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Stephen’s Study: In-Season Tournament Quarterfinal returns

The Suns were swiftly eliminated from the In-Season Tournament, at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, in a game that saw instances of the past creep up again.

NBA: In Season-Quarterfinals-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns were knocked out of the inaugural In-Season Tournament on Tuesday at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. It certainly was not their best, or most connected showing — some of which by their own, some by doing of the Lakers’ execution, some by lack of execution from the referees.

Giving attention to the controllable entities, and zooming in on those is a characteristic of teams that sustain winning, it’s time for another Stephen’s Study! External mistakes can be acknowledged, but can’t be dwelled upon.

Let’s dive into some of what caught my attention…

1.) Tempo is Relevant

The Suns presently have the 3rd slowest pace in terms of possessions they typically play per game, which is 97.1. A look at some of their numbers from the three seasons prior, here:

  • 22nd in 22-23 (98.2)
  • 9th in 21-22 (99.8)
  • 26th in 20-21 (97.2)

That number takes on even more relevance when also seeing that 81.7% of the Suns possessions also take place in the half-court. They’re far from the 7 Second or Less Suns, however, they’re also a tad too slow by my eye as well.

Percentage of their possession spent in the half-court the last three seasons:

  • 22-23 79.9% (19th) average was 79.5%
  • 21-22 79.4% (9th) average was 80.0%
  • 20-21 81.1% (20th) average was 80.6%

They shouldn’t be at a pace that the Kings and Pacers are at, obviously, but also shouldn’t be at a pace this slow either.

Some of that comes from their opponents averaging the 5th least turnovers per game (12.6) — which puts more of an emphasis on them being solid defensively — but even when they do garner stops, they need more of an emphasis on hit aheads, outlet passes, and generally pushing the ball up the floor with tempo

I’ve highlighted the Suns crossing the half-court line earlier in the shot clock and emphasized both the reaction it gets from the defense as well as the quality of shots they generate in the small pockets where they do so — most recently in their 16-2 run to break the game open in the third quarter against Memphis.

Take here, for example.

Look at the tempo being pushed after the missed shot, and the result to come.

Or here, after a great rep defending James-Davis in the empty corner, and a great x-out and rotation from Nurkic.

Look at Booker and Durant getting out on the break and filling lanes.

Another stop, and watch Booker up the tempo on the push, to daylight. A lingering strike type of 14-0 run to break back even, and garner the lead.

Pockets to push the tempo in, and generally having a better flow to start their possessions, are needed.

Again, they’ll never be a “breakneck” pace or “7 Seconds” type of team that intentionally plays a high possession game, but being better with their tempo and flow into what will be an elite half-court offense, will make that offensive context that much more prolific.

2.) A Laker Issue

In three games now against the Lakers, the Suns — now 12th ranked half-court attack of 99 points per 100 plays there — is at an 81.3 rating. Needless to say, that number equates to 5.2 points per 100 plays worse than the last ranked half-court attack of the Portland Trail Blazers this season —which would be by far the worst in recent league history.

The Lakers present unique pieces to their defensive attack, including physicality, length, and athleticism before getting to all that Anthony Davis is in the backline.

Phoenix’s process on offense was not up to snuff in their first match-up, and the most recent one even more. I mentioned their bogged-down tempo, but even the flow through actions was muddied.

The tell-tell sign for me was that the Suns — one of the highest-volume Spain pick-and-roll teams — never even got to that portion of their offensive blend.

It’s used for a variety of reasons (to manipulate space, manipulate match-ups, manipulate taggers, etc.) and they have yet to go to it for any of the purposes they’ve shown over the last few years now.

Should they run into the Lakers again in a more meaningful moment, they’ll have plenty of film to craft a much better plan against this team, starting with an approach to possessions.

3.) Play in the Clutch

The Suns had a rather woeful stretch of minutes in the clutch as they tussled with the Lakers, which had a peak but more valleys, ultimately turning the game over to the Lakers and leaving it in the hands of the officials on a controversial call that wrongfully did not go in their favor.

As stated above, the “controlling the controllable” dynamic of it all did not exist enough for the Suns to finish off a second half where they were +9, stemming from a 14-0 run to start the third quarter.

4.) Turnovers-Galore

The Suns had a league-worst 10 turnovers compiled in the first quarter of this one.

Especially seeing how closely the games between them and the Lakers have been this season, and even more so understanding the magnitude of the game in single-elimination — a much better tone has to be set.

That starts with the head of the snake, the point guard, Devin Booker.

He had four alone in the first quarter, most of which stemmed from slight indecision and a general lack of sharpness. That portion of the game is where you can dictate to a team, and has to be taken better advantage of, which he’s shown to do so ample times before.

Independent of Booker though, and generally speaking, the Suns have to kick the turnover issue they have and quickly. Headed into games played today, they’re at 321 turnovers, 178 of the live ball variety, and 112 were “bad passes.” The 321 general turnovers rank 6th worst, as well as the 178 live ball.

Meanwhile, the bad pass turnovers rank 4th worst, with just 40 of those ending up out of bounds (5th worst) — indicative of how many “running starts” they’re enabling opponents as they concede a head start headed the other way.

Especially considering their aforementioned seldom possession totals on a per-game basis, in addition to them not forcing many turnovers with their defense, they need their ball security to match in alignment there.

League average turnover percentage (which is relative to a team’s possession average) is 12.5% this season, and the Suns are (remember the context of their low possession play) at 13.6%.

Film Session

Up Next: The Suns return home for what will now be five straight at The Footprint Center, with the addition of Friday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings coming as a result of both teams losing in the first round of the In-Season Tournament.

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