There are not enough superlatives to describe Phoenix’s offense. Explosive. Dynamic. Downright Scary. In our preview of when the Lakers have the ball, I called the Suns O a juggernaut and really that’s a bit of an understatement. In order to slow down that unit, the Lakers are going to need to show a discipline and attention to detail that they’ve not yet had to show in these playoffs. Many will try to compare Phoenix to the Jazz in that they’re a point guard oriented team that has a power forward flanking him and they operate a system that is refined and unique. And while those points are true, underselling the Suns in that manner is a mistake. Where the Jazz were a fundamental system based off the structured execution of Williams and Boozer, the Suns are an improvisational system based off the creativity of Nash, the hammer of Amar’e and the shooting of everyone else. Sure, both systems are unique, but one (Phoenix) is based solely off the mind’s inner workings of one of the best passing guards of the past 20 years. Nash and his ability to control a game is the difference; he’s the player that can make something out of nothing, that can create a passing angle where none exists, the player that sees the court in ways that only the truly great passers have (not to mention his ability to get his own buckets). Slowing this machine down will take more than what the Lakers have had to give so far these playoffs. Let’s explore what they’re up against.
First and foremost, the key to the Suns offense is their transition game. Nash is one of the best in the league at receiving outlet passes on the run and every Suns player (even the ones assigned to rebound defensively) love to get out and fill lanes. So, the first key to slowing down the Suns will be to literally slow them down. Nash needs to be forced to go back to meet the ball and the players that run out need to be marked in the open court. Even when Nash does catch the ball on the move, he needs to be picked up early and forced to change directions (preferably more than once) in order to disrupt his timing and that of his running mates. This will be easier said than done, but it’s a necessity if the Lakers are to control the tempo against this team.
Also understand that Phoenix’s open court game is counter-intuitive to what the Lakers have faced so far this post season. Against the Thunder and Jazz transition defense was also a major key, but the point against those teams was to get back and build a wall to defend the paint against explosive guards in Westbrook and Williams. However, the Suns (outside of Amar’e and sometimes Richardson) don’t run to get to the rim – they run to the three point line. Every Suns wing player (and Frye) is a capable player from the three point line. Even a player like Grant Hill (who isn’t the best long range shooter) will run to the corner and then upon receiving the ball will either fire away or attack off the dribble against a closing out defender. This can’t be stressed enough – the Lakers must mark players in the open court and must simultaneously close down Nash’s penetration while recovering to the three point line in transtion.
But the Suns effectiveness on offense is not limited to run outs, transition basketes, and open court three pointers. As Phillip states, this team is also a very good half court team:
One of the things that is different about this Suns team compared to Suns teams of the past is how this team is able to operate in the half court. During the Mike D’Antoni “Seven Seconds Or Less” era, they hardly ever ran any real offensive sets even though they had all the tools to be the best S&R team in the league. This year, they are that team with a lot of the credit going to Alvin Gentry…And after watching, and re-watching the last Lakers-Suns meeting (March 12), I have to say I really enjoy what they do.
As Phillip said, the Suns are probably the best P&R team in the league. This simple play is the foundation for their half court sets with Nash (and Dragic) showing patience and smarts to get every Suns player (including themselves) quality looks at the basket or from the perimeter. I’ll go back to Phillip to let him explain some of the different options that the Suns use out of the P&R:
1. Just a simple screen and roll where the ball handler takes a screen, the screener cuts and the ball handler gets him the ball. It’s that simple, but they are able to run it so well because of the other two sets.
2. The screen, roll and pull-up. It’s a screen and roll like the above, except after the screener cuts, the ball handler pulls up for a jump shot.
3. Then there is the screen, drive, roll and trailer. This is another option, a little more complicated than the other two, but still a very simple offensive play. When the screen is set, instead of looking to shoot or pass, the ball handler takes the screen and drives toward the basket, the screener also rolls, bringing attention with him. As defenders follow both the screener and the ball handler, a third offensive player cuts to the basket and is fed by the ball handler for an attempt around the basket.
4. Would be similar to the third, except the ball handler kicks the ball out to a shooter instead of a cutter.
But rather than just talk about these options, below are some visuals to show what the Suns do and the variety of looks they create using this action. Again, Phillip (who put all these clips together) will take it from here:
In this first clip, you see Amare Stoudemire coming up to set a screen for Steve Nash, after the screen is set, Stoudemire cuts to the basket where Steve Nash throws a perfect pass and Stoudemire finishes with the dunk at the rim. As you can see, there is nothing complicated about it, it’s just that the Lakers did a horrible job of defending it.
In this second clip shows a trailing Louis Amundson coming to set a screen on Derek Fisher for Steve Nash. Amundson rolls to the basket, both Gasol and Fisher go with him and Nash pulls up for the three and nails it. Again there is nothing necessarily complicated, there were just defensive mistakes that were made that allowed this play to happen.
On this third clip, you’re going to see Jarron Collins setting a screen on Derek Fisher for Steve Nash. Both Collins and Nash are going to be moving toward the basket as Amare Stoudemire, who is free-throw line extended on the far side, starts moving toward the top of the key. As soon as he gets to the top of the key, he dives straight toward the basket and gets a nice pass from Nash for the easy dunk. This play was set up nicely by Grant Hill starting on the left side of the floor and clearing out to Stoudemire’s side to give the illusion of a two-man game with Nash and Collins.
And while we don’t have a visual example of the 4th option, if you rewatch video #3, you’ll see Jason Richardson waving his arms around calling for the ball at the opposite extended wing. Nash is quite capable of making that pass as well and it’s those shooters lurking behind the three point line that give the Suns’ P&R the spacing to be effective. Understand as well that these aren’t even all of the variances that you’ll see in these options. Phillip’s done a great job of showing us the foundations of this action, but if you check out the video that Kevin Arnovitz has up at TrueHoop, you’ll get even more evidence of the Suns’ diverse attack out of this simple set. I mean, look at the spacing. Look at the shot making. Look at how pin point passes are rewarded with deep threes going in. This Suns team shot over 41% from three during the regular season and are matching that number in these playoffs.
Now that we have a proper appreciation for what the Suns are capable of, the issue at hand is slowing down this locomotive. As I mentioned at the top, defending the Suns will take discipline but it will also take a commitment to the schemes that the coaches install. Again Phillip:
S&R defense is all about decisiveness. You have to decide whether or not you’re going to show or stay back, and when you do decide, you have to be completely into it. There are certain teams where you’re better served not showing (i.e. the Thunder, where you don’t want to give driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and you’d rather him taking a jumper), but this Suns team is one that you NEED to show.
Said another way, our big men are going to need to be active in this series. They’ll need to “show” or “hedge” on the ball handler in order to impede his progress. If necessary, they may end up locked on to the ball handler for longer than normal or switching entirely in order to ensure that Nash (or Dragic/Barbosa) doesn’t just go wherever he wants with the ball. Obviously, this points to the Bynum/Gasol/Odom trio. Are they capable? I’ll let Kurt sum it up:
Pau Gasol is an underrated P&R defender — he’s quite good — and his play will be central to the Lakers. Odom is right behind that. Bynum is going to see his minutes go down some this series.
I’m with Kurt on this – I expect Gasol and Odom to be key defensive players in this series because of their mobility on the perimeter where, if needed, they can switch onto guards and play them straight up on a limited basis within a possession. However, Bynum will also be important because he can be the foil at the rim when the Suns play their “big” lineup with Amar’e at PF and either Lopez or Collins at C. With these combinations on the floor, Bynum will not have to leave the paint as those other players are not offensive threats. This means when Nash is penetrating or Amar’e is diving to the cup, big ‘Drew can be the man protecting the rim. Sure, his mobility has been impacted by his injured knee but his height and length remain intact and those traits will serve as a deterrent at the rim.
If you’ve managed to make it this far, understand that as tedious as this post has been, the Suns offense is worth the word count. Over the course of the season series the Lakers did a good job of containing the Suns. But these teams only played once after the all-star break (a Lakers win) and that was a game in which Frye didn’t play. We should also mention that the Suns are rolling right now and that Richardson, Dudley, Dragic, and Hill are probably playing some of their best ball all season. Slowing the Suns will be a team effort both in terms of how they scheme to stop their sets and how they execute in the other facets of the game – especially when the Lakers have the ball (controlling tempo, limiting turnovers, crashing the offensive boards, getting the ball into the paint on offense). Remember, the Triangle is an offense that is supposed to promote floor balance and provide an easy transition to playing defense. If the Lakers can control the ball and play their offense the way that they’d like, it will help their defense. If they don’t, the Suns will run wild and will get more than enough looks to continue to their dominant play on that side of the ball. On Monday, we’ll finally get to see how this plays out and honestly, I can’t wait.