Heading into the season, Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry believed his 2010-11 team possessed the defensive talent and intelligence to play a more complex scheme than in years past.
The thought was that with Amare Stoudemire now in New York, the Suns could defend the pick and roll differently depending on the ball-handler, the play type and the situation. Gentry implemented different wrinkles for different scenarios, assuming the Suns would be able to maximize their talents and take advantages of a certain player’s weaknesses.
But it took just over a quarter of a season to disprove that notion, as the Suns quickly became the league’s defensive bottom-feeder, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency, and 29th in both defensive field goal percentage and points allowed per game.
The complex defense was too much to grasp for the Suns, and it showed, with the Sixers and Clippers combining for 231 points on 54.1 percent shooting in back-to-back games against Phoenix. Because of those embarrassing performances, Gentry went back to the drawing board, simplifying the pick and roll defense.
Although the Suns couldn’t get stops late in Sunday’s loss to the NBA-worst Sacramento Kings, they’ve played inspired defense in 91 of the last 96 minutes of play thanks to the simplified defense. They held the Pistons to 75 points in their best defensive effort of the season. So what’s different about this scheme?
Phoenix is trapping the ball handler hard off the pick and roll, no matter what. Confusion is no longer an excuse, and it’s easy to spot who’s not doing their job. Below is a perfect example where Robin Lopez hedges hard and Mickael Pietrus trails with the double team. That pressure forces Tracy McGrady to turn it over with an errant pass.
You can see Lopez’s positioning below. He stops McGrady’s progression toward the hoop, which forces T-Mac to the sideline.
But this is nothing new as a good, hard hedge was always what Gentry wanted. Every coach wants the ball-handler to be thrown off course by the big man, but here’s where the change is being made. Instead of Lopez now retreating back to the roll man like the Suns used to do, he continues the pressure on McGrady, as you can see below.
So why would the Suns want to play four-on-three with two players on T-Mac? It disrupts the flow of the offense. Now the Suns have to communicate. It’s all about rotations and recovery from here on out. But luckily for the Suns they didn’t have to worry about that on this possession, as Lopez’s pressure and Pietrus’ presence throws T-Mac off as he rushes the throw and tosses it into the stands.
The Suns did the same thing against the Kings, here throwing off Tyreke Evans’ rhythm as he dribbles the ball off his leg and out of bounds.
Because of hard double teams like this, Evans finished the game 2-of-12 for only six points. Hill starts off with a good, strong hedge as you can see below.
Evans gets the corner on him eventually, but he’s pushed so far toward the sideline that he has nowhere to go. This change in defense is a huge reason why Gentry is so comfortable playing Hill at the four. He does a great job hedging screens and can keep pace with a guy like Evans.
It worked again here as the Hill and Pietrus double team forces Evans into the air, allowing Jared Dudley to jump the route and come up with a steal.
The Suns have also improved their rotations, which need to be crisp when you double team off the pick and roll. Every player needs to be alert and communication needs to be at its best.
The Suns do that here against the Pistons as the double team forces Detroit to swing it around the horn and eventually drive to the bucket. But because of Hill’s closeout and on the ball defense, Chris Wilcox is called for a three-second violation.
First, you can see Hill and Pietrus again bring a strong double team. This forces the ball out of Prince’s hands and into Charlie Villanueva’s on the block against Marcin Gortat — a matchup the Suns will take every time.
Gortat does a nice job roaming the paint and rotating over to Villanueva. The Pistons are already out of the flow of their offense after one pass, as isolating Villanueva on the block isn’t exactly their first option. Because Hill is out of position, Villanueva looks for the open man and finds McGrady in the corner.
Here’s where the communication comes in. Steve Nash is originally on Ben Gordon, but you can see him watch the eyes of Villanueva, ready to react to wherever the ball goes. When it’s thrown to the corner, Nash closes out to McGrady, forcing him to swing it to Gordon at the top of the key.
By that time Hill is able to rotate over to Gordon and close out strong, forcing him to put it on the ground, which eventually leads to the Wilcox three-second call.
So all the Suns are doing is pressuring the ball-handler more than ever and trusting their rotations to keep the offense out of the paint and on the perimeter. Although they’ve lost three of their last four games, it’s worked over the course of the last two.
They held the Kings to 40.5 percent shooting and 94 points, while limiting the Pistons to 75 points on 40.8 percent shooting and 5-of-20 shooting from distance. Most importantly, the Suns kept them out on the perimeter.
The Clippers shot 19-of-23 at the rim against the Suns, and took only 13 shots from 16-23 feet. Philadelphia also killed the Suns down low, making 8-of-10 at the rim and 12-of-22 from inside 10 feet. The Sixers killed the Suns on the perimeter as well, but that was a byproduct of the Suns’ inability to stop penetration.
But this simplified defense forces the opposition to shoot from the perimeter, and it showed as the Pistons got only nine shots at the rim (making six). Only 26 of their 76 shots came inside of 15 feet, proving how effective the high-pressure defense was.
The new-look defense worked — for the most part — against the NBA’s worst. But it remains to be seen how it will fare against the Lakers on Wednesday, and unfortunately for the Suns, they have a handful of problems beyond just pick and roll defense — rebounding, lack of a go-to scorer, etc.