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Stephen’s Study: “Ice” broken in defensive scheme, optimizing Nurkic, and good Goodwin

The Suns return home, after a solid three-game road trip, but have things to focus on defensively, even amidst the bright spot developments.

Phoenix Suns v Toronto Raptors Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns lost a scrappy battle with the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, 105-112, ending their win streak at seven straight. It was rather interesting to see the stark contrast in activity at the forefront, the climax, and the conclusion of the game.

The Raptors had travel issues and headed back home, immediately following a Tuesday night 103-115 road loss to the Brooklyn Nets. As the Suns started to compile the efforts that netted them an impressive win streak, they found themselves fighting uphill essentially the rest of the game.

Credit Toronto for their sustained level of execution on both ends of the floor, as they certainly were the better team from start to finish in this one. The Suns were simply late to the party, and ultimately found it too much to climb the hill and remain in the driver’s position.

Especially on a winning streak, and even more so on the road, that final game before heading back home often serves as a barometer for where you are as a team, as inevitable adversities to test resolve often persist.

Let’s dive into some of what caught my attention in this one.

1.) Pick-and-roll Lapses, in “Ice,” and “Weak”

The connected defensive activity and efforts I’d lauded the Suns for before this one failed to sustain against Toronto, and we’re a large part of why they weren’t able to climb past knocking on the door of this one down the stretch.

The Raptors are a bottom-third offense in the half-court, with a rating of 91.1 on the season. They’d register a mark of 100.0 in this one. Toronto also had a point-per-possession mark of 1.188 last night, an elite level of effectiveness.

On the season, they’ve been a below-average pick-and-roll attack, at 0.945 PPP. They also couple that, with a bottom-third rank in points per shot generated from possessions where a pick-and-roll occurs, of 0.99.

Who they have as positives in their pick-and-roll attack are Dennis Schroeder — a shifty and downhill, fleet-footed guard, and Jakob Poeltl — a skilled center with short-roll prowess to score or playmaker from, with a soft touch as well. They also have Scottie Barnes who’s grown plenty in pacing and processing initiating pick-and-roll play.

The context around them, in terms of spacing and abilities to hit shots, isn’t the best, which is where many of the issues for their team persist.

Staying connected at the point of attack and limiting space for Schroeder, then being up on Poeltl to jam his short-roll reps, was the aim.

Let’s look at the film from a few of their second-half reps.

This is the distinct difference between “sending” and “influencing.”

Sending is more aligned with conceding to a space where there should be supported defensively. Influencing is a whole lot more dictated, and is like “steering the wheel,” with more control over where action is headed.

The sending of Schroeder, a right-handed player, to his right hand and into space is the casualty on this rep.

If Goodwin had gotten more into his hip and closed that air space, the pocket pass and pace at which he’s moving into the advantage would’ve been as impactful as the Suns are in “ice” coverage.

Different contexts on this rep, but the result is more favorable because of the connectedness from Goodwin here.

Back in “Ice” again, influencing towards the near sideline and away from the paint, we see Goodwin close enough as Trent Jr. raises into the pull-up. Aided some by the corner being occupied this time on the strong side, nonetheless, this rep is better at taking away space.

This reps similar to the one above.

Okogie is steering the wheel well at the point of attack, into the air space of Siakam on command of the “Weak” call. We, however, see the Suns’ chemistry hit a snag here as they build reps. Nurkic, in a drop-ish role with “weak” coverage, sees another solid screen set from Poeltl.

Okogie navigates well, but Nurkic wants to keep Siakam from getting downhill. To flatten action, he steps up and shows/flat hedges, to buy time for Okogie to get back into the play.

Okogie thinks it’s a late switch, though, and the hiccup at the mesh point renders an opportunity for Siakam to ultimately drive left for two.

Late-switch between Booker and Eubanks as Toronto goes “Zoom/Chicago,” and we see some tardiness in the communication on the fly.

That results in a pocket in the mesh point for a mildly contested two, for Trent Jr.

These are the hiccups they ironed out for some time following the skid against the Lakers and Thunder, returning in spurts in this game.

Toronto goes “Pistol” on this one, and the touch on the step-up screen causes confusion between Metu and Bates-Diop.

Both drop back near the paint, and, though this is a shot they’d typically concede to Barnes, this context with him already in flow towards the basket isn’t necessarily ideal.

Booker, unlike on the last rep with Bates-Diop and Metu, is up on Barnes as Toronto initiates the possession.

However, where Booker goes wrong is, as he shifts to influence Barnes in “Ice,” he doesn’t A.) Close the air space, and B.) Shift his angle enough to keep him from getting to the middle.

As a result, Barnes can get middle, and the shoulder of Barnes breaks Booker’s defensive leverage, and it leads to a foul plus one.

These moments were compiled at inopportune times throughout this one, with the Suns at times relinquishing brief leads, losing traction on the comeback, or conceding scoreboard separation and momentum in the fourth.

Cleaning up these very correctable mishaps should be easy considering their positioning and attention to detail. Goodwin was the most solid at the point of attack in this one, and the Suns were positive in his minutes (+3) in large part because of that.

They’ll collectively need to rediscover that connectivity, with the prolific pick-and-roll tandems of the Nuggets, as well as with their approach for the In Season Tournament.

2.) Optimizing Nurkic is optimizing the offense

Jusuf Nurkic compiled 19 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks in just under 30 minutes of play, and was the only Suns starter in the positive, as they were +2 while he was on the floor.

They continue to feature him in positions where he’s optimized past being a consistently solid screener who’s skilled in prying guys open. He’s been connecting a bit more, of the advantages Durant and Booker present, but also off post-ups.

Even taking some of his touches to assert himself as a scorer in this one, he also enjoyed more impressive playmaking deposits, connecting with Durant on backdoor cuts as defenses elect to deny him even the slightest bit overly aggressive.

They’re continuing to iron out their kinks in chemistry, and the synergy is becoming more and more of a weapon, as is Nurkic playing off of Durant, and the Suns’ layer of offense where they play off Nurkic in playmaking scenarios.

He can pull opposing centers off the defensive porch, and out onto the floor, enabling the Suns opportunity to play at the rim with less natural rim protection on the back end, and general space to play in underneath.

Watching just how good-to-great this tandem of Nurkic and Durant can become is fascinating because of how it compromises a defense.

Think back to how prolific the Jokic-Gordon layer within the Nuggets offense is and was against the Suns in last season’s playoffs — that’s the template + even more given the skill and abilities the Suns tandem has, that they’re getting to.

The scripted look with Nurkic being the passer for Durant post touches, Nurkic screening and rolling/short-rolling/slipping and receiving passes, is one part of that layer.

The other part is the off-script looks, when in split cuts off Nurkic post/elbow touches, the play off handoffs, and Nurkic getting to dribble at’s and finding pockets to ease the scoring burden of Durant’s scoring opportunities — unlocking his elite level cutting ability — are the other parts of that layer that’ll optimize the Suns’ general attack.

It’ll get to a point where teams will look to have extra help ready for these looks (off Durant’s general gravity) and the Suns will have more open looks to get into, generating more closeouts.

3.) Goody is Good

Jordan Goodwin is enjoying a very impressive stretch of play, at s timely moment amidst injuries to Beal and Allen that’s enabled opportunity for him.

He continues to be a true piece to everything the Suns desire to do.

Defensively, 71.6% of his time has been spent on guards, and he’s conceding just 35.4% from the field.

He’s carved out the role I mentioned we’d see him in, and has added even more to his plate with how he’s added value offensively.

He’s stifling and persistent with activity at the point of attack, dogged traits that are all invaluable to the Suns need for dictative and tone-setting activity to keep the shell intact, cancel opposing initial actions, and break rhythm.

The shooting numbers and timeliness in the fourth quarter play even more and have to garner him more keep in the main rotation.They’re getting all they could ask for, and then some, from him in this window.

Up Next: The Suns return home for two games, starting with the defending champion Denver Nuggets on Friday, before their In-Season Tournament match-up with Lakers, on Tuesday.

Film Session

How have you felt about the Suns through November? Mixed bag of returns looking at the offense in comparison to the defense, but they presently sit at 11-7 — 5th in the West and have netted a spot in the In Season Tournament.

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