They’d see a similar game script from game one, in game two.
The Phoenix Suns (though they set a better tone for themselves than done in game one) would show up late to the party again, losing the race to the first time out in the process, but would progressively push their foot down on the gas, creeping closer and closer to that pedal hitting the metal.
The proverbial “metal” here is the stamping of a dictating feel both on the flow of the game, as well as the pace and tempo - on both ends of the floor.
Though the process was indeed better, we’d see a first-quarter offensive rating of 96.0 (accompanied by a true shooting of just 54.8%), married with a 116.0 defensive rating.
That would flip, like in game one, in quarter two, and sustain the rest of the way, to the tune of an astronomical 141.4 offensive rating and a 112.7, which was on par with their 10th-ranked mark of 113.0 post-All-Star.
“We had one timeout where everybody to a man was talking about the ability to guard the ball,” said Monty Williams in his postgame presser.
“They were just blowing by it and getting to the baskets for layups. Once we stopped them from doing that and got the ball, we were able to get out and run. That generated some energy. Coming out of the halftime break there was just juice, toughness, and grit. Offensive execution was decent, but I thought we were able to get the stops in a row to start the half. That gave us a lot of energy.”
The defense perked up to the aforementioned level they were most consistently at down the homestretch of the regular season, and plenty of benefits were seen from that side of the ball finding its feel.
Let’s dive into what caught my attention.
1.) Kevin Durant Touches
After a process that failed to get him the requisite touches in the flow of the game (just 15 field goal attempts in game one, including one in the final six minutes), the Suns set out to not make that mistake again.
Durant would start the game with a top-side isolation touch, that served as a “we’re undoing our wrongs, instantly” style of feel.
He would then proceed to erupt for 11 points in the second quarter, with a good blend of pick-and-roll handling:
Completely ambushing the drop coverage of Zubac with mid-range mastery.
(Sidenote - Durant has been the best in these playoffs as a scorer in pick-and-roll. His 1.615 PPP mark is the best, and is averaging 10.5 PPG in this scenario.)
Some off-screen shooting was blended in, via ‘Veer’ action:
As well as some play in isolation:
In general, the Suns did much better than having him seemingly exclusively see touches initiating pick-and-roll in the manner they did in game one (though it was ultra-effective - 1.50 PPP on 10 possessions).
Continuing to allow for his touches in isolation, specifically, to see a steady diet within their game script (as mentioned in my series preview) will be imperative, as it’s as guaranteed of an offensive context as any to attract the attention of multiple defenders - enabling other Suns to operate within an advantage.
He initiated 17 pick-and-rolls in game one, and they counter-balanced his touches via a much better blend of work in multiple offensive contexts, including more isolation touches —which we will touch in the film session, below.
2.) Devin Booker Drives
Among the many dynamics that Devin Booker brings to the table, are his sudden athleticism and rapidly evolving processing speed.
He’s now equipped with a clear expedited understanding of how defenses are loading up on him and is combining the passing prowess that’s been developed over the last few seasons with that, making for a truly complete and never indefensible offensive weapon.
Speaking of weapons, his drives have become just that.
He’s picking his spots, finding the tiniest of crevices to slip through, and implementing his drives into the overall blend of offensive operating.
What’s resulted is a - not necessarily a newfound pressure point - but a newfound volume.
· Pre-All-Star: 12.4 drives · 8.5 PPG (3.2-6.0 shooting)
· Post All-Star: 13.5 drives · 10.6 PPG (4.0-7.0 shooting)
· Playoffs: 15.0 drives · 12.0 PPG (5.0-8.0 shooting)
His drives this postseason have parlayed into him being slated with the highest assist totals to any particular player, through two games this postseason.
He has eight total assists to Torrey Craig, out-doing the likes of the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll, Mitchell-Mobley tandem, Holiday-Portis, and Holiday-Lopez.
We’ll be diving into the film, below, on its effect being profound.
At the foundation of said assists to Craig (who’s been razor sharp in shooting, especially in timely contexts), have been the Booker drives setting the table, and advantage, easing the job of others.
3.) Paul-Ayton Pick-and-Roll
One of the pillars of the Suns offense resides in the synergy of the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll.
It remains one of the most effective advantage setters, and nearly scheme-proof when the two are clicking as their most optimized selves.
Through two games, Paul has more two-point assists to Ayton (7) than any other combination in the NBA these playoffs.
How they - customarily - went about manipulating tags around their pick-and-roll late - to A.) Strategically space Durant and Booker, but also, B.) Remove nail help, and C.) Make it a true 2 v 2 in the middle third, was on-brand in spacing manipulation.
Their “old reliable,” continues to be as good of an advantage setter as exists on the playoffs stage. When both are clicking, it adds to the abundance of ways the Suns can set not just an advantage, but the advantage of choice that they want to dictate with, all in a great blend.
On the less glamorous end, we’d see the Suns dig in - collectively - and sustain defensive successes for multiple possessions in a row, in multiple stretches after the first quarter.
In that, there was a great blend of scheme and coverages, but it all was rooted in guys simply containing the ball with greater consistency.
There was high alert and more activity within switches, like here - from Paul to send the flow off-script, followed by a double:
Then Booker here, on Leonard, early.
Then, there was the scheme switch in the second half, which saw Ayton at the level of the screen with great activity (which we’ll touch on below, in the film session), following switches up the line with physicality.
We also saw Biyombo-wagon lineups go to “red,” which is switching 1-5, and Biyombo would hold his own in a few instances of isolation defense.
Also, some good reps with the switch-and-double:
Notice the target in these schemes and high-alert, keyed in on Leonard (who is now actually out for game three).
In general, the activity levels - and mental stamina in that context - were a ton more sustained.
The Suns (through two games) lead the playoffs in deflections (38) and deflections per game (19) - per NBA.com.
Continuing to put forth these collective energy and activity levels - in a sustained manner - is the challenge for themselves.
We’ve seen what this team can look like, which is one of the most disciplined and chaos-inducing groups when fully engaged.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) April 19, 2023
G2 saw a much-improves offensive process paired with more aggressive defense. In that, stood out a few things to me:
· Inverting the offense, the Durant advantage
· Dictating style of defense
· Booker drives pic.twitter.com/Xqv49tG8wW
Tip of the cap
Torrey Craig: What more can you say about Torrey?
Yes, sample size can't be much smaller— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) April 20, 2023
Devin Booker-Torrey Craig being the playoff-best assist tandem, at any point, is surprising
Booker has 8 assists to Craig, & his aforementioned drives - with Craig's shooting flow just as impt. - has been an effective synergy pic.twitter.com/Kdb00qQ1XU
He’s doing an excellent job one pass away, spotting up second-side while being helped off, not hesitating on his open looks or touches (playing in ‘0.5’), and is adjusting well as the Clippers cross-matching occurs.
Oh yeah, he’s also doing as well as possible on Leonard (who will be OUT of game 3 with a knee sprain). He’s getting great contests, taking the volume of bumps, fighting with his own physicality, and remaining active with his hands - all the while not exhibiting discouragement in body language in the (many) moments where none of his activity matters one bit.
We talked about the shot profile evolving around Durant & the importance corner 3's would take on— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) April 19, 2023
Mentioned on our last @TheValleyPHX ep., part of Monty's decision on Craig starting (though I was pro-JO) was his corner 3p%
RS: 44.3% (career-best, on best rate)
PO: 71.4% https://t.co/jNNx1zApBP pic.twitter.com/odu7OWlZno
Having a disciplined veteran to say “Hey, can you go and do your best against Leonard for 30+ minutes? Oh and by the way, we also need you to knock down your open shots” is a tall ask, but Craig has been up to the task (and then some).
Game three is tonight, in Crypto.com Arena. Again, Kawhi Leonard has been rules of the game, but this study is more about what the Suns need to do rather than what the Clippers have or don’t have.
· More lineup and rotation balance from the Suns
· Rotation tweaks from the Clippers (Covington involvement)
· More small ball usage from Ty Lue
· More zone blended into the plot for the Clippers defensively