In a game that had moments where it was begging for the Phoenix Suns to shut the door, it would be the reserve unit, and players from that subunit, that would flip the game against the Utah Jazz heavily in their favor late.
They’d create the needed separation for Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton to return with just 4:58 left to play and a double-digit lead in tow and bring home a much-needed win, 117-103.
1.) Reserve Dominance
The Suns would finish this one with 57 bench points (+32). Saturday vs Philadelphia, they had 53 (+36). Friday vs Sacramento, they had 68 (+44).
This trend of dominance - somewhat suddenly - is extremely positive and serves as a relevant point of growth.
For as great as this Suns team is in the starting lineup, they’ve, on paper, genuinely compiled one of the better reserve units among playoff teams.
The efforts we saw in this one, sparking a game-altering 17-2 run between the end of the third and early fourth quarter, are certainly sustainable.
“The bench is coming together,” said Terrence Ross (7 points in the fourth quarter).
“We are getting a better rhythm and groove, and when we come into the game we’re bringing a different level of energy.”
The energy he’s speaking to, though the spontaneous scoring sparks are the highlight-making entities, is rooted in them finding their footing defensively.
They’ve turned a corner collectively with the Suns switching scheme defensively, particularly with their switching fundamentals and late-switching.
“Our bench came in and changed the dynamic of the game from a physicality standpoint,” said Monty Williams.
“That allowed us to get out in transition.”
They were able to establish a dominant and somewhat frenetic flow - one that matches the style of play they collectively exemplify.
In the early fourth quarter stretch, which then trickled to the aforementioned 4:58 mark, the unit of Payne/Ross/Warren/Wainright/Biyombo was +9 in 7:02 of play.
They compiled an offensive rating of 143.8 and a defensive rating of 75.0 in this window.
Take a defensive possession like this one, early in the fourth, where Biyombo - who often toggles schemes in pick-and-roll defense - sends the Jazz off-script by remaining “up to touch” on the screener, then shoots out of that depth to above the level of the screen, termination Horton-Tucker’s dribble.
That attention to detail from Biyombo to thwart the empty corner pick-and-roll sets off a chain reaction from the rest of the Suns defensively.
Wainright’s up the line in denial then helps, recovers, and contains. Ross promptly executes the late switch. Payne ends it with a great late-clock contest.
In the next possession, it’s all Wainright defending with physicality, pushing the catch point for Markkanen past the intended spot, then containing the ball - not unlike Okogie did (which we’ll get to shortly).
Having a defensive tandem and archetype-redundancy between Okogie (starting) then Wainright (reserve) is an underlying weapon (one I detailed recently in their tandem efforts vs Giannis)
Lastly, one where they were sharp in rotation here.
Notice Cam Payne jumps to “ice/down” (funnel the handler to the outer third of the floor, then towards the baseline, where the rollers defender is waiting).
Then, notice Ross peeled in early as the low man. Wainright is into Markkanen at the top of the key. Warren is playing two on the weak side, and is timely on the dynamic x-out rotation over to Ross’ original man, on the skip.
I spoke about the reserves needing to re-establish their identity - starting on the defensive end - and they’ve promptly done just that over the last three games.
That’s come in tandem with subsequent scoring outbursts that have come in flow from sustained success defensively.
Keeping this flow as the foundation for them, especially as these lineups are sure to see any of Durant, Booker, or the Paul/Ayton tandem staggered with them, will be imperative.
These lineups could serve as game-breakers for the Suns.
2.) Okogie (again..) and his defense (plus a little more on Wainright)
Josh Okogie continues to own the “time on task-er” of the game recognition for me.
His defense is unrelenting, defensive movement patterns are consistent, and feel on that end is invaluable.
He’d hold Markkanen to 0-for-5 when directly guarding him, spending 49.2% of his time on the floor tasked with the Markkanen match-up.
Even more, his tone set on Markkanen would then be picked up by Wainright, who spent the second-most time with the assignment, holding him to 0-for-4.
They’d continuously push Markkanen off his spot, play physically to the legal limit, then get astute contests that were also legal in not touching or invading his landing space.
There is a defensive synergy that exists between these two, and it’s cleverly being weaponized by Williams within the rotation.
The Suns would register a 105.1 defensive rating on the game, and the efforts of these two - on their primary option - helped to stagnate the flow and rhythm of their primary actions within any given set.
Okogie continuing to set a tone, for Wainright to then pick up the baton from, is a dynamic in the rotation I’ll continue to keep an eye on.
It will be a driving force for this team in reaching its overall goal.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) March 28, 2023
The Suns had one of their best defensive showings in recent memory yesterday, with a drtg of 105.1 to support the claim (drtg of 93.3 in HC)
Okogie + general reserve unit efforts were at the helm of successes seen
Sidenote: the reserve lineup of topic was +9 in Q4 pic.twitter.com/DG3vyNEGX5
The Suns will play host to the suddenly streaking Minnesota Timberwolves.
They come in with the 7th-ranked offense (121.7) and the 16th-ranked defense (117.6) over this all-impressive four-game win streak.
In this window, they’ve withstood a 57-point outburst from Randle on the road (sans Edwards and Towns), game-winning free-throws from Towns vs Atlanta, then strong defensive play in moments to garner wins on the road against Golden State, then Sacramento (Towns), on a back-to-back even more.
This team certainly still has plenty to figure out in terms of lineups and processes, on both ends.
Nonetheless, they have a solid and versatile group for Chris Finch to put in positions.
The addition of Mike Conley (one I hoped to see them do upon the descent of the Jazz’s previous rendition) has been invaluable, as he’s restored order for them in true point guard play who can also be impactful off-ball as a (more than) viable catch-and-shoot threat in spacing.
He’s established great synergy with Anthony Edwards, and perfectly balanced his touches with an abundance of lethal empty corner pick-and-rolls - being re-united with Gobert - that have kept this team in a great space offensively.
(Sidenote: Conley knowing how to directly involve Gobert in their offense, alone, is as great of an addition as they could get. In addition to the defensive activity and leadership that he’s brought to that lockerroom.)
They’ve also seen Jaden McDaniels ascend into his own as an athletic two-way wing who will defends at the point of attack as well as anyone, while also averaging 15.8 points per game on 52/42/76 shooting.
This one has the makings for a potential first-round match-up, so there will be plenty to see play out as both teams come into this one as healthy as they’ve been all season.