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Phoenix Suns Temperature Check, Volume 3: Heating Up

The Suns are as whole as they’ve been all season, and are now sustaining successes on both ends of the floor — and the results are much better energy as they look to turn a corner headed into the New Year.

Charlotte Hornets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are 17-15 and presently in 8th place in the Western Conference after a win over the Orlando Magic on New Year’s Eve, with a 15th-ranked net rating of 0.9. They’ve put together a three-game winning streak and things are starting to look up for a team that has been mediocre tho start the season.

Health has been a primary concern early in the year, but before the game against the Charlotte Hornets last Friday, the tide turned. Bradley Beal recently returned from his multi-week absence due to an ankle sprain, in addition to Jusuf Nurkic returning from a stint away, due to personal reasons.

Let’s dive into what’s caught my eye recently.

“Point Durant”

Kevin Durant is undoubtedly a — still playing at an elite level — all-time great scorer, with a multitude of records in his sights to conquer before it’s all said and done.

Because he’s such a prolific scorer, that entity of his overall skill often steals the plot — rendering other skills to being underrated/undervalued. Such is the case with his playmaking abilities, among others.

Over the last two games, he’s tallied 27 assists, the most over a two-game span in his illustrious career.

In this window, we’ve also seen him tie his career high in assists, with 16 against Houston.

Additionally, he set a new career high in assist points created, with 38.

As displayed above, he’s playing in so many different contexts of the game: transition, pick-and-roll, post-ups, isolation — all scenarios in which he garners extra attention.

The level of defensive currency that’s spent to stifle him presents rich shot quality in the advantage for his teammates.

Per Synergy, of the 80 players who have compiled 150+ possessions with a pick-and-roll (including passes), Durant’s points per possession mark ranks 5th, and point per shot stemming from him (direct or from his pass) is tied for fourth.

Looking at post-ups (including passes), as the Suns continue to work through their spacing around him in these contexts, his PPP ranks 13th.

However, he has produced the 6th most three-point makes from post-ups, with 15 — speaking of course to him but also the Suns' execution in the advantages he manipulates from that area of the floor. That provides an all-important inverting balance to their attack.

He spoke with me about his post-ups after their match-up, in Chicago, earlier this season.

The Suns have leaned more into his playmaking the last few games, and — while live ball turnovers and the volume of extra attention garnered from him have been something that I’ve had my eye on, he’s been better of late in that department.

27 assists to just 4 turnovers is optimal.

On the season, he has 34 bad pass turnovers, there’s a happy medium there that, should he sustain, can make the attack of this Suns team optimally layered.

Duant on-ball means everyone else is in the role they’re most comfortable, in movement or playing off the catch. Additionally, the caveat of the volume of extra resources deployed to him, means those catches often come in advantages.

I posted recently, as well, about the extra attention Booker had garnered while Durant was away:

Sustaining the playmaking spaces they’re both presently operating in, while blending in point-of-initiation touches for Beal, and seeing results in time on task from their teammates stemming from their manipulation of extra defenders, is where this team can reach their offensive ceiling.

Having the contexts those 3 succeed most in cycled through in their half-court offensive process, is a dynamic to watch for in the next few weeks.

Durant’s efficiency and effectiveness will continue to be as important as any.

Gordon and Allen, Optimized

Phoenix is averaging the 5th most points per game over the last three, at a blistering 125.3. They’re also knocking down the 3rd most threes on average, with 15.3.

At the helm of that, combining for 9.3 of that 15.3 hits from deep are Eric Gordon (5.3 — the 2nd most on average in this window) and Grayson Allen (4.0).

Their shooting efficiencies, at 53.3% and 48.0% respectively, are essential to this offense being optimized. They both also go about it in slightly different manners, but shooting is at the forefront of it all for them both, then being able to be scorers as well, averaging 20.7 and 21.3 respectively.

These two are the most often recipients of looks stemming from the extra attention of their three best players, in some capacity — if it’s not either of the two not involved directly. As the two most complementary pieces to all that the big three do, these two being able to shoot, space viably, and drive — especially — are key.

Gordon is more on the spot up or catch-and-shoot side in his dynamic — often relocating off pulling defenders, to stretch rotations as they work to flatten primary action. He’s knocked down seven (!) three-point attempts in each of the last two games.

Allen’s averaged 6.3 drives in the last three games, on par with his 6.4 season average. However, it’s the efficiency, shooting 88.9% on them — displaying dexterity, deceleration, and touch across an assortment of contested layups and floaters.

Allen has also been the Suns' best small screener this season, and his synchronization with the Suns' big three in that area is growing — I detailed some of it in the thread below:

Allen is also at 52.4% on 0.8 pull-up threes this season. In this three-game window, he’s at 75% on 1.3 attempts.

He’s also at 90% from less than 10 feet in this window.

These two operating at this multifaceted level offensively in layering their attack, but also with the opportunistic disruption defensively, is right where the Suns need them.

Small Ball Returns

The loss of Jusuf Nurkic for two games forced Frank Vogel’s hand in expanding his rotation and experimenting.

It has developed multiple gems: Udola Azubuike, Chimezie Metu, and Saben Lee. The former in Azubuike, I’ve spoken on recently, and has been most impactful with a +5.3 in the last four games. The latter in Saben Lee, whom I highlighted last season for his ever-presence in downhill activity and the spark it gives the Suns offense.

Metu, however, has garnered the most minutes and unlocked new layers of lineup versatility within the rotation.

Metu featured as the center has been a consistent entity within the rotation over the past four games. Those lineups have often featured him with Durant, optimizing “small” size and versatility.

So far, those lineups are at 118.7 in offensive rating (a 70th percentile efficiency) with a very solid eFG% of 57.4%. Defensively, they’re at 115.7 in rating — leaving more to be desired in activity levels.

Those lineups need to cause more chaos and get more out on the break, via ball pressure, but they’re finding their footing — and Vogel is better constructing the lineups around those two as well.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the rendition of Booker/Allen/Okogie/Durant/Metu. Justnune possessions shared together, but the numbers in a window too small to glean from, are loud. It’s the practicality though.

Having a point-of-attack defender + chaos inducer for that side, as well as someone who can get downhill on the roll and via cuts to get a reaction out of inevitable switching defenses is important to small ball — and Okogie provides.

Will be fun to track this lineup plus the general small balk constructs Vogel deploys, as it’s becoming consistent in the rotation.

Vogel is using it rotationally, but also to dictate, as we saw in Friday’s game against Charlotte.

The lineup in closing, of Booker/Beal/Allen/Gordon/Durant was also very intriguing.

The Suns are in a much better space than a week ago in feel, but also in functionality.

Lowman Lull’s

One of the biggest schematic takeaways for me from their matchup with the Dallas Mavericks on Christmas was just how consistently late or non-existent their lowman layer of defense was.

They were, inevitably, giving extra attention to Luka Doncic in pick-and-roll. Naturally, that tasks your backline defense to cover the roller in those scenarios — momentarily conceding perimeter shots to protect the rim from the easier, higher percentage attempts.

New flash, there is no scheme for Luka Doncic, so to criticize their defense for not stopping him just isn’t a productive conversation — but controlling the pieces around him, is a fruitful convo.

The game within the game on Christmas was whose secondary defensive rotations would hold up most. The Mavericks and their execution of scheme would ultimately out-execute that of the Suns.

The instance like below, however, far outweighed the good.

Metu has to take a much better angle to completely flatten out Doncic’s progression first. That, however, is then exacerbated by the lack of timeliness from the lowman here, in Durant.

Leverage was lost entirely too often, and again reared its head at the most inopportune times.

When they did nail the rotations, you could just feel a sense of relief.

Durant’s peeled in early, and Gordon sinks in to great positioning to force a tough angle on the diagonal. Turnover.

Here, it’s all activity from Eubanks — from the hedge to the recovery on the roller, all with activity.

I look forward to their next matchup with the Mavericks, on January 24th, as an attention to detail and thorough film session should show how easily correctable a ton of their issues were.

Points of Note

  • Chimezie Metu was noted in small ball, but his general level of time on task-ability in nailing the margins, as a bigger forward, is imperative. His Christmas showing takes the cake, but since his uptick in minutes in early December, he's at 8.7 PPG on 51.7% from the field, and 4.9 RPG his last 10 games — solid.
  • Beal’s return on Friday displayed plenty, but I would keep a lookout for his play with Nurkic. He had two to Nurkic, but the contexts in play via pace-inducing handoffs and, even more-so, their empty corner attack, is compromising.
  • Suns general empty corner play is something I've noted throughout the season but especially of late. The spacing manipulation takes on a different look with the entire calvary in play.
  • Udoka Azubuike is +5.3 in 51.6 minutes over the last 4 games — his spark has been rotation-stabilizing, and the effect in activity and physicality is a positive contrast to Nurkic’s play.

**Stats provided are all accurate as of 12.30

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