The Phoenix Suns are presently 8th in the Western Conference (13-10) with a net rating of 2.3 (14th). They downed the Golden State Warriors last night, winning 119-116. The last 3:36 of this one, again, saw the Suns concede a majority of their 13-point lead, as it got to the point of a one-possession game multiple times in the final 90 seconds.
That issue of shutting the door on teams following game-breaking runs (that display their potential, even without having been whole yet this season) reared its head again. Nonetheless, a game that saw them register their best half-court offensive process (108.6 per 100 possessions) since their last game, ironically also against the Warriors (11.22.23), displayed many great moments.
Among those was plenty more brilliant and efficient playmaking off an abundance of defensive attention garnered from opponents. More words to come on him potentially tomorrow, nonetheless, he’s had just five turnovers even with the hefty amount of attention garnered.
Let’s dive into some of what caught my attention…
1.) Returns on Beal’s Return
16 points on 5-for-12 from the field, including three assists and rebounds, plus a block and a steal, in 27 minutes made for a solid return to action for Bradley Beal.
I spoke prior to yesterday’s game about all things expected in Beal’s return:
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) December 12, 2023
Bradley Beal's return means a lot for the Suns:
☀️More tempo & versatility
☀️More drives (!) & space manipulation
☀️Booker off mins
His 20-point first half vs LAL in his 2nd game showed plenty, let's speak on what his return means — through the lens of this game pic.twitter.com/OrR8gieWOb
We saw plenty of the elements on display, especially in the first half, as he continues to get his legs underneath him.
In particular, it’s the movement he was consistently involved in that gives yet another glimpse at where this team can be at the surface level, with him in the lineup + Booker and Durant.
The opening set hit a snag due to debris on the floor, but they went back to it from the sideline, out of bounds.
The Suns pair “Twirl” action, where the first screen in a stagger is curled, with “Veer,” an on-ball screen immediately followed by an off-ball screen, along with Beal improvising and ghosting an off-ball screen.
Phoenix is notorious for their three-player actions that boost Booker downhill, and the Warriors are not having it early. So, as Booker pitches to Metu, then receives the hand back, and Nurkic screens (this is Zoom or Miami — a hand-off flowing into a screen), Looney is at the level to flatten Booker's progression — ultimately removing him from the “Veer” screen to come.
Now, the Beal “ghost screen” off-ball is important, because A.) The Warriors are switching, and this is how you get a reaction advantage in these scenarios and B.) A pet acton pattern in team trends across the league is for Beal to set a rip screen to a lob pass for Metu.
The Suns don’t, Beal’s ghost screen confuses two players, in Curry and Thompson, who’ve created chaos with their route running the same way, are succumbed to their own tactics, and Beal knocks down a three.
Tons of movement, as well as a great screen from Nurkic (!), all combine for an impressive set to open things.
Spacing + re-spacing + manipulation of switches, with movement = high shot quality.
ATO here, the Suns pair Chin (an up screen on the weak side) with Flex action out of Horns — enabling Beal to initiate, screen, then work off the screen he set — to manipulate space.
They layer their way into an empty corner pin-down, then Beal doesn’t fight the heat denial pressure up the line, releasing into the advantage underneath that’s enabled by their re-spacing of the floor.
This is the beauty of Nurkic having the ball, removing the center from the basket, and enabling him as the playmaker to connect into the advantage.
More of Beal initiating, as a screener, and in movement as a cutter — all with pace and a level of randomness/unpredictability.
Lastly, imagine Durant in the position of Goodwin here, as the player receiving the “Flex” screen from Beal — and the confusion that’ll ensue from there...
Pistol between him and Booker gets an emergency triple switch, and Beal plays in that advantage.
A great pass, then a drive from Metu, nets a solid shot quality in the ensuing advantage — but it’s the Beal drive, following him playing as a screener from Pistol, that kickstarts things.
Here we see the Suns go “Pistol 5” with Nurkic and Beal in the emptied side. The tempo and flow generated from the “chase” from Beal enables him to downhill gravity that serves as a vacuum to the Warriors defense, pulling all five defenders into the paint.
(Hat tip to this burn cut on the oppo 45 from Watanabe to ensure the defense collapses.)
Beal then kicks it out, and the advantage created is a closeout for Goodwin to attack, from Chris Paul. The second drive following Beal’s initial paint touch sees Goodwin's creativity net him a bucket plus one.
Again, Beal’s versatile catalog of contexts he generates drives from is truly invaluable to this team, maybe as important as his spacing, shooting, cutting, and pace of movement.
Beal’s a baseline runner here, curling an exit screen from Nurkic.
Nurkic’s brush screen does just enough to force Thompson to navigate, and Beal’s pace in momentum on the curl sends him into a layup.
This layer and dynamic, with the randomness/unpredictability factor in pace, makes Beal a unique piece and layers the abundant Suns offense.
He had 17 drives yesterday, speaking to the levels of activity he compiled, independent of just scoring and movement.
Beal’s return is a clear indicator, as mentioned in my film session, that layers of the Suns offense have yet to be unveiled, as they’re patient to get their big three all on the floor at once.
Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, it seems as though that moment will be tonight.
2.) Late Game Run
A 12-0 run mid-fourth quarter — a period where Kerr decided to keep Wiggins and Thompson off the floor — saw the Suns dig in on the defensive end, allowing sustained success on that end to springboard their offense.
In that run, Booker scored 10 of the Suns 12 points. Let’s take a look at how they stacked stops in this stretch, allowing the offensive pace to increase.
Connected switching and solid screen navigation on-ball see the Suns keep their shell intact, even amidst Warriors signature movement, into a stop.
Notice the physicality on the switches to not concede any advantages in that, as well as the communication on display — indicative that they’re, again, more than capable of hitting these defensive levels, it just needs to be sustained.
Booker then caps it off with a pull-up three in the pocket of the Warriors “Ice” coverage — threatening leverage with a drive before suddenness with the pull-up.
Side note: he’s at 42.6% from deep on 3.9 pull-up threes per game this season.
Nothing major here, but Booker being solid at the point of attack in navigating the initial screen, with Eubanks just below the level with a flat show is all solid — forces Curry off the ball and into an errand pass.
Notice the communication (!) and urgency with which this group gets back in transition defensively.
That all keeps them on schedule into another stop, and it springboards Booker into transition again — where he continues to be one of the best in the league.
Of note: 16 players average north of 5 PPG in transition per game, Booker ranks 11th in points (5.7 per), 8th in field goal percentage (60.0%), is 7th in scoring frequency (60.7%), and 6th in Points Per Possession (1.32).
Suns do a great job defending the Warriors pet “step up” and skip into “blind pig” action to get Curry downhill.
Goodwin and Eubanks are solid to get Curry off the ball, Booker peeled in early at the nail to stunt at the roller, then got into a one-way closeout because of his early rotation.
He then is on high alert and flattens out the Warriors “next” action which was Zoom, but a big-time hat tip to Metu for his defensive decision-making to help off Kuminga and aid flattening out Curry’s second drive.
That funnels the ball back to the perimeter, Suns garner another stop.
Goodwin-Eubanks are solid in “ice” against Curry.
Suns concede the offensive rebound, but look at Goodwin's extra efforts lead to a Booker flashy finish.
Of note: Goodwin is 10th in loose ball recoveries per 48 minutes, with 1.9. He’s also 6th in defensive loose ball recoveries there, with 1.2 — trailing Booker, who’s also at 1.2, and ahead of Okogie, also at 1.2.
Suns are back in “Weak” coverage, being directional at the point of attack, and Nurkic is sitting on the side Goodwin is funneling Paul to.
Following that, Curry sneaks in to ghost the second screen in their double-screen action.
Notice how Nurkic’s initial positioning in “weak” allows him to help cut off Curry’s flow on the drive, as well as Booker again being early with his low rotation to put out the fire.
Shot goes up, Booker boxes out (!), and takes the rebound like a baton into transition, for an impressive inside hand finish — increasing the lead.
Warriors go “ghost” to play off the pop ATO. That flows into staggers for Curry.
Track Jordan Goodwin’s early physicality into the communication for this switch with Booker, onto Curry. Booker takes the baton from the tone set by Goodwin and finishes off the play after keeping Curry to his right and towards his help defenders.
Ultimately a deflection leads to another stop.
A very impressive stretch of stops compiled, enabled the Suns to a litany of opportunities into the most effective advantage which is transition play. These pockets have shown up across multiple games, the next step is to increase the volume at which these moments occur.
This is something to track as they get closer to being healthy.
Of note: The Nets are tied at 39.1% and stop the NBA in three-point percentage.
They’re also 6th in catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game (27.5) and 1st in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage (41.1%).
They’re also 6th in drives per game as a team, the head of that snake? Cam Thomas (13.9 per) and Mikal Bridges (13.1 per).
Bridges (23.1 PPG — 49.2/38.7/86.9) in particular, is shooting 55.3% on his drives this season — a major development in his game.
Cam Johnson (14.7 PPG) is shooting 44.4% on his catch-and-shoot threes, on 4.8 attempts per game.