Lakers/Suns Preview Part 3: When The Suns Have The Ball

Darius Soriano —  May 14, 2010

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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.

Darius Soriano

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23 responses to Lakers/Suns Preview Part 3: When The Suns Have The Ball

  1. I would like to remind everyone that at some point in this past season I made all the possible predictions, so I’m bound to have predicted the ultimate winner. And I’ll thank you to remember that prediction, and not the other 99.6% of them.

  2. Not ‘tedious’. Comprehensive and fascinating.

    And scary.

  3. We really get an idea of what the coaches must be saying to the players in practice. Thanks!

  4. The suns obviously have a great offensive system and everyone has bought into it. However i think give a 7 game series and a week of preparation Phil Jackson is going to come up with something to slow this potent attack down.

    Monday cant come any sooner.

  5. great post!

  6. you refer to S&R and P&R, I get it that P&R is pick and roll, but what’s the S?

  7. 6,

    Screen-and-roll.

  8. Brought over from last thread, a little OT since it discusses our future four-game sweep of Boston:

    I definitely wanted the Leps to win because I want our guys to sweep them in the Finals. The 2008 series was all about matchups. The Lakers matched up poorly back then because Boston’s best offensive player (Pierce) was guarded by our worst defensive players (Vlad, Luke). Also, Phil waited too long (Game 3) to go to the Kobe-Rondo/Fish-Allen matchup. He won’t make that same mistake again.

    This time, Pierce is two years older and slower, Ron Ron is guarding him, and Pau is two years stronger while KG is two years older. We also have a more experienced and healthier Andrew Bynum compared to last season, and we didn’t have him at all against BOS in the Finals the year before. The Leps also don’t have Posey to guard Kobe when Pierce is on the bench. Tony Allen can’t guard him, but he’ll be the one who Doc throws out there. Rondo will likely play close to 48 minutes each game, as Eddie House was dealt to the Knicks.

    The Leps don’t have any frontcourt depth either. Let’s face it:
    PJ Brown > Sheed

    Lakers in four. If it’s ORL, then Ron Ron will turn Vince Carter into a little puddle of tears by the end of the series, and the Lakers will only drop two games at most.

  9. Hey, Darius.

    I was thinking about this a night ago and maybe it would be worth noting:
    Would it be possible to give him the Kobe Bryant treatment? I mean, let “Nash shoot his team out of the game” by giving him space and locking all the shooters down? Live and die by the Nash so to speak.
    Personally, I would love to see this, because somehow it has been successful in some games that we’ve played against them. So, what would the pros and cons be?

  10. great great read darius…

    could someone remind me again about the fundamental difference of a pick and a screen? thanks in advance!

    one of them simple things i interchange ignorantly…

    GO LAKERS!

  11. #9. Mark,
    What you’re referencing is what Kurt coined as the “Steve Nash Treatment” (Kurt’s a genius, in case folks forgot). I didn’t mention this in the post, but it will come up this series. It involves making Nash a scorer by defending him and his teammates in a way where we cut down passing angles and don’t help as often. The theory goes that if Nash scores 30 but has less than 5 or 6 assists, the Suns are much worse off than if Nash gets 18-22 points but with 12-15 assists.

    #10. bypasser,
    There’s no difference between a “screen” and a “pick”. They’re pretty interchangeable terms. Phillip was saying “screen” and I was saying “pick”. No difference.

  12. Darius,
    Thanks. Anyways, it’ll be interesting to see that kind of strategy. I, personally, would love to see it happen since, we will take Nash’s ability to drive and dish and just force him into a different angle and make him shoot jumpshots. It literally takes away the Suns’ gameplan.

  13. thanks darius…

    agree with mark about the nash treatment. i think he can be more effective when he’s penetrating than when he spots up. simple reason can be, that him staying out there and denied of space for motion takes an aspect of their offense, two because shooting from afar is less favorable than just slamming it in 2 feet from the hoop no matter whoever shoots….

  14. LIL PAU Who did that guy Machiavelli play for? a Italian team?

    Is that a reference to the end of King James from the author of The Prince?

    Was he the shooting guard and Da Vinci the point guard?

    Was The Art of War a basketball book?

    Are you saying Phil uses his theory to outwit other coaches?

    Please help me I am so confused

  15. In the 2006 series, the Lakers did an outstanding job of slowing down the Suns attack through Game 6. My memory is that it mainly involved

    (1) going inside on almost every possession… Kwame Brown (yes) was able to get dunks whenever he could hold on to the ball, and when we missed, transition d was a lot easier; and

    (2) passable D clogging up the lane and running out on 3 pointers. Basically forcing them into the midrange game.

    2007 was just a mess, with too many injuries, and the choice of smush-farmar for pg.

    So compared to 2006, LA has much stronger D (including better PnR defense), and stronger O in the paint. PHX has a tad less firepower and perhaps more dedication to the PnR and more of a rep for D (which seems like a bunch of hooey to me… The stats do not support that PHX has a much improved D compared to the pringles era).

    It seems to me that if LA uses the 2006 recipe, pounds it inside and limits the Suns running game, it should be a straightforward series win. If not, then we’ll have some very tense days ahead.

    On ORL-BOS. Fascinating series. ORL beat BOS last year (pretty handily once they focused). This year, ORL has an improved Dwight, much more team focus, more X Factor in VC. BOS has improved Rondo and improved (but still limited) KG, and everything else is worse. I can’t wait to see how it plays out, but I expect ORL to win.

  16. San Antonio used the ‘let Nash get his’ strategy in at least one game of one of their epic series from a few years ago – I don’t remember which one it was, but Nash went for 40, I think. You’ve gotta remember that he’s one of the best shooters in the league, if not the best. From what I remember, the Lakers, even in the Smush Parker-Kwame Brown era, had success slowing down the Suns’ offense in the playoffs by having their bigs hedge really hard on the pick-and-roll, and then rotate back as quickly as they can once they’ve made Nash reset and go back outside. I think we should be more capable of that strategy now then we were then, with the addition of Pau. As scary as their offense is, if Phil could gameplan well enough to dictate the tempo with that cast of characters, I’m confident in what he can do with this much improved Lakers team.

  17. People continually talk about the Lakers size advantage in reference to when they’re on offense. Rightly so.

    But the second key point about the Lakers bigs will arise from the defensive half of the floor. Nash can’t get out and run if his teammates can’t rebound and outlet. It’s basketball 101, but so long as the Lakers win the war on the glass, it’s really going to slow the Suns’ offense.

    Pau, Odom and Bynum’s size advantage will be critical on both ends. So long as the Lakers don’t get stupid and start chucking up early threes, they’ll be OK. They just need to remember that long shots lead to long rebounds, and run-outs for the Suns equate to easy baskets.

    L.A. needs to pound it inside until the little guys scream. Then get up and pound it inside again.

  18. WhiteLightnin’ May 15, 2010 at 1:22 am

    Not tedious, good read, nice video.

    Dude: Well said, can’t wait for rematch against the celtics.

    Ken: Your post confused both of us. Or maybe I need to dust off the poli sci books.

  19. With all the talk on AM radio and on the internet (FBG excluded) part of me is wondering why the Lakers are even suiting up for this series. The Suns are clearly the most devastating offensive force in the history of history and they run about 35 deep. (their hot dog vendors have PER’s that are off the charts)

    The Lakers have no business losing this series. Phoenix is a very good team playing what some consider the best basketball in the league (although everybody seesm awfully quick to dismiss the fact that Orlando has yet to lose a playoff game), but their last game will have been 8 days ago when the ball tips off at the D-town Hoops Dojo (sorry, I’ve been listening to alot of AM 570 lately) Who’s to say they are still playing the best ball in the league? my take is that as long as they are still playing the BEST BALL in the league, then the Lakers will have their hands full. The moment they fall below that level, they are going to get hurt. I really don’t want to be overly dismissive, but when push comes to shove, I feel that most Laker fans would admit that this is a series the Lakers should win. yes, they provide different challenges than the Jazz, but at the end of the day, even Sir Charles admitted, Nash and Stoudemire are awful defenders, and those guys are going to be on the court for all the big minutes. A focused Laker team (I know, not a given) brings way too much to the table. I think the super long layoff has people talking themselves into something that wouldn’t seem plausible if this series had gotten going this week.

    The Lakers playing .750 ball against the Suns this year has been dismissed by Alvin Gentry because the Suns were coming off back to backs in the Laker victories (or 2 of the 3). That’s fine, but winning a series requires .571 ball (4 out of 7).

    The videos put together by Phillip were awesome (I’m a dork, I eat that x and o stuff up), but I wonder if we are missing the forest for the trees. The Lakers were up 6, 13, and 2 (in the first quarter) when those plays happened for Phoenix. What was happening in the game prior to those virtuoso offensive paroxysms? I’d argue more good than bad for the Lakers. If it was just a matter of Phoenix running their stuff, then at some point they should have led during the game should’t they? Of course we know that running one play is never “the answer” in a league with the talent and coaching in the NBA, so I’m left to wonder, What exactly is Phoenix going to repeatedly do to beat what the Lakers are going to repeatedly do?

    Remember, in the playoffs it’s not the ability to answer 1st or 2nd questions (how do we stop Nash or Amar’e) but how you answer the 3rd, 4th, and 5th questions. Nash and Amar’e can both go off and the Lakers can still win. The Lakers 3, 4, 5 questions from the Suns POV are Lamar, Bynum, and Ron Ron defensively. What is Phoenix’s answer for them?

    Lakers should win. Phoenix can win. Given that, I’ll take my chances.

  20. i no everybody’s on the sun’s banwagon but look for kode to have a mj performance in this series. Lead by the steady coaching of phil jackson and the veteran leadership of players mixed with the explosive youth they have on the team. in my opinion all this lebron shames talk and thats hes the best player in the game has awakened the beast (kobe byrant) he looks focused and we all no hes thrives in these moments. ON the other hand give the suns credit for there excellent play and making it to the finals -prediction if the suns dont win game 1 they wont win this series.

  21. White Lightning Machiavelli was best known for his books called the Prince and The Art of War and was considered a peer of Da Vinci. He of couse was Italian and many of his theories were considered almost Zen like at the time.

    Lil Pau referenced him in a prior post.

    See what happens to Laker fans when there is no game. I get weird!

  22. Excellent piece. Not tedious at all. It’s good to catch an inside glimpse of the best offence of the League. I for one am hoping it’ll be right on spot and the Lakers won’t be able to defend it hehe…