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Phoenix Suns Temperature Check, Vol. 4

Diving into what all has caught my attention from the Suns over the last few games.

Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are 21-18, place 8th in the Western Conference, and have a net rating of 1.2 – ranked 13th in the league. They are coming off of consecutive wins, downing the Portland Trail Blazers 127-116 last night. So how’s the temperature? Surely better than what the midwest experienced this weekend, I’m sure.

Their non-garbage time ratings:

  • 118.8 offensively, ranked 11th (league average is 116.2)
  • 100.5 in the halfcourt offensively, ranked 13th (league average is 99.0)
  • 116.0 defensively, ranked 15th
  • 99.7 in the halfcourt defensively, ranked 17th

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

Big Three, Tone Setting

The Suns are finding pockets where they’re dictating and dominating with their big three on the floor, oftentimes coming with that starting lineup that includes Allen and Nurkic.

Spacing is optimized, as well as having five players that can screen, space, play make, and shoot to some regard of relevance. All five can also put pressure on the rim in manners unique to each other.

Specifically for the top three, though, there’s a need for that trio to set the tone for the team on a nightly basis, and even more so, situationally.

The team needs strides towards marking an identity, which seems to be a pocket defensive team, being one that is able to find pockets over the course of games where they compile stop-score scenarios, and dictate with defense and tempo, resulting in scoreboard separation.

To get to consistently finding those pockets, a tone has to be set in the beginning of games and halves when they’re all on the floor.

We saw just that against the Lakers, with plenty starting defensively.

Durant had three steals and a block, Booker had three steals, and Beal also had a steal.

Additionally, Durant had six deflections, Booker had four, and Beal had one — in addition to three loose ball recoveries on the defensive end, and a charge taken.

It won’t always be boxscore oriented, but those three have a non-negotiable bar set in defensive sharpness in regards to the game plan execution, as well as in activity on that end.

Albeit in just 127 minutes (still a small sample size), that 111.97 defensive rating — defending at the equivalent of the 6th best defense in the league.

They can obviously score, but if they’re tandemizing that with connected defensive activity (with both pace and tempo stemming from it), that is where their identity will begin to (maybe rapidly) surface.

Reaching a top-12 level defensively, in a sustained manner, is the goal.

As they compile more minutes and reps together, that race to the first timeout in the first and third quarters will be the barometer for the frequency they’re operating at.

Pressure Releases

It’s to no surprise, but the matchups the Suns have had the past few games have been more capable in the execution of aggressive off-ball schemes (with another to come tonight, in LAL).

The Clippers (twice), Heat, Grizzlies, and Lakers all have a few active wings that can bring a level of physicality to their off-ball aggressively to make life tough inflow for an opposing offense.

The Suns have been tasked many times this season, by teams that can do so, with processing through their offensive progressions and getting into counters.

It hasn’t always been the best, however, it’s a part of the journey that they will have to embrace a lot earlier than other teams, given the construct of their roster — leaving opponents with little that’ll be effective other than aggressive coverages.

This has come in the form of a litany of two to-the-ball contexts (via Booker in pick-and-roll, Kevin Durant pick-and-roll, and Kevin Durant post-ups) that force the Suns to rep out their spacing and play in read-and-react.

It’s also come in the form of teams trying to stagnate their flow from action to action, and sometimes even in the inception of possessions, to bleed away the shot clock but also, generally, make them work offensively.

In that has come opportunities to alleviate that pressure, with a counterpunch.

Insert one, Jusuf Nurkic, the Suns' connecting piece.

His showing generally this season has been right in alignment with what i saw in his offensive potential around this team — with his game against Memphis being the exact template.

As teams inevitably apply more pressure and dictating-style defense to this team, his role grows even more meaningful and also becomes more optimized as the connecting piece into advantages-galore.

By the numbers, the team is at their best when he’s on the floor, generally, with a non-garbage time net of +14.9 as well as generating their most efficient shots.

Revelations with Bol

He isn’t getting a crazy high volume of minutes. However, his impact is exceeding what I envision he would be able to compile for this Suns team.

For a rotation that, aside from Durant and Nurkic on consistency, lacks size — generally — the uptick in volume of minutes, production, and effectiveness in said minutes for Bol Bol has been both a pleasant surprise and revelation.

Since the turn of the calendar and into the New Year, Bol is averaging 16.6 minutes a night, with most coming in the flow of games rather than the garbage time minutes he saw early in the season.

Earlier, mixed in with garbage time minutes, he’d seen a stretch of 19 games with a DNP-CD.

Since earning opportunity via the Suns' vaunted role player post-practice scrimmages, he’s seized the opportunity and carved out an all-important “do your job” in the execution of tasks.

His numbers are not loud, but he is indeed doing his job in providing length and activity both defensively and on the glass — on both ends of the floor.

Honestly, with averages of 8.8 PPG on 75% from two, 75% from three, and 80% from the free throw line, as well as 5.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, and nearly a block and steal per, he’s filling up the stat sheet.

This production, in a tapered role, especially in his 7’2, 220-pound, 7’8 wingspan, and 9’7 standing reach, is effective.

Notice how he makes a simple rotation here, but because of his stature, it forces opponents to rethink their plan of attack.

This is a perfect showcase of his two-way versatility, as he’s there as the lowman, then able to simply be tall prior to the block. Then, you can see him slipping into the advantage afterward from the drag screen.

There have been numerous examples of him in these scenarios defensively, just being timely in stature within his rotations — deterring shots off fear, as well as with timely help to wall off drives.

He’s +7 in the four games he’s appeared in (missed two due to an ankle injury) and brings a youthfulness and exuberance to this veteran-littered rotation.

Bol is also one of the players where, off his athleticism, pace of play typically picks up. Whether it is by his doing in deflections, blocks, steals, rotations, or in him being an athlete filling a lane or rim running.

His fun-loving style of play is crowd/bench/staff engaging, and it’s been positively impactful to the on-court product the team is putting out as well, most importantly — with skill.

The Suns have a net of 5.6 when he’s on the floor in his 88 minutes this season.

They’re also +4.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

He’s providing some offensive and defensive versatility while helping to push pace as well — rim running and filling lanes in transition.

Keep an eye out for the returns on his shifts going forward, as his role could be solidified should he sustain this production.

Smalls as a screener

The Suns have continued to evolve their offensive process, and are using their guards as screeners for each other much more frequently, lately.

The screens they set serve multiple purposes; sometimes simply for a switch and more advantageous matchup on-ball — involving certain players (aka Waldo’s) in action — sometimes to get a reaction out of the defense for the player with the ball to then attack in, sometimes to free themselves into space in countering the coverage on-ball.

The other key component of it is to keep effective pick-and-roll defenders away from the primary action.

It all adds a different layer to their offense, becoming an entity of its own.

Still keeping elements of their pick-and-play dynamics, without having Defensive Player of the Year (Bam Adebayo, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Anthony Davis) type players disrupting action is key — but it also adds nuance to both their process.

Grayson has a true feel for opposing coverages, the spacing around him, where pockets for him to float to exist, and what type of screen to set to optimize play around coverage on-ball.

Additionally, we’ve seen Bradley Beal used as such in multiple contexts. I’ve spoken to him doing so in early offense Pistol screens, not unlike what we saw frequently with Mikal Bridges.

Past just then, he’s also done so with Booker and Durant for stretches.

Notice here how the spacing is communicated from Beal, then manipulated as they go small-small in the emptied side of the floor.

Then, he’s enabled to slip into space as the Heat go “show and recover,” which forces an emergency switch — ultimately serving as a closeout of sorts for him to attack, which is a strong suit of his.

Notice next, the presentation, then the deception he uses to create as much of a reaction advantage to play in as possible.

From faking the flow to the baseline, which ultimately pins Reaves behind schedule. To the dummy initial screen, before flipping the angle — all leading to an emergency switch, burning the show and recover for Los Angeles, into the advantage created underneath the action up top.

Reaves much more on alert here, but Beal’s pace plus the angle to screen under, and stay under, is sharp.

His elusive and evasive movement patterns in route running are such a complementary skill.

We’ve also seen Booker get in on the fun, taking opponents’ “touch rules” and using them against opponents, manipulating matchups.

Notice here how he gains direct access to Tyler Herro from the touch screen, and immediately relocates to the mid-post.

A miss here, but you see the process playing out into a qualitative advantage, for Booker just by these two screening for each other.

Be on the lookout for plenty more of the Suns small screening for each other as well as for Durant, both on-ball and off-ball — as the advantages in play that stem from it are abundant in the manipulation of scenarios they desire.

Of Note:

  • Phoenix is 26th in three-point makes per game (11.8) and 27th in three-point attempts per game (31.6), as well as 25th in totals for makes (447) and 27th in attempts (1202). Just 33.5 percent of their attempts come from deep — 2.6% less than the league average. Generating more catch-and-shoot opportunities from deep for the “Big 3” into their process would go a long way in siding the offense
  • The Suns are 1st in free throw rate (free throw makes per 100 attempts) — while also 4th in free throw percentage, at 82.1
  • Kevin Durant (47.1%) and Grayson Allen (46.2%) rank 2nd and 6th respectively in three-point percentage, in the league
  • Grayson Allen leads the team in deflections, with 70 on the season
  • Devin Booker is presently on pace for a career-best in efficiency at the rim, which is a major co-sign to the context in spacing and shooting being optimized around him — he’s presently at 73.3% on 90 attempts at the rim this season

***All stats included above are accurate entering play on 1.14.2024

Temperature Check

Winners of 7 of their last 10, things are warm with a potential warm up on the rise, should play stemming from their game against the Lakers sustain.

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