and Eubanks.
We don't see a true tag from Grayson Allen, but that is the subplot.
As mentioned above, drop coverage is to keep a two players action, guarded by the two players whose matchups are directly involved.
A “late switch” is when the drop coverage big man essentially switches on to the player with the ball — in an emergency style, and the guard navigating the screen veers back into the passing lane to take over on the roller.
This takes chemistry and reps for feel with exactly when in the action — known as the mesh point — the guard should “veer back.”
Typically when the navigation is hung up, and the drop coverage player is engaged by the ball handler, that's a tell-tell that the late-switch should be triggered.
Goodwin gambles for the steal, Allen is holding to his responsibility in drop — in not conceding the three — and the Suns domino’s again fall as they're burned in the two man game.
Here, we see Eubanks in conflict again.
Now, he does a great job recovering, but we still see the hiccup between him and Goodwin in drop coverage.
That hesitation results in a semi-late closeout that is an advantage for Holmgren to attack, on the pop.
Really solid close, recover, and contest sequence from Eubanks, but he can be better in positioning, then flattening out the drive to the basket if he and Goodwin are more trusting of each other — which will come in time, with more reps.
This one’s on Allen.
As the screen navigator, he either has to be directional in influencing the ball one direction — typically encouraging to use the screen in this scenario — which is where the big man in drop is waiting to keep everything in front.
I mentioned “steering the wheel,” earlier, and that is missing here as well, as Allen should be a ton closer or into the ball handler, keeping the air space at a minimum not only to steer in dictating, but to better-navigate the eventual screen.
His coverage is soft, enabling direct access to a qualitative advantage, in Williams on the screen reject, into Nurkic downhill, and the Thunder come away with two more out of pick-and-roll.
This was one of their better reps, and it came against Gilgeous Alexander.
Firstly, we see Bates-Diop directional at the point of attack, encouraging the reject because that’s where Nurkic is — which flattens out the action as they go with a late-switch.
Bates-Diop then, upon request from Vogel, comes in the switch-and-double, triggering rotations from the other Suns backside.
Goodwin is on time with his rotation, Beal is excellent tagging the cutter (very smart cut from Isaiah Joe) and recovering to Giddy in the corner.
The defensive shell remains intact as they flatten out action by way of dictating and being in sync, and Beal finishes the possession with active hands late in the clock, and wins the possession.
The template is here, not sitting back and reacting to what the offense is doing, but rather dictating to them — not fully aggressively, but applying timely pressure and taking at least something away from the offense.
Lastly, we see the Suns with issues closing the possession.
They’re 23rd in opponents rebounding in fourth quarters, indicative of a need for more collective pursuit of the ball.
You can see all Suns with a matchup, make contact, however, Beal loses his leverage, and Allen isn’t aggressive enough in his free pursuit — on a “got to have it” possession nonetheless.
Full disclosure, the Thunder didn't score here, but they bled away precious seconds from the clock as the Suns comeback efforts were essentially stalled as a result.
Finding lineups that are cohesive in moments shown above, where more stingy defense at the point of attack is important, but the execution, generally, trumps all here.
They’re missing an identity in the waning moments, and that’s what renders them to these mixed bag-ish results that see them “leaving the backdoor open” after garnering late-game leads.
The lack of execution in pick-and-roll defensively makes plenty of noise late.
They’re conceding the sixth most points out of pick-and-roll to opponents per game (37.3), and opponents are scoring at the 11th highest rate on them in this context as well (44.6% of the time — per Synergy.
Moments similar to these have occurred in the past with late-game leads that have slipped through their hands, and are a sign of where they are, versus where they could be.
In all, establishing identity and roles, on both ends of the floor, will come as their best players return to the lineup looms, however, they cannot be this dependent on Booker's efforts.
They need their role players to nail the marginal effort areas (screen navigation, defensive activity, rebounding, finishing layups, screening, etc.) in accordance to their role, and the stars to execute offensively — all of which will come in time.
No need for the panic button to be mashed, but there is credence to desiring more from a team with championship aspirations, even if not whole at the moment.