A tight start early in the Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks game on Sunday saw ample physical play, and a pace to match that was similar to what would be expected from these two teams in a playoff setting. Tons of chess being played - both teams taking something the others like off the table - and it would result in both teams making essential runs over the course.
However, free throw makes and a vast three-point discrepancy would both bode in favor of the Bucks, playing heaving into the Suns coming up just short, 101-104.
1.) Short-roll Emphasis
Phoenix would come into this one and emphasize the short roll with Deandre Ayton.
He’d register 12 points in the first half, and they’d all come via this dynamic of the offense that will be the domain where he can keep himself involved most regarding scoring.
The pick-and-roll will continue to be the premise and one of the primary advantage-setting staples for the Suns, and Deandre Ayton will be as important in that as either of the Suns three elite playmakers.
The blend of screening IQ and willingness to screen from Ayton is what could allow the Suns to have three of the best pick-and-roll tandems in the league, and three of the best - that demand different types of defensive coverage, attention, and match-ups - on the playoffs stage, exclusively.
Past just screening, however, the short-roll is an area of the floor enabling Ayton to, organically catch the ball and generally operate in areas of the floor where he’s a threat to score.
So, especially against teams that run “drop” defensive coverage (like Milwaukee does), it’s not only the mid-range abilities of Paul/Booker/Durant that will take a front seat but also Ayton’s abilities from there.
His soft touch and array of pound dribble combinations present him with the potential to be truly proficient in this area, and he was up to the task in Milwaukee.
Notice, as I continue to emphasize, Paul’s patience yet intent on engaging the drop defender - just enough to get him to react but also not long enough to force the late-switch with the guard chasing him - to enable Ayton a catch in his scoring range, and he deposits.
Here, we see a bit of the same with Booker, in an emptied corner.
Notice on this one, customarily to the Bucks defense - and also why they allow a lot less attempts from deep - Crowder doesn't quite tag Ayton, and because of the Suns spacing, after Bookers engaging of Lopez, Ayton is able to display dexterity.
At this point, he’s in a great rhythm and flow, comfortably pulling up.
As a roller this season, he is presently at 1.21 points per possession, which is solid. He’s shooting 62.5% in these scenarios - per NBA tracking data.
Since returning from sickness in late January, he’s shooting 51% from long mid-range (beyond the free throw line), and 51% in the short mid-range. Add to that his 99th and 91st percentile rankings in volume from each respective area of the floor, and you see the state of trajectory he’s operating in.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) February 28, 2023
Deandre Ayton's primary function moving forward offensively will come via his elite screening (!), which'll also create his short-roll opportunities (as a scorer & passer)
He had some excellent reps vs Milwaukee, so I wanted to dive into some of those + his defense pic.twitter.com/84mH6Dzi9P
These were excellent reps for him, particularly against the league’s best drop coverage, which places a demand on him being forced to make plays for himself or as a connector.
2.) Stout Defense
This one was a mud fight in a sense, with how stingy and physical the game was.
Both teams - Phoenix was 90.1 in half-court offensive rating, Milwaukee was 93.2, both of which would rank bottom-third this season - were in the mud, and it was a battle of simply outlasting the other, given the nature of the match-up.
“It’s just one of those hard-fought games,” said Monty Williams.
“Low free throw, low score. I thought our defense was really good after the first quarter, especially in the second and in the third. Was a tough game. Real physical. Hands on bodies.
The Suns held the Bucks to 20 and 22 respectively in the middle quarters, and that allowed them to garner a lead and go on a run, especially with the offensive aggression uptick from Paul and Booker in the third, which helped to loosen up the tight-knit drop scheme of the Bucks.
In the second quarter, they’d hold the Bucks to an offensive rating of just 95.2, and 91.7 in the third.
They would see great efforts in positioning, rotations, and multiple efforts compiled from all parts of their 10-man rotation, with some good film on tape as well.
Great initial defense here on the Bucks Chin pick-and-roll. Notice the great screen navigation from Paul in walling off Ingles, flattening out at the point of attack and setting a tone, then Ross peeled in as the low help to aid Ayton. Then, Okogie in multiple efforts finishes it off with a deflection.
Then excellent defense here from the Suns, ATO.
Notice Payne’s disciplined closeout on Connaughton, then crowding his air space in addition to the closeout. That’s followed by Landale containing against Middleton (!!!) in isolation to keep them out of rotation late in the clock and is finished off by great rotations from Ross (switching defensive roles with Wainright before sinking into Leonard), with Booker filling and taking away the gap cut attempt.
They compiled a handful of timely stretches like this, especially late in the third and into the fourth, where they went on a significant run.
3.) Free throws and threes
As in any game, but amplified in the low-scoring affairs where room for error offensively is so small, a missed free throw total of nine stings more.
“We missed nine free throws like we don’t typically do that,” said Monty Williams.
Add to that being out-shot in volume (-21) and field goals made from deep (-5) will hurt your chances even more.
It is, as I mentioned in my game preview, the defensive shot profile that the Bucks defense is schematically set up to entice and lure teams into.
It’s so drastic that even when a team does happen to get up attempts from those areas of the floor, Bucks players are already on schedule with timing and adept in causing chaos in the varying events their defense induces, at nauseum.
“They got up 45 threes, we only got up 24. How they play pick-and-roll defense, we’ve got to figure out how to generate more threes.”
The Suns will see this Bucks team again in about two weeks, and it will be interesting to see - especially and hopefully with both teams full rotations back - how the Suns fair and, even more so, what adjustments they make in operating and shot quality.
Tip of the cap
The Suns were +10 on the glass, and again, in a mud fight, efforts like simply boxing out or pursuing the boards - especially contested boards - is as invaluable as anything. It results in possessions and extra possessions.
· Josh Okogie: no stats, but he continues to help set a tone for the Suns, via numerous multiple efforts on both ends of the floor, and it helps bridge the gap that sometimes exists with the Suns slow ramp-up.
· Torrey Craig: 10 rebounds (6 offensive) - yes, three came on one possession, but it’s the general competitive stamina on display from him in pursuing extra possessions for the Suns that are truly invaluable.
· Ish Wainright: 4 rebounds - yes it’s four boards, but again, the premium possessions takes on in a low-scoring affair as Sunday’s game makes these even more imperative.
(See the trend in which position holds importance here?)
Phoenix travels to Charlotte to take on the Hornets on Wednesday, at 5 pm AZ time.
Over the last two weeks, the Hornets had gone 4-0, and have had the sixth-best defense in this window (103.9 defensive rating).
However, news broke Monday night that star guard LaMelo Ball fractured his right ankle, and will be out for the remainder of the season.
Hornets All-Star LaMelo Ball will miss the remainder of the season with his fractured right ankle, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Ball has had multiple left ankle sprains this season before suffering the right ankle fracture on Monday night.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 28, 2023
That’ll certainly have implications on this one.
This will also have implications, as reported by the Suns:
Kevin Durant is expected to make his Phoenix Suns debut tomorrow in Charlotte.— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) February 28, 2023
Brighter days are ahead for the team, and the temperature is sure to rise.