The Phoenix Suns saw Bradley Beal and Jusuf Nurkic impress in their win over the Portland Trail Blazers Sunday night. Their 127-116 win saw some impressive showings, from the two mentioned in the introduction, but also from Chimezie Metu and Keita Bates-Diop.
It is important to note what we saw (and didn’t see) from them while the “Big 3” were not all in the lineup, and how it differs from what’s demanded from them (and the volume of that demand) when all three are in play.
Let’s start there.
Metu and Bates-Diop importance
Those margins pieces were added with the context of having them do things they’ve shown they can do in different situations, in an (arguably much) better context with the Suns, and on a lower volume.
For those two specifically, in a guard-heavy rotation, having two 3.5/4 type players who provide size and impact the game in different ways is important — remember last season when Torrey Craig’s playoff shooting regressed after a hot streak in the first four games of their opening series?
The Suns lacked optionality and it ultimately was a roster flaw as they worked to bridge and mend things following the acquisition of Kevin Durant via trade.
Positioned now, they have multiple options in addition to Durant, to give different looks, balance, or counterbalance lineups, fit for specific schemes in pockets of games, and generally gather data throughout this season.
Metu has been the better of the two of late, undoubtedly, but both player’s roles — while similar in archetype — are slightly different in terms of how they operate from the spots they’re featured in.
Allowing them to work, and develop chemistry, and rhythm in those pockets, is important to the team’s process.
Both were positives — Metu was +1 in 17 minutes with 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks, while Bates-Diop was +4 in 13 minutes with 4 points and 3 rebounds — in a game where the Suns went to 9 different small ball lineup renditions.
Unlocking lineup versatility is a context that those players directly impact and provide value in.
Suns Operating vs the 2-3
As the Suns Big 3 compile more minutes together, more teams will at least try their hand at playing a zone of some sort, to keep them out of the paint.
Against the Blazers, the zone was certainly expected given how Billups has deployed his chess pieces as head coach, and there was a fair share of it.
They saw 41 possessions against it on Sunday, with 6 of those possessions even seeing a full-court press into zone defense from the Blazers.
Operating against a myriad of schemes and coverages will be an inevitable mental fitness for the group, and they proved to be more than up to the task on Sunday.
Their PPP against the zone was an efficient and effective 1.220
For Beal, he made plays with it and without it — as the recipient and the facilitator.
He’s the recipient of a re-drive scenario with Durant, re-spacing into an open topside look.
This was fun. As the middle guy in the 2-3, Reath was often eager to step up to the free throw line whenever activity came to the middle third of the floor. Knowing so, the Suns pitched to Nurkic — in Delay action against the zone — immediately prompting a backdoor cut from Beal.
Another Beal early offense paint touch collapsed the defense, naturally, and from the cut, catch, and dish, Allen was left wide open in the opposite corner, for a hit.
Of note: Allen is 3rd in percentage from deep for those who qualify, at 46.8%. He’s also at hot 53.1% from the corners, on 49 attempts.
Notice the tempo and flow here. Multiple drives and multiple passes keep the defensive dominoes in rotation, before ultimately creating an overreaction to distort the shape of the zone — resulting in a Beal corner three.
Suns go “stack” here against the 2-3. Instead of it being Spain pick-and-roll, with no one for Gordon to backscreen, this is much closer to “roll and replace” which is an action you’ll see a ton more on the college circuit.
Nonetheless, it’s a very intelligent movement underneath the top two players in the zone from Beal, and because Gordon has the attention of the top, Beal’s relocation pulls the corner man in gravity and leaves Durant wide open for a hit.
Of note: Kevin Durant is second in the three-point shooting percentage, at 46.9%. He’s at a scorching 60.9% from the corners, on 23 attempts.
Beal has been in a space of late, and is really both carving out his niche and adapting to the needs this team demands from him.
Bradley Beal in 9 games since returning from his ankle injury— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) January 15, 2024
☄️ 20.6 PPG
☄️ 57% from 2 & 42.4% from 3
☄️ 4.4 RPG
☄️ 4.3 APG
The Suns have the best Ortg — 127.4, +9.7 over league average — & also the 5th best non-garbage time net in this window (+10.7)
They're 6-3 since
As for Nurkic, the zone presented him with ample opportunity to flex his IQ and feel like a connector.
Very subtle here, but he truly has the feel of an NFL possession wide receiver who’s adept at finding those holes within a defense, and settling when it’s advantageous, to create an advantage.
Here, he’s alleviating pressure again. Notice how automatic it is for Allen to pitch to Nurkic to start the offense much earlier in the clock and generate some pace. Then, watch solely him as he nestles in a pocket to counter the movements of their zone, and position well around the Suns' movement.
This is a solid play.
Again, just finding the pocket to settle in, then playing against a smaller Blazer in rotation.
Seeing Phoenix operate well with talent, but even more so with player movement and ball movement to alter the shape of the zone & create reaction advantages was reassuring.
They even ran some of their man offense against it in stretches.
On the season now, their Points Per Shot rank against zone is 1.31 — good for 4th best. Additionally, their PPP mark of 1.178 ranks 5th.
Film Session — Zooming in on the Suns' Two-Way Closing Efforts against Portland
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It is for the many reasons above, in experience and chemistry building, that games like this one against the Blazers shouldn’t be taken lightly when glazing the schedule by Suns fans/content creators.
These opportunities provide plenty of opportunity for the team in situations where there’s some adversity, and the collective problem-solving in addition to the coaching staff receive great exercise.