The Phoenix Suns were in desperate need of a desperate entering their game against the Timberwolves. The team was 4-6 and pitted against the team with the top defense in the Association. After battling KAT and Anthony Edwards, Phoenix came out on top with a 133-115 victory.
The Suns are 5-6 with a 12th-ranked Net Rating of 1.6. Here’s a bit of what stood out to me against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
1.) Prolific Pick-and-Roll Play
Devin Booker (1.143) and Kevin Durant (1.112) are both elite pieces in pick-and-roll play, placing top-10 in PPP (points per possession) for players averaging north of eight possessions in that offensive context (including passes), per game.
They’re the only team with multiple ball handlers to rank in the top-22 — 6th and 9th respectively.
Even more, with the same threshold applied on volume per game, Booker initiating generates a 1.27 PPS (Points Per Shot) mark which is T-4, and Durant generates 1.18 PPS which is good for 11th.
In terms of advantage-creating actions, these two handling in a multitude of pick-and-roll contexts garners the attention of all five defenders on the floor. Devin Booker’s averaging 24.0 PPG out of pick-and-rolls including passes, ranking third and only behind Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball — two of the four players who out-volume and generally spend more time in that context than him.
The Timberwolves — with the league’s best defense in the half-court (rating of 88.6) and in general (rating of 105.7) in non-garbage time minutes, and 3rd best pick-and-roll defense (0.873 PPP) — mixed up their looks against these two.
The Suns took full advantage of the qualitative advantage in having those two putting Gobert and Towns in compromising situations — forcing their hand in more aggressive coverage. Phoenix (averaging 1.009 PPP on the season) would compile a 1.378 on the game in their pick-and-roll attack as a team. They scored their most possessions in the half-court (110) on the season in this one, as well as In 1.341 PPP there, an astronomical mark.
Booker was in full-fledged scoring mode in this one, seemingly scratching the itch that missing five games would create. His processing speed in pick-and-roll is something I’ve spoken on quite a bit both recently and over the last two seasons.
The way he’s probing off feel and marrying that with his passing abilities is taking his pick-and-roll effectiveness to new heights.
Sometimes, however, processing is knowing that you are the advantage and that the defense needs to sort through how to deal with you — rather than always figuring out how to deal with the defense. In alignment there, his downhill ability and the dogged mindset he has when turning corners are of some of the highest value any individual brings to this Suns team.
He’s at 76.5% at the cup this season, on 17 attempts, and when he blends these into his attacks process, it opens up another compromising layer to the Suns half-court offense.
In regards to Durant, the pocket where the Suns closed the third quarter 15-6 stood out to me, as he led the show.
Defense commits two with an over plus — with the Timberwolves stashing Milton on Eubanks for the versatility — and Durant gets off it quick into the short-roll advantage, where Eubanks and Okogie click for a great basket cut from the 45 as the defense rotates.
Sidenote: this is Okogie, who was 2-2 from three at that point from deep, playing smart within the advantage. Great cut to a finish.
Sensational job with control, playing off two, and the cagey/alluring pump fake into a reverse finish — this is short-roll adjacent for him here and I just want to say, again, there’s value having him as the screener and getting downhill or into short-roll contexts, especially if you space Nurkic or use Okogie as your offensive center in small ball.
Back pocketing that stanza above for future reference.
Timberwolves switch the coverage up here, and see now in “show and recover,” on the outer third of the floor and following the Pistol screen from Allen.
(More Pistol actions in their early offense, please!)
Nonetheless, the Suns are in the perfect action to exploit, as Allen flows into the flare screen and Durant gets off it quickly, for a wide open topside three.
Here is a drop with Karl Anthony-Towns, a no-no against Durant.
After Durant pins you to his hip — it operates as a fatality of sorts, Mortal Kombat-style — as he gets into that patented rhythm dribble around the elbow — intentionally knocking the rear contest from Milton back like a jab into the shot, mind you, with also another contest from Anderson on his right.
Durant is able to net this one with seeming ease.
The man is inevitable, don’t take him and his abilities for granted.
Here, we see yet another different coverage cycled through. It’s soft two to the ball, and notice Eubanks use his eyes to move the sink defender.
All of which creates space for Watanabe on the catch-and-shoot, where he’s optimized at 38.6%.
Now we see switching from the Timberwolves, and the Suns solve the Rubik’s cube defensive scheme changing yet again.
Anderson on Eubanks makes his screen a switch, and Anderson is a fine defender.
So, to make things easier, the Suns take the switching, and raise it one more, with Okogie on a “hunt” screen, as Naz Reid becomes the “pigeon” or “Waldo” that the Suns process through to find — i.e. the preferred match-up to either attack or put in action and make, make decisions.
Good on Okogie to truly set the screen, and Durant’s enabled free access topside in isolation with 14 seconds on the shot clock.
Lastly, given the context provided with switching above, we see Durant receive another “hunt” screen from Okogie to enable access to Reid 1v1 — advantage Durant, as he manipulates the eventual top foot access, into the middy.
The pick-and-roll is and will be an important layer of the Suns general offensive process in this rendition, with Booker and Durant leading the show.
Processing through these scenarios well and continuing to dictate through that, optimizes their entire offense.
2.) Punctual Pace
Phoenix had an emphasis on pace in this one, and getting looks early in the shot clock — regardless of a make or miss from Minnesota. This is an entity I’ve also asked for/been hoping to see. The early offense looks this team should be able to generate, before defenses are fully set, is a pocket of advantage that the shooters they’ve compiled can be optimized in.
That, plus their drivers having ample lanes to choose from in their attack — free of any support or help.
Notice here off the inbound, how Booker peaks ahead to entice Gordon for this hit-ahead.
Then notice how much space Gordon is enabled, as the Suns up the pace.
Gordon gets a 1v1 and finishes with 18 seconds remaining on the clock, all before Gobert can get into the play.
Gordon has a chance at Towns again here, with Towns slow to match up. Suns get yet another paint touch with 18 seconds on the clock. Gobert’s back this time, but now the Suns are in “paint to great,” and Gordon’s drive (which I’ve emphasized all season) sets the advantage — serving as a vacuum to the defense.
The ball kicks around to Durant who’s free to attack for a deep 7-footer vs 7-footer floater.
This layer of the Suns offense is truly a weapon and should be used much more moving forward.
After a make here, look at Allen’s body language prior to the inbound, encouraging a lead pass — like a baton exchange in track — to start the relay.
Reid is slow getting back as well as 3 of the other Timberwolves, and look at Allen in the advantage with his drives (whose I’ve also emphasized as a weapon) with a professional drive — seeking legal contact, and optimizing leverage on the curved angle — to move furniture into the and one.
Here off the miss, look at Allen’s hit-ahead to Durant, and what the Durant gravity pulls in.
The defense again isn’t set, and Durant’s able to attack an unbalanced defense and draw a foul.
It was clearly spoken on here to watch for their outer third advance passes at this point in the game. Anthony Edwards is up on the sideline “laying in the weeds” and forces Gordon to double clutch.
Ultimately hits the next window and now it’s a 2v1 ahead of the defense.
Conley is solid but unbalanced again, Allen does a great job into the skip, and again, because of the pace into offense, look who benefits yet again from this layer of attack. This is how you break the “ice” and counter a stingy and physical half-court like Chris Finch’s — mitigating how often you allow for them to be set and in their defensive base.
Seeing them emphasize this, especially with the absence of rim running, serves as adjacent to that in creating pace and early offense advantages to play in directly, or play from as the defense rotates in panic.
3.) Defensive Occurrences
The connectivity of the Suns in communication was something I zoomed in on early this week, stemming from the weekend’s two-game sample.
It entailed a lack of communication/trust in search of identity. Here, we see a one-possession flash of what they can get to, as they rep out the Cobb webs in connectedness.
Little communication moments like here were compiled yesterday from the Suns defensively— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) November 16, 2023
IQ + awareness & understanding a scout combine to initially win a possession, defensively, ATO
A quick sound on pic.twitter.com/ImZkiJpLl6
Next is a little thing, but something I've noted for some time and also stems from the switching issues we saw in my piece regarding the Suns closing woes:
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 subtlety in Durant’s defensive position is a major positive in this scenario:
This’ll surely be valuable against the Jazz tonight, as they get into plenty of ghosting and slipping of screens — which take advantage of the mesh point of switches not being connected.
Also, on Durant, the value his secondary rim protection provides cannot be overstated:
Having a 7’0 “lowman” with a 7’6 wingspan, whenever Nurkic/Eubanks are engaged in an empty pick-and-roll like here is almost a cheat code.
Durant matches Gobert’s timing of the jump, as well as height and length, to get this stop.
This is a layer of defense the Suns can and should lean more heavily into, as spoken on in the defensive piece above regarding having a reliable late-game counter punch to throw at teams. If the Suns are aggressive defensively late, Durant can provide a layer of rim protection via blocks, like here, and taking charges — which he’s shown he’s more than willing to do with early rotation.
Lastly, Josh Okogie’s defensive movement patterns are something to marvel at at times.
He’s an A+ athlete in multiple defensive scenarios, and the ways he counters offensive movements can be alluring on film.
Notice how he toggles roles and contexts here: his screen navigation off-ball flattens out the Edwards catch.
Then, he’s early in support to deter the middle from a Conley-Gobert pick-and-roll.
Finally, because he’s done his support work early, he’s now in a one-way closeout (no advantage created) to Edwards on the kickout, and he’s even a step ahead of him as they dance into the Edwards contested pull-up.
Also, he has these moments where he’s defending on roller skates, to avoid contact initiation from offensive players.
This equates to Chris Paul “pulling the chair” in the post in anticipation of an aggressive backdown (who has also done so against dribblers when they attack against him).
I’m not sure if Okogie got this from Chris Paul or already had it in his bag, but these movement patterns play to his advantage quite often — and I’ll surely be asking him about them next time I have the chance.