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Stephen’s Study: Achilles heel rears its head again as Suns (still) search for defensive identity

The Suns lose control of another one, as they continue to search for an identity and sustained successes on the defensive end of the floor.

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

In a game where the Phoenix Suns had a +5 advantage — up 68-63 at the half — and a 2-point edge heading into the final period, seeing them lose and lose by a wide margin is far from ideal. But that’s what they did two nights ago at the hands of the New York Knicks.

In tandem with the offense hitting a snag in the second half, specifically with a fourth-quarter rating of 95.8, the Suns saw their two-possession lead usurped, and reach a deficit as large as 20.

They wouldn’t climb to closer than 16 the rest of the way.

In that, the Suns’ defensive scheme saw Jalen Brunson bring pyrotechnics that exposed weaknesses, and upended their defensive process, blowing it in the fashion of a 35-point second half — one where he didn’t miss any shots from the field, shooting 12-for-12, including 8-for-8 from deep.

It happened in a fashion I’ve discussed quite a few separate times this season, especially specifically at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Things reached a point where they felt more connected on film, even if the numbers hadn’t quite caught up statistically, nonetheless, we still are seeing many of the same issues persist — at the times when teams are forced to reveal where they are in their process during waning moments.

The Suns have to develop a tactical system that complements their personnel, and even more, that tactical system must see the requisite efforts and attention to detail, in execution upon demand.

This team has lacked time on task-ability when they need it most on that end of the floor, and, more than lack execution, then lack the cohesion that would provide reassurance that strides are being taken to turn corners collectively in their process.

On the season, they now have a defensive rating of 115.4, which ranks 20th.

Here’s a rundown of their defensive rating by quarter this season:

  • First quarter - 114.2 (19th)
  • Second quarter - 109.9 (6th)
  • Third quarter - 117.3 (20th)
  • Fourth quarter - 120.9 (27th)

For context, that 120.9 fourth-quarter defensive rating — if in the inverse — equates to them conceding offensive production that’d rank third in the NBA this season rating-wise.

Two nights ago, their second-half defensive rating was 161.7. Specific to the fourth quarter, and before “garbage time,” it was 142.4

They’re defending, in closing, at a level equatable to the realm of the Wizards and Hornets are on the season as a whole. It makes holding on to leads near impossible, as well as climbing back into games. Even more, in the clutch this season, their 114.1 defensive rating ranks 20th, and their net rating of -18 ranks 24th.

Those numbers take on more meaning when seeing that they’ve spent the most time in the clutch this season, with 76 minutes compiled this season.

These numbers speak to a team that has yet to find its identity on the defensive end of the floor, and quite honestly, it’s been such tough sledding that it indeed is having an impact on their offense in stretches.

Having to constantly take the ball out of the net stagnates flow, and allows opponents to keep their base and shell set — and when you add to that happening amidst multiple trips up and down the floor, that’s a leach to momentum.

Vogel, Fizdale, and company would toggle through adjustments in the second half, to no avail however, as the damage was done at the onset of the second half — which served as a tone set by Jalen Brunson, and the Knicks would fall in line with the tone set by their best player.

Let’s dive into what was happening.

Kicking it off on their very first possession of the second half, and Brunson brings the ball up the floor already anticipating the coverage to be seen — without “feeling” pressure at the point of attack to give him much to think about.

Knicks get into plenty side to side-to-side handoff action, to ultimately mask a step-up screen coming after the ball changes sides of the floor multiple times.

In college hoops, you’ll hear the phrase “continuity offense” thrown around, this is it.

As it returns to its original alignment, Brunson now receives a screen.

The defensive decision making given the point of the screen being so high here, and Allen conceding an over from this distance (in contrast to what’d occur in clips later) makes me question their process at the point of attack.

Nonetheless, Allen forces Brunson to his weak hand — being directional at the point of attack, however, he doesn’t close the air space enough, and that’s exacerbated by Nurkic not impacting the ball in his drop location here.

It’s all anticipated, however, by Brunson, and this is what Steve Jones Jr. of the Dunkers Spot calls “allowing guards to lead the dance” in pick-and-roll.

Brunson’s streaky, and when he’s able to anticipate in addition to having rhythm, it’s a major problem.

We see some changes in how the Suns cover him on this rep.

It’s on the other side of the floor now, his strong side of the floor as a lefty, so they “Ice” him.

The issue is, that there’s no “steering the wheel” again from Allen to control some of the pace, in addition to ducking under the screen.

Nurkic, however, is now a step beyond the arc (in contrast to being inside it on the last rep, but is also not impacting the ba — so Brunson doesn’t feel any of the defenders as he flows into another pull-up three, to his strong hand.

Knicks keep Brunson middle third for this rep, giving him optionality in direction with high horns, an action we’ve seen Portland use for Lillard in the past, as well as Milwaukee now with him.

Allen gets caught, again, trying to duck under the screen, and this is Brunson — again — leading the dance.

As Allen is lost at the point of attack, Nurkic is two steps above the arch now and up to touch at the level of the screen.

Due to Allen being lost at the point, and Nurkic not comfortable that far away from the basket, in addition to being eager to drop back, Brunson has been conceded a completely uncontested look this time, as he again doesn’t feel a soul in rhythm to this pull-up.

Suns are decent with their switching here to flatten out the action, then corralling at the nail and in the gaps to deter a drive for Brunson.

As he passes the ball (a win for the Suns), Little relaxes as he shows nail help, a lack of attention to detail.

It boomerangs back to Brunson, and Little is on time with the rotation but entirely too short on his close, and Brunson obliges, for another dot from deep.

The next one takes place in transition.

They’ve had their issues getting back and matching up in transition, as I’ve detailed, however, this one is simply a lapse in awareness.

Instances call for decisions to be made on who to cover in certain contexts, and picking up on Brunson should obviously be the chief concern above all else, especially when he’s on the same side as two lesser shooters.

Full disclosure, it is a 3v2 Knicks advantage on that side as Nurkic is coming back into the picture late, however, if communication takes place, Little can stay low, and Goodwin can step over.

Obviously, this is much easier said than done, but these are the demands when defending against a hot shooter, especially in the advantage that is a transition possession, or a secondary break.

Nurkic is now in a flat show and plants his feet as Hartenstein slips downhill.

They’re solid getting the ball out of Brunson’s hands here, and that’s the win in and of itself.

Remains Knicks ball, but better process and execution from the Suns.

Here is where the anticipation of defense, and the gravity of a player, work against Phoenix

The phrase is “no screen, no scheme,” and the same can go here with the handoff.

No handoff occurs, but Durant and Bates-Diop don’t communicate, so both chase and Randle is left uncovered into the layup.

The Suns see their second-best point of attack guy, and best on this night, in particular, Jordan Goodwin, with a rare mistake. He doesn’t steer the wheel at the point, isn’t connected with Brunson, and is beaten inside as he attempts to “weak” Brunson. Brunson’s now downhill with plenty of steam going to his strong hand into the 4v3 advantage, and Brunson knocks down a mid-range pull-up.

The Knicks would be down four when Brunson left for his rest stint. His team would be +11 in that stretch from 2:06 in the third to 7:54 in the fourth.

I speak about a few of the adjustments and issues that came with guarding Brunson in the fourth below, but the Suns — generally — have to be much more solid at the point of attack and connected around actions.

It is still relatively early in the season, so there is plenty of time to get right, but it is far from solid now.

The show pockets of the respectable defense they can be, especially at this juncture of the season and with so many new pieces — but the instances like last night that have occurred are much louder and at the most pivotal times.

Film Session

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