A game that left much more to be desired, saw the Phoenix Suns still handle their business nonetheless — and even do so in the clutch. Phoenix defeated the Washington Wizards on Sunday night in a tale of two halves. They’d put forth, statistically, by far their best showing in the half-court defensively over the last two weeks, and one of their better ones of the season.
The Wizards have averaged a half-court offensive rating of 98.1 on the season, the Suns held them to 90.8 and did so in a much more connected manner.
Holding them also below their regular season average in attempts at the rim as well, the aforementioned “time on task” of the Suns surfaced after a concerning slow start.
Let’s dive into what caught my attention.
Nurkic, the Nuisance
Defensively in this one, the Suns came out the gates being aggressive with Jusuf Nurkic — looking to both set a tone and dictate to the Wizards. A contrast from their typical, as they’ll usually work their way towards that, but be more dictative and directional at the point of attack, firstly.
However, given the shortcomings and how much has been left to be desired from that layer of defense — which I detailed recently — it seems Vogel + Fizdale and company elected to do so inversely. In that, Nurkic would work to keep Jordan Poole — one of the league’s more shifty, unpredictable, and creative guards — from turning the corner and out of the paint.
Having Nurkic at the level of the screen consistently puts a demand on your backside and underneath layer to be on a string, attentive, and active in their shifts — to cover the roller for Nurkic but also stay out of full rotations.
Collectively, the Suns saw some very solid reps doing so.
Notice him up to touch on the screener.
This is the difference, however: there’s the execution of the scheme, and then there’s an activity within the execution of the scheme. Nurkic has bouts with foot angles, cadence, and splitting the difference in drop coverage at times — which all can be made arbitrary if he remains active in drop coverage.
Some passivity persists when he’s in drop at times — not impacting the ball — a contrast to what we’re seeing here.
It’s not just a flat show and him getting out of there, he’s there to dictate and impact the ball, with multiple swipes to terminate Poole’s dribble, and buying time for Booker to recover.
That’s all accompanied by Allen (at the nail, in the middle of the court) and Little (the lowman) shifting to the helpline to shrink the floor on the roller. This was good on good, starting with Nurkic setting the tone, though.
The first thing here is flattening out an opposing early drive, in transition or a secondary break, which Booker executed. From there, notice Booker directing traffic with attention to detail on the backside of this empty pick-and-roll rep from the Wizards.
Because Allen is so solid with his initial jump, and attachment, to the ball in preparation to navigate the screen — steering the wheel, being directional on Ice — Nurkic doesn’t have to impact the ball and can work backward.
Additionally, though it’s a bit of overhelp on Durant’s part, given Nurkic doesn’t have to commit to the ball, he’s peeled in early to help put any fires out, and Booker is ready to take the first pass out as well, in their full rotation with the x-out.
Solid all around here.
Here we see two players at fault for the Wizards being able to gain access to the roller.
Credit Deni Avdija — a wing (3.5/4) type piece I’d still love to see with the Suns — for this pass. Nonetheless, Nurkic has to choose a better angle to discourage or make this attempt more difficult.
In addition, and even more so, with this being the coverage as Nurkic gets up to the level, Durant — the lowman — has to be peeled in much earlier pick up on the roller and cover for Nurkic as he impacts the ball.
Time on task lacking just a bit in two layers, and that’s just enough slippage for the Wizards to get two out of.
Another rep against Avdija and Gafford is here, and we see Nurkic again impacting the ball in addition to closing air space to terminate a dribble. As he does so, notice Eric Gordon with his on-time low tag on the roller.
My only gripe at times is that, when teams are aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage, they often concede the easy spray pass to the nearest offensive player — rather than being in the passing lane with denial to stall out passing options as well as the shot clock.
Nonetheless, the Suns are on a string as the Wizards go spray-skip, and Durant is on it with another great contest on Kuzma.
Look at how connected they are on this one.
Great hedge completely flattens out the corner and even forces a retreat dribble, Bookers is early on the low rotation, so he creates a one-way closeout to Kuzma. Play is sped up by Nurkic, which forces an errand-ish pass, and the Suns garner another stop.
Now we see Nurkic start to play chess in his coverages, as he sits back in a short drop initially. You can see Avdija processing that he maybe could turn the corner because of it. Nurkic then jumps up to the level to hedge out this time.
Additionally, as action is flattened out, look at the Suns load up in gap integrity, and Nurkic finishes off the rotation with more activity — cutting off the drive, getting a contest up, and boarding.
This is good on good.
Another solid flat hedge, with activity as Nurkic is stabbing at the ball. That’s accompanied by the early low rotation from Little, which deters the roller hit from Avdija as you can see him peak at Gafford momentarily.
Nurkic, underrated with his hands, snatches this one out of the air with one hand to stamp the stop. Active and engaged, Nurkic compiled a multitude of solid to great instances of being aggressive defensively in this one.
That’s however in tandem with the defense around him being a lot more connected in doing their respective jobs.
Lost in the defensive struggles of the Suns through the first quarter of the season is that Nurkic is not a defender that’s going to “Gobert” or “Adebayo” or “ Davis” or “Jackson Jr” his defense.
Unlike those five, the defensive context around him matters more, and the Suns have to have a sense of pride in containing the ball in a sustained manner.
Regardless of small-small switches, not conceding undeterred and straight-line drives that often put Nurkic (or any center) in compromise, is important.
Nurkic still has room for improvement, as noted above even in the successes seen above, but oftentimes other layers of defense are not being held to account in the same regard as his execution is — which isn’t appropriate given a lot of times he’s the last domino to fall in instances.
The context around him defensively gets much better when Okogie returns, but the Suns — admittedly so — go more offensive-minded in closing moments. Naturally, given their roster at the moment, that means there needs to be more point-of-attack activity in waning moments.
As I mentioned earlier this season, I feel that being aggressive with Nurkic in pick-and-roll, in manners similar to what was detailed above, has to be blended in on more volume.
The Suns have to give Vogel more trust to do so, but their optimized defense will see more variance in scheme down the line they collectively cannot get to that portion of dictating until they nail the margins within their base coverages — in a sustained manner.
Booker as a Screener + a Spain PnR Counter
An important layer for the Suns in regards to how they feature their main chess pieces on the board is with those pieces screening.
Screening, and not just the passive exchanging of space between players, but doing so with an intent to create an advantage – whether that is a reaction advantage, qualitative advantage, spatial advantage, or shot quality advantage.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) December 19, 2023
How Devin Booker is featured in the Suns offense has to extend past just his on-ball usage to optimize him, as ive mentioned plenty priorly
He had some playmaking reps as a screener against the Wizards that I wanted to highlight, as they display both his IQ & feel pic.twitter.com/vii3LKZEHI
Devin Booker is among the best in the guard realm of the NBA in doing so, in numerous contexts, with a ton of his abilities rooted in simply wanting to do so.