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Stephen’s Study: On Suns taking commanding 3-1 lead behind fourth quarter punctuation from Paul

The Suns get greedy on the road, and now look to close following prolific play from Paul in closing.

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Another start that left more to be desired from the Phoenix Suns - on both ends of the floor - saw them behind the proverbial “8-ball” regarding their expected level of two-way play,

They’d finish the first down seven down 23-30.

However, and again, in this now customary “late to the party” fashion, they’d slowly see an uptick in activity on both ends of the floor, and proceed to outscore the Clippers 89-70 through the remaining 36 minutes of play.

In that, we’d the Suns register a three-quarter rating of 123.6 on offense, and 100.0 on defense, following respective 92.0 and 112.0 marks from the first.

In that would be much-improved and timely play from Paul, plus more.

Let’s dive into what caught my attention.

1.) Closing Chris

Chris Paul is, maybe the play who’s seen the most change in this new rendition. Even dating back to the start of this season, with the Twins still in The Valley, Pul was challenged to command the offense less, enabling exploration of skill and feel from their younger pieces.

Of course, it was with the mindset that Paul could also save his legs and body for the most meaningful moments, and the postseason.

That was then aided even more by the addition of Durant, as now he’d be perfectly positioned to general the floor in the manner he’s taken on the last handful of years, to then apply himself with winning intentions late in games, as a scorer.

Following a 5-for-18 display in Thursday’s Game 3, Paul would go game four 3-for-8 through the first three quarters, then start the fourth with a possession that was far from ideal.

Above was a moment of over-processing, as they’d been hunting out an opportunity at Plumlee, but should’ve settled on attacking Covington with respect to where the shot clock was.

He’d then proceed to go 5-for-8, scoring 12 points and display moments of growth that are unique to his role - spotting up off-ball, driving/playing against closeouts, being stashed one pass away.

Take this rep for instance, where he’s the off-ball guy clearing the nail to the opposite corner for teammates to run spread pick-and-roll:

Booker stretches the defense, enabling their rotations behind Plumlee’s activity at the level to be stretched and exacerbated, which leads to a closeout attack for Paul (another entity of offense he’s overqualified for) and look at where he ends up, right back at home — just in a manner slightly more unique to him.

This rep here was interesting, yet effective nonetheless.

After the feed to Booker, Paul grows stagnant — rather than using the Suns scripted cut in clearing through to remove the one pass-away defender from putting two to the ball (notice Durant’s mannerisms and communication to Paul in the play).

In Paul remaining, he is gapped off at the nail by Gordon, then breaks the rhythm of Gordon multiple times, leaving him leaning in anticipation from Paul’s misleading movement patterns, ending in a very timely pull-up three — with confidence and conviction.

Next, they take a tad bit too long (again...) in their process of feeding Durant for his isolation touch.

Chris instructing the backside to clear the help for said pass bleeds the shot clock, nonetheless, the result is excellent.

Paul is enabled a catch-and-shoot opportunity - again in flow and one pass away - from the extra attention garnered by Durant’s top-side isolation touch, and he deposits three more.

Also, of course, displaying some methods of operations that we were accustomed to seeing.

Take this play here, where he’s calling for ‘Snap.’

The play isn't run through, but works equally as effectively, enabling him to manipulate his way to the more favorable Covington switch.

A couple of set up’s attacking the top foot to keep Covington off-balance lead to a patented midrange pull-up, in isolation.

Lastly, and for good measure, we’d see one more basket to serve as a sign of the stranglehold Paul and the Suns were putting on this one, came in an organic moment of overcalculating:

Paul being afforded weapons around him to allow him to toggle roles over the course of games is an underlying dynamic that can continue to prove to be too much for a team to overcome.

Booker and Durant commanding attention all game, then teams almost forgetting about Paul’s ability to score for himself in the process, will continue to be a recurring story in the plot of these playoff games.

He’ll be afforded plenty more opportunities to take over a game in its waning moments.

2.) Playmaking Booker

Amidst a well-blended array of skills, Devin Booker’s playmaking has made timely appearances.

Many times, it’s coming via him preoccupying the attention of multiple defenders, and has displayed his evolution and processing speed as a playmaker, like these two instances:

Not only were these both displaying his ability to execute off advantages set by his extra attention, but, particularly in the second. We saw him counter the double on the ball - in the Clippers efforts to flatten out his attack - by stretching the rotations of the defense with a subtle extra dribble away that would not only drag the two closing defenders but also force Morris Sr. (the lowman) to tag and stretch his rotation.

His evolution from the Mavericks series, to nearly a year later in operating while occupying extra attention, has been intriguing to track.

Though it won’t happen on the volume he saw in seasons past, it’s great to continue seeing that dynamic of his attention-garnering offense continue to round out, in addition to his many other skills being honed in.

He’s priming at the perfect time of the season.

3.) Defensive Activity-Galore

The Suns have enjoyed a solid compilation of defensive activity over the course of this series, with plenty of event-causing activity that has helped for them to have spent just 78.0% of their possessions against a set defense this postseason — a mark that ranks 6th amongst playoff teams, and would rank 4th best in the league if sustained over the course of 82 (also is 1.9% better than their 19th-ranked mark there for the 2022-23 regular season).

Booker (2.8) and Paul (2.3) are top-3 in steals per game, and in total steals, with 11 and 9 respectively, in the postseason.

Their activity at the helm, paired with general activity from all else, has resulted in an uptick in turnovers, particularly of the live ball variety, from the Los Angeles Clippers, as the series has gone on.

via PBP Stats

Date Opponent Turnovers LiveBallTurnovers DeadBallTurnovers
Date Opponent Turnovers LiveBallTurnovers DeadBallTurnovers
2023-04-16 PHX 14 8 6
2023-04-18 PHX 15 6 9
2023-04-20 PHX 18 12 6
2023-04-22 PHX 13 10 3

They presently find themselves averaging the second-most points in transition this postseason (23.8), points per possession there (1.30), and the third-most points per shot in this offensive context (1.25).

I’ve spoken to the defense being the point of emphasis for this team, as it will also serve as a direct outlet for the betterment of their offense, and they have shown to be downright disciplined and equally disruptive in that, for stretches.

Seeing them sustain that feel, collectively and in multiple contexts, will continue to be an area my eye keys in on, in addition to seeing them sustain periods where the offense and defense play off each other's successes.

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