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Stephen’s Study: Nuggets Hold Serve, but all is Far from Lost as Series Shifts to Phoenix

Suns down 0-2, after loss in Denver, but all is not doom and gloom, as they are finding their avenues to advantages, on both ends of the floor.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

In terms of everyone’s hot word being adjustments, the Phoenix Suns made ample, with most rooted in doing things they’ve customarily shown to do, better.

Defensively, first and foremost, the requisite energy and physicality to be disruptive was abundant.

In addition to that, they did make some schematic and tactical changes to improve their process offensively too.

There was a barrage of three-player actions that stole the plot for the Suns offensively, especially in the third quarter.

Let’s dive into what caught my attention.

1.) Three Player Actions (with handoff variants - from the outer third)

Pace, tempo, and condensing the court are the foundation of the Suns three-player actions.

Being able to stretch Denver’s defensive rotations within these actions, via patience, was excellent.

Honestly, the same could be said for their ‘pistol’ action, where a guard-type sets an early offense “step up screen” in the empty corner, on-ball, which typically induces a switch from the defense (into a more favorable on-ball match-up), then the screener either clears to the opposite corner as the center comes in to set a screen, or they flare from the switch to the top of the dome, as the center comes into the mix.

Here’s an example of just that, with Chris Paul.

Jokic is in drop coverage with Paul, which puts an emphasis on screen navigation from Porter Jr. now, who switched onto Paul after Murray was removed by the Okogie screen.

Porter Jr didn’t do a bad job, it’s just the pace of Paul, in tandem with the screen from Ayton (I can’t say enough about how great of a screener Ayton is) that enables Paul to operate to a pressure point of the Nuggets offense, and it’s bottoms up from a spot that’s a layup for him.

Back to the three-player actions, though.

Not unlike the Pistol play above, a few of the Suns variations of said plays serve as quick hitters in early offense.

They isolate tags (when an off-ball defender helps off their assignment, to aid the rollers man with no other defensive help in rotation) - typically when the rollers man is at the level and either ‘up to touch,’ flat hedging, or blitzing the screen - and expedites the tempo of defensive reads while manipulating space.

It’s controlled chaos, in a sense, while also condensing the court to where an organic 3v3 is created, distance away from the other two defenders.

Take this ‘Chicago’ action here (a down screen immediately followed by a dribble handoff), for example:

On this rep, you see the three players involved and the spacing manipulation - distanced away from the other two players and in the empty corner - so that no extra help is involved and their pace can’t be deterred.

That spacing manipulation, aided by Durant being in the opposite corner - holding Gordon from crossing the helpline - enables a true 3v3 in this scenario.

Murray - the aforementioned tagger here, tasked with bumping the screener's man, as Jokic is at the level with Booker - is isolated as he’s in the empty corner as the sole helper involved.

It is exacerbated by the screen from Paul that discards Caldwell-Pope while trailing Booker. That puts pressure on Jokic to not show at the level, but actually guard Booker, rendering Murray helpless – especially at the top of the box for this alley-oop.

Here, we see what’s called ‘Nash’ action, another three-player variant, however, this one’s unique because it’s a dribble handoff strategically timed to where the handoff occurs with enough space for the initiator to toggle from handler to screener.

Again, notice the pace, spacing manipulation, then subsequent chaos it causes in rotations for Denver – with Jokic again at the level of the screen on Booker.

The screen from Paul - again - discards Caldwell-Pope, exacerbating the stress on Murray and Jokic. Murray, the isolated tagger again, is pre-rotated early for the Ayton roll.

This all enables Paul - spaced above the free throw line extended - to stretch the rotation for Murray, from tagging to recovering, as much as possible. Then, Paul awaits Murray to expose which top foot he wants to stop his closeout with, and attacks that angle (with Booker space one pass away so no help to worry about), for two.

Here, we see roll reversal in ‘Nash’ plus the usage of their second-side activity.

Note that Jokic is in drop vs Paul, but the second side activity creates another advantage and high-quality look, via the pindown from Lee.

It’s a miss, but this is sensational offensive process from the Suns. Game one saw a lot of stagnancy from the Suns, second side, with entities like those above absent and enabling the Nuggets defenders to more comfortably shrink the court via early help. This activity - via pin-downs, exit screens, and exchanges - would keep their defense occupied, often.

Next, here, we see Jokic up to touch off ‘Nash’ action.

The premise is being up to touch for Jokic, to flatten out Booker's downhill ability. Here, Booker is patient on the touch and processes Jokic dropping back, as well as Ayton absolutely nailing Murray with his screen, enabling Booker space to flow into the middy and it’s bottoms up, again.

This is a good example of the chess being played from Jokic and the Nuggets, with Booker, in pick-and-roll or pick-and-roll-adjacent plays, like above, in blending and toggling coverages.

Lasty for the handoff variant of their three-player actions is ‘Miami’, which is a dribble handoff that flows into a ball screen.

(We’ve now seen Chicago, Nash, and now, Miami.)

This rep is fun because we see Okogie as a screener (!), a dynamic I have asked for more of, because of his short-roll playmaking ability and threat in paint/rim pressure.

It is something I've spoken on in a few separate instances over the course of the season, with the first being above in a mid-December win over New Orleans (58-point Booker explosion).

Back to the present, we saw Okogie here, guarded by Jokic, as the Nuggets attempted to cross-match, with the hopes of keeping Jokic out of pick-and-roll (which the Suns began to use as a pressure point of attacking…… finally), and flattening out any action with Ayton screening, with a switch.

The Suns would not oblige and insist on telling him, “No, you still have to guard, Pal,” and keeping him directly involved.

Murray - strategically forced to again switch to Booker and guard in primary action - navigates well.

However, what’s been an automatic for the Suns in seasons past, especially with Ayton (or Biyombo, but especially McGee), was the re-screen.

Here, the pace of it isn’t what it would be with a traditional screener, nonetheless, it serves its purpose as this action usually springboard either the ball handler or roller downhill.

It’s Okogie this time, as Jokic (who didn’t bite on the first screen due to Murray’s navigating) is up early on the second one.

In all, via their handoff renditions, the three-player actions were vital to their offensive process and enabled them access to a few of the pressure points of the Nuggets defense — stemming from the outer thirds.

2.) Another Three-player Action (via 77)

In the feeling-out process - which sometimes takes three games, especially when neither team saw the other healthy in the regular season series for film to glean anything from - teams sometimes have early series hiccups in figuring out what entities of their offense can they dictate with.

The Suns slowly had realizations over the course of game two, and would hit said points of pressure with a great blend.

Here, they’d do so with their ‘77’ double-drag action.

The first rep here is an example on the more micro level and specific to one game, where we can see Booker gathering information.

Booker terminates his dribble off the jab from Jokic at the level of the screen, and still gets a great look - a Durant closeout attack for free throws.

Next rep, he calls Jokic’s bluff as he see’s he won’t *really* get close enough to threaten his dribble - along with lacking on-ball pressure - then exploits the pressure point the Nuggets are conceding, on the second side.

Notice how much further, and how many extra dribbles he uses doing so, in comparison to the last rep, and how it stretches the Nuggets rotations, via his patience.

All of Booker’s reps against double teams and his growths navigating these scenarios all playing out in real-time, again.

This next rep here, we see Booker hit a different pressure point in the same scenario, playing chess with the Nuggets now.

Again, his patience as the weapon, in tandem with Durant being in the corner now, puts Braun in limbo. As soon as he committed from the tag and to Durant, Booker hit Ayron with a great pass.

Final rep here, speaking to the growth and chess player by Booker - first play he passed it quick, next two reps he hit two different options via patience - he now hits them quickly with the precise skip to Durant.

The pass and the timing of it forces the Nuggets to transition from dictating on the ball in flattening out Bookers downhill attempts off the screen, to reacting as his pass forces a weakside x-out, but after Booker’s forced the distance of said rotations to be stretched as much as possible.

Again, independent of the result (though execution is needed), the process is extremely clean and this is a shot quality - from the right person - that the Suns will live with, from a spot on the floor that is a layup for Durant percentage-wise.

These many moments compiled over the course of the game - where their process was extremely clean - should bring solace to the many overreactions and worries from Suns supporters of any capacity.

Shots simply didn’t fall at times, but the process evolving so much from game one to game two in adjustments, and simply doing little things better, are a sign.

This is what the playoffs are about.

3.) “Golden Nuggets” Found?

The overarching tidbits to glean from all here, is that the Suns are finding a much better feel to their offensive attack (and for the Nuggets vastly underrated defense) as they’ve gotten back to their base, stretched this Nuggets defense that has been persistent with flattening them out at every turn.

Even take for example the match-up tactics deployed from Denver, where they detached Jokic from Ayton, and stashed him on Damion Lee:

On Cam Payne:

They’d score on two of these three, but notice their tempo stagnate (flatten), as well as their actual action flattens — excluding Booker beating the switch-and-double to get to the rim, which was just excellent angle recognition on his drive.

Pinning the initiation and the point of the screens in their action at and from the outer thirds (past their traditional ball screens, that are being ‘iced’ or ‘weaked’), working their way across, to the middle third or to the opposite third, with passes paired with second-side manipulation (screens, cuts, lifting, sinking) — in stretching the defense, is the golden “nugget,” as far as pressure points go for the Suns offense.

This is a dynamic of the Suns offense that I have harped on for a steady portion of the season, especially in the Durant-infused rendition, and its importance has crept back to the forefront as pressure is now on the Suns to answer to the adversity applied by the Nuggets holding serve.

We even saw the other spade I expected Malone to play, in stashing Gordon on Ayton, to make those actions where Ayton screens, switches.

Sticking to their “guns,” in simply running their stuff is imperative, as the results consistently proved to be fruitful, prior to them deviating from that in the fourth.

Film Session

Youtube Version, below:

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