Why small ball could save the Phoenix Suns

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A scrappy small ball lineup could get the Suns back in this series. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

A scrappy small ball lineup could get the Suns back in this series. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

On his way out of the interview room after the Suns’ 124-112 Game 2 defeat, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told the assembled reporters that he’s open to suggestions ….. “even from the media.”

Well, Coach, since you asked ………

I traded e-mails with former Mavs stat guru Wayne Winston on Thursday (who’s also writing about the series on his site) to try to get a handle on what kind of lineups the Suns could toss out that could help turn this series around.

The first conclusion is that the Lakers are killing the Suns when Pau Gasol is teamed with Lamar Odom in the front court. In 53 minutes of action in which that duo has played together, the Lakers are beating the Suns by 37 points. When they aren’t together, Phoenix is actually outscoring Los Angeles by four points.

The Suns have run two lineups that are in the positives against Gasol-Odom (12 minutes of small ball, which we will get to later, and one minute of a bench unit with Richardson and Lopez), but in the other 40 minutes of Gasol-Odom the Lakers are +53. That’s largely because Channing Frye is -26 in 18 minutes against this dynamic duo.

Anybody wondering why Andrew Bynum only logged 18 minutes in Game 2 after playing 19 in Game 1 might have a better reason than his gimpy knee. Phil Jackson didn’t win 10 titles by being a stupid coach; he clearly understands the effectiveness of the Gasol-Odom combination and is exploiting it, as Odom has played 64 minutes in the series thus far off the bench.

Back to Frye. He needs to get going if the Suns are going to have a chance in this series. I think everybody’s in agreement on that. His confidence will inevitably improve at home, but it’s more than that. Frye wasn’t just bad, he was 1-for-13 atrocious, so putrid that Gentry couldn’t even play him most of Game 2 (a season-low nine minutes).

Winston suggests starting Frye so that he does not have to match up with an Odom lineup. Odom is just a bad matchup for him. His length clearly bothers Channing’s jumper and a Pau/Bynum combo wouldn’t be as effective defensively on Channing/Amare as the Pau/Odom combo has been.

The Suns aren’t likely to do that, and it defies common sense to start Frye over Lopez when defense has been such a big issue. Also, you don’t want to start changing things up this time of year, but from a lineup standpoint it makes sense to try to avoid Frye getting matched up with Odom as much as possible.

Winston also wrote that he hopes the Suns “keep Dudley on the floor as much as possible. Hope they do this or there is almost no hope, in my opinion.”

Hey, he’s not the plus-minus monster for no reason. Winston later asked me how many minutes Dudley can play, so if Winston were coaching the Suns then Dudley would obviously be playing more than the 23.7 he has averaged in the postseason.

The other major suggestion that an analysis of the numbers tells us is this: The Suns need to play small ball, even if it sounds like the absolute dumbest thing they could do in theory.

If you think about basketball using common sense, you probably think this is crazy. After all, the Suns’ biggest problems have been interior defense and rebounding. They really haven’t had a problem scoring.

However, the Suns’ lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Amare is +10 in just under 12 minutes of play this series (winning 35-25 in what’s essentially a quarter of action), and for the season its 11.4 points per 48 minutes better than an average lineup after adjusting for opponents, according to Winston’s numbers.

In theory, Odom or whoever the second big is should have a field day on the interior against Grant Hill, but that’s not the story Game 2 told when this unit chipped nine points off the Lakers’ lead in the final 7:22 of the third quarter. Of course, the Lakers could adjust to this lineup by pounding the paint, but this lineup got the Suns playing like the Suns for really the first time all series. They were spacing the floor, pushing the tempo and getting open looks like they have all year.

If the Suns want to make future games “Suns games,” this could be a lineup to rely on for heavy minutes.

According to Basketball Value, this lineup has been 33.7 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition in 34.6 playoff minutes, making it the Suns’ best lineup in the playoffs of all units that have played together for at least 10 minutes. It’s averaging a whopping 152.1 points per 100 possessions (barely second among all Suns lineups that have played at least 10 minutes in the postseason) and is yielding 118.3 pp100 on defense.

In this series, it’s also been the Suns’ best lineup of all units logging at least six minutes together, outscoring the Lakers by 45.5 points per 100 possessions. This includes a 159.1 pp100 scoring pace and a 113.6 defensive rating per 100 possessions. It’s the Suns’ best offensive and defensive lineup of all units logging at least six minutes, and all of the damage has been done against not just Gasol and Odom, but Bryant, Artest and either Fisher or Farmar as well.

And their defensive rebounding hasn’t been terrible either, boarding 72.7 percent of all defensive boards, compared to a 66.1 percent rate for the series as a whole thus far.

What’s really fascinating is this lineup was terrible during the regular season. According to Basketball Value, this was the Suns’ worst adjusted lineup that played significant time, losing 15.88 points per 100 possessions.

Unadjusted this was the Suns’ second-worst lineup that played at least 50 minutes together and just barely at that, losing 12.25 points per 100 possessions without adjusting for the opposition. This unit scored just 104.7 pp100 and allowed 117.0 in 52.5 regular-season minutes together. Not surprisingly, this was also one of Phoenix’s worst defensive rebounding teams during the regular season, boarding just 57.9 percent of the available defensive rebounds.

In summary, the Suns’ small ball lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Amare was ineffective during the regular season, when the Suns utilized it just over 1/82 of the year.

But it’s been great in the playoffs as a whole, and it’s been the only thing that’s worked in the Lakers series.

The Odom-Gasol duo has now spent two games dominating Phoenix inside, so it’s time to try something else. As counter intuitive as it sounds to match that by going small and trying to run past the Lakers like Suns teams of yore that failed in the postseason, as Stumbling on Wins teaches us, conventional wisdom isn’t always rational in sports.

So while you may be pining for more Robin Lopez, I’m pining for more small ball. After all, Coach Gentry (if you really wanted my opinion), it’s the only thing that’s worked so far.

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Tags: Channing Frye Jared Dudley Lamar Odom Pau Gasol

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