The Phoenix Suns now find themselves, again, down headed back to the Footprint Center.
This time around, it’s do-or-die as the Nuggets are looking to close the series.
They made adjustments in physicality, had their defensive activity resurface (in abundance), were enabled with ample pace and tempo – rewarding their efforts as they spent too much time in opportune transition moments.
Only 77.5% of their possessions were spent against the Suns set defense, which, on a season-long scale, would rank at the 70th percentile mark.
They were able to dictate far too much, in addition to getting contributions from Michael Porter Jr. (19 points on 5-for-8 from 3), and off the bench from Bruce Brown (25 points, 2-for-4 from 3).
Let’s dive into what caught my attention…
1.) Nuggets adjust to Suns 77
The Suns found a golden Nugget that enabled them ample looks in the half-court, while also gaining access to Nikola Jokic, as well as getting the Nuggets defense in rotation.
They found a rhythm with this in the third quarter of game two, then increasingly baked it into their offensive process – all the while tinkering with who was involved and where to keep it as effective as can be.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) May 3, 2023
An uptick in 3-player actions proved fruitful & enabled the Suns better tempo & shot quality in G2
In that was also isolation of tags, 3v3 opportunities created in the half-court, & stretching of DEN defensive rotations -- via patience
Dive into some film with me pic.twitter.com/bT5rRgHRpf
Fast forward to game five, and the Nuggets had 30+ reps of their defending of this exact scenario, and decided to cut off Booker’s access to the middle third of the floor – while simultaneously also denying direct access to Nikola Jokic in this setting.
This was a chess move from Malone, moving a pawn of his – in Aaron Gordon – to ward off access to a pressure point in his defensive infrastructure.
The ample successes above in mind for the Suns, in Booker – via patience and proper processing of the defense – countering the flattening out of his attack by stretching the defense, let’s look at just what Denver did against 77.
Here, you can see the immediate difference. The Nuggets shifted from reading and reacting in this scenario, to dictating.
Gordon hedging up early, with Caldwell-Pope also navigating over the screen to blitz, rather than switch, set a tone in this setting.
Durant pops and gets an extremely high shot quality, but make or miss, Denver is sending messages.
Next play we’d see a different coverage, and better execution from the Suns.
Last time there was a blitz on Booker. Here, it’s a switch then the “weak” him – cutting off access to the middle while also keeping the ball in his left hand.
Jokic doesn’t close the gap on Booker though, so he eats up the real estate while assessing the second side, then skips to Shamet – isolating that tag and enabling him to attack a closeout and play within the advantage, hitting Ayton on a pocket pass for two.
Great pace and process.
Here we’ll see another positive result.
Jokic is again slow to close the space as he’s essentially in a drop. Booker obliges, then attacks downhill to earn his way to the stripe.
This is always an option. He may not always be as pretty, but hitting the aggressive drive button will almost always result in a positive.
Next, we see Ayton involved directly.
However, this is far too passive.
If he’s going to occupy the pocket, he has to stop here:
Otherwise, the roll to the basket has to be a true roll, not a back pedal into occupied space by defenders. The effect of gravity doesn’t hit the same, and Porter Jr. is more than comfortable shooting this gap because of it.
Porter Jr. being aggressive here should’ve either resulted in a foul, as Ayton should’ve been attacking the ball. Or, Ayton should’ve had a catch and been enabled to play connector, in reading Murray on the second-side advantage, with Ross in the corner and Shamet above the break.
A counter the Suns have in their playbook to take advantage of aggressive defensive pick-and-roll coverage is setting a screen for the eventual initial screener – a “ram” screen.
This looks like it was supposed to be “ram” 77, but there’s no screen on Gordon, which enables them unimpeded access to “weaking” Booker again.
Jokic is, now, also at the level of the screen to keep Booker from getting downhill.
Gordon contains the ball excellently here, however, and the Nuggets get a timely stop – completely muddying the flow in this action… again.
The Suns would counter, here, with different personnel.
Using Payne in this scenario presents a more passive coverage for the Suns to attack from Jokic, who’s in drop now, while also seeing the Suns counter by stashing Durant in the corner (which also simultaneously removes the stop-gapping defense of Gordon in this scenario), and they use Booker as the first screener.
A great screen from Bookee makes Brown navigate, and enables the fleet-footed Payne to turn the corner downhill.
He’s able to engage Jokic in his deep drop, but the timely slip from Landale also forces Porter Jr. to hold his position in helping on Jokic’s man, as he holds for Browns man.
All of this, accompanied by Ross lifting from the corner for a better passing angle, leads to a clean look.
Lastly, keep this one in your back pocket for game six.
The Suns pair ‘77’ with a re-screen (these actions paired together are called “Oklahoma”).
Blending personnel changes, in addition to being patient and making sure the second side is enabled with ample opportunity in that advantage, will be important for the Suns offensive process in game six.
There is *plenty* on the table that enables the players on that side of the floor to simple play in read-and-react offense – should they intently hit that pressure point.
2.) Defensive lapses
The Suns enabled the Nuggets offensive rating of 125.0 in the opening quarter, en route to 35 points. They then also enabled the Nuggets an offensive rating of 150.0 in the third, en route to 39 points.
They had slippage in positioning at the mesh point of their switches, enabling the Nuggets randomness in read-and-react offense to dice them up with an abundance of backdoor cuts that happened so quickly, at times, that even the rim protection was late.
Some of this was aided by the amount of missed shots they compiled, enabling the Nuggets timely chances in transition (as mentioned in the opening), but even in the half-court, the Suns allowed the Nuggets a 106.3 rating – which would rank 77th percentile on the season.
Jokic on the move has consistently been ultra problematic for Ayton this series.
Whether Ayton is tasked with navigating a screen, like here, or is generally being challenged to keep up with Jokic, it presents advantages for the two-time MVP to exploit.
Here is another they’ll need to get back right, as they had it in games two through four.
Here, Booker has to be aware who is involved here, and who the true threat is.
It’s similar to how the Nuggets were defending Okogie and Craig when they received this pass.
Err on the side of caution regarding conceding Gordon looks, while taking away this plus one pass to Porter Jr. The slight misstep in indecision enables the three.
Speaking of awareness, these absolutely have to be cleaned up.
Finding shooters in transition is automatic, and this has to be sharpened up.
Again, in transition, we see another slip in communication.
The point-switching communication between Payne and Durant isn’t sharp, and Murray is enabled a straight-line drive.
This is an instance that’s occurred far too much for the playoffs stage.
Whether it’s over helping in his drop coverage, or in these instances, Ayton has to better process when someone has their man covered and he can stay home, versus when to commit to helping.
Here, Durant contains and forces Gordon to terminate his dribble, in addition to being in the paint in an awkward position.
Ayton’s overhelp and committing to it enables this easy shovel pass to Jokic on the cut, then Ayton compounds this with the foul on Jokic, plus one.
This is at the foundation of the tone set in what was a 39-point third.
On the topic of overhelping and needing better discernment in assessing when to help and when not to:
This’ a great switch-out off the inbounder from Shamet and Booker – something the Suns do often and takes away the initial look of a near-side action.
Shamet then contains well with his positioning – walling off the paint – as Murray attempts to turn the corner.
Rather than making them work late in the clock, Jokic is enabled a clean look on the pop after Murray’s rejection.
Not to bash Ayton (I’m not in the business of it in any capacity), but these were timely moments at a pivotal stretch, that are all (more than) mitigate-able, and he’s shown he’s capable.
Here, it’s the first three steps of changing ends of the floor that’ll always win the race:
Jokic already has the advantage in skill and dominance/impact on the game, he cannot be also conceded the “outwork you,” advantage in addition to all else he is great at.
Here, we see them burned off positioning from the switch:
Booker switches with Okogie, then his positioning presents the advantage as he jumps ball side in denial. Here, he’d need to be much more straight up, to force Brown to go and get the handoff.
Instead, the slight denial positioning, in addition to this crafty arm yank from Gordon to keep Durant from his rim protection rotation in putting the fire out, stresses the defense.
Better positioning and general attention to detail would aid them greatly, in addition to (re)upping the physicality and defensive activity will all be called to task in game six.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) May 10, 2023
How the Nuggets countered & muddied one of the primary advantage creating actions the Suns have used from G2-G4 -- plus how the Suns did, & can adjust to maintain it moving forward
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