While all the attention on the Phoenix Suns these days is on their offense, it’s their defense that has been underperforming so far in the playoffs.
Why is Kevin Durant standing in the weak side corner so often, waiting for an outlet pass? Has the attention on Durant unlocked the best we’ve ever seen of teammate Devin Booker? What’s wrong with Chris Paul’s shooting? Where did Deandre Ayton’s last bit of aggression go?
So many questions, all on the offensive side of the ball. Yet, the Suns have still posted the 4th-best offense so far among the 16 playoff teams with a 119.1 rating (6 per game higher than the regular season), including top-five Effective FG % and True Shooting. Only a pair of East teams and the Denver Nuggets have been more productive on offense in these playoffs. That’s what you get when you throw two of the Top 75 players ever onto a team with rising All-Star Devin Booker and double-double machine Deandre Ayton. Doesn’t matter how little they’ve played together, they will still get high quality results.
The defense is where they’ve come up short so far in the playoffs. After posting the 7th best defense out of 30 teams during the 82-game regular season (including still ranking 7th AFTER the big trade), they’re now just 9th best out of 16 over the first 4 games of the playoffs. And that’s against a Clippers team without their All-Stars. On Thursday night, the Clippers scored a series-high 124 points just hours after ruling out Kawhi Leonard with an increasingly sore knee.
What’s going wrong for the Suns defense?
Let’s start with the matador-style defensive efforts on the perimeter.
Time after time, the Suns are letting guards break them down on the dribble drive from outside the three-point line. Once the driver gets past his primary defender and heading unopposed into the lane, the Suns are forced into rotation. The Suns big man — Ayton or Bismack Biyombo — have to choose between stopping the ball and boxing out the Clippers center, who inevitably will track any miss the Suns center might force.
The Clippers have been relentless in this regard. And I’m not just talking about Kawhi Leonard here. Per NBA.com/stats the Clippers are second among the 16 teams in drives per game (51) in this first round, tied with the Brooklyn Nets and just behind the Atlanta Hawks.
Drives don’t equal wins, as the top four teams in drives in these playoffs are a collective 2-12 while the bottom five teams are 12-4, but it’s maddening to see average guards break down the Suns perimeter defenders with such ease.
This from a Clippers team that ranked only 18th in the regular season with 45 drives per game. I’ll bet you can guess where the extra 6 drives are coming from: Russell Westbrook. He’s jumped from 13 drives per game in the regular season to 20 per game in this round against the Suns. Kawhi Leonard added another 13 per game in those first two games. Both rank among the top 7 among the 207 players who have taken the floor in this round.
Over the last two games without Kawhi (knee soreness/sprain), Westbrook has exploded to a league-leading 26 per game, with Norman Powell adding another 11.5. Bones Hyland and Eric Gordon have added 6 each. Clearly, the Clippers plan is to break down the Suns defense by attacking the paint, either to finish at the rim or kick out for a three. And the Suns are allowing it.
You might want to blame the Suns ineptitude at stopping the ball on the big trade that sent out their best perimeter defenders in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder. But that would be too reductive.
Remember the Dallas series. And the Bucks series the year before that. The Suns got killed on dribble drives against a defense featuring Bridges, Johnson and Crowder too. Last year, it was Luka Doncic (21.9) and Jalen Brunson (13.7) who ranked among the top 7 players in drives per game during the second round of the 2021-22 playoffs, with Spencer Dinwiddie adding another 5.6. The Suns finished with the 3rd worst defense in the 2022 Playoffs.
The Mavericks showed the league that the Suns won’t deviate dramatically from their preferred defensive scheme, no matter what you throw at them. While other teams aggressively trap a driver with double teams outside the three point line to force the outlet pass, the Suns would rather roll the dice with single coverage and trust their scheme to get enough stops to win the game.
Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Norman Powell have all attacked the Suns single coverage time and time again, almost never having to face a hard trap outside the arc.
Hard traps — using two defenders on the ball in a tight corner — can work to get the ball out of one guy’s hand, but leaves the rest of the defense in a negative situation and too often gives up the points anyway. Unless the guy you’re trapping is the only dude who can create a shot.
Case in point was last year’s second-round series against Dallas. The last five games of that series, four them Dallas wins, were a study in defensive game planning.
On one side, the Mavericks sold out to trap Booker, forcing a weak pass to a group of teammates not ready to make anything good happen in a four-on-three advantage. And that group of teammates often included offensively talented Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson! Yet they couldn’t make the Mavericks pay for putting two on Booker. On the other side, you almost never saw the Suns throw anything but single coverage at Doncic, Brunson or Dinwiddie and they too often got beat because of it. The end result was devastating, as the Mavericks averaged a 20-point margin in their four wins.
Hence the trade for Durant this year. At least on one side, the opponent can’t expect anything good to come of trapping the Suns anymore. That problem is solved.
The other side is still a big problem, though, and this year the Suns are even worse on perimeter defense. Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig and Kevin Durant are good, but in terms of perimeter defense at the three-point line they just aren’t as good as the Bridges - Johnson - Crowder trio were. They aren’t.
And yet, the Suns scheme hatched by Monty Williams and his staff years ago, is to allow whatever switching the other wants and trust that single defender to stay in front of the ball. That plan works in the regular season on the balance, but the playoffs are a whole different animal. In the playoffs you get the league’s best drivers every night and increasingly effective switch-schemes to get the opponent’s worst defenders on an island over and over again.
The Clippers in these playoffs (4 games) are posting the 7th-best offense at 112.8 points per 100 possessions among the 16 playoff teams, which is just a tick below their season-long rating (114, good for 17th). Considering the Clippers’ are missing their two best offensive players, that’s just not a very good showing by the Suns.
We’ll see how the rest of these playoffs unfold. It looks like the Suns, up 3-1 against the Clippers now, will survive the Russell Revival and move on to the second round. But how will they fare against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets?
In the Suns favor, the Denver offense is not centered around drives. It starts at the high post with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who only averages 5 drives per game. As a team, they average only 41 per game (13th out of 16 teams). That’s up from 36 per game in the regular season, which ranked dead last among the 30 teams. Almost half of their drives come from Playoff Jamal Murray (18.7 per game), who has been attacking with aggression in these playoffs. He’s all the way back from a knee injury that cost him both the 2021 and 2022 Playoffs, including his 5th career 40-point playoff game.
As you watch the Suns try to defy history by making it to the Finals after making a seismic shifting trade just two months ago, keep an eye on their defensive success.
Will Monty Williams deviate from his normal defensive schemes and double Murray or Jokic, or will they just continue to stay in base defense and trust their guys on islands?
In the meantime, the Suns have to finish off the depleted Clippers and hopefully that happens on Tuesday night. The Nuggets, up 3-0 in their own series, might just close out the Timberwolves tonight in Game 4 and get even more rest than the Suns are able to muster.