The Phoenix Suns need to run more in Game 4

Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges (Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges (Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports) /

This season’s Phoenix Suns got within a game of having the NBA’s best record by playing the exact opposite of past great Suns teams.

What did all the past Suns title contenders have in common? They all played a very fast pace and were offensive-minded in their approach.

The Phoenix Suns can no longer beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a half-court game with Chris Paul injured

In 1976, the Suns averaged 105.6 possessions per game (1.5 more than Washington, who led the league in pace this season) in their improbable run to the NBA Finals (RIP Paul Westphal!).

In 1993, the Suns were first in points per game and fourth in pace. They made it all the way to the NBA Finals only to run into Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at their absolute peak form.

In the mid-2000s, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni and star point guard Steve Nash revolutionized NBA basketball by playing Seven Seconds or Less, an up-tempo style of basketball that strongly urges the Suns to get a shot attempt within the first seven seconds of the shot clock.

By comparison, this season’s Suns play at a glacial pace (26th out of 30 teams in pace). What has worked all season long has been doing the exact opposite of all these other great Suns teams.

This season’s Suns are defensive-minded and methodical

This is mainly because Chris Paul and Devin Booker thrive in a half court setting because they like to milk down the shot clock to get the best possible look. Jae Crowder (Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat) and Mikal Bridges (Villanova) have thrived on slower-paced teams on their previous teams. Deandre Ayton has made great strides as a traditional NBA center.

Given their personnel, playing at a slower pace has made sense all season long. Yet there are some signs Phoenix can play well in a fast-paced game.

Reimagining the current Phoenix Suns roster for “Seven Seconds or Less”

With Chris Paul and Devin Booker controlling the game to a deliberate pace, it made sense to slow down the game. Not too many teams in the NBA are better in the half-court than in transition. With both Paul and Booker, the Suns were one of those teams.

Now with Paul seriously limited, the Suns must adapt to better suit Booker along with the remaining Suns personnel.

Here is how key Suns players can also thrive in transition.

Devin Booker
Devin Booker would have been amazing playing alongside Steve Nash in the Suns’ Seven Seconds or Less backcourt. Judging by this take to the basket, he is equally as unstoppable in transition as he is in the half court.

Booker no longer has the time to be deliberate in the half-court given the Lakers defenders are double-teaming him every single time he puts the ball on the floor. Not to mention Book will get several hard fouls from Lakers big men when he attacks the basket in a half-court setting.

Chris Paul
Chris Paul showed in Game 3’s opening moments he can still run a fast break to perfection, regardless of his shoulder injury.

Realistically, his shoulder injury will likely allow him to play no longer than 15 minutes. How impactful those minutes are will be magnified if the Suns start pushing the pace early.

Deandre Ayton
Deandre Ayton is very mobile for a traditional center. He should not be expected to start a fast break… yet there is nobody better on the Suns finishing one.

His rim runs should count as an assist because it draws so many Laker defenders to the paint, which creates outside shots for Suns’ shooters.

Speaking of which…Phoenix Suns punished in latest NBA power rankings

The Phoenix Suns’ role players thrive in a fast-paced game!

In my mind, Suns coach Monty Williams should go deeper into his bench. E’Twaun Moore is another ball-handler to push the pace. Torrey Craig should get more minutes in place of Jae Crowder, especially if Crowder is going to keep provoking LeBron. Craig has very recent experience defending LeBron James while he was with the Denver Nuggets last season.

Nevertheless, that is not my decision to make. Williams has relied on the quartet of Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne, and Cam Johnson to get the lion’s share of the minutes on the wing this postseason.

Therefore, it is crucial for them to knock down open 3-pointers whenever the Lakers key in on Devin Booker on the perimeter or collapse on Deandre Ayton in the paint.

And they have!

Here is a quick look at their three-point shooting percentage for this series: Jae Crowder: 2-20 (10%); Mikal Bridges: 6-13 (46%); Cameron Payne: 7-15 (47%); Cam Johnson: 5-13 (38%).

Crowder is ice cold. Everyone else is hot from 3-point range. If the Suns are to beat the Lakers, it will have to be with 3-point shooting first and foremost.

Then they must speed up the Lakers. The goal should be to have anyone besides LeBron James and Anthony Davis take shots.

The Suns won’t beat the Lakers in a half-court slugfest.

If the game slows down, the Suns do not stand a chance with Anthony Davis being furious over Devin Booker’s flagrant foul on Dennis Schroder. Not with enraged Laker defenders playing ultra-physical half-court defense anytime Booker touches the ball.

I can tell you this from a Lakers writer’s perspective: an angry Anthony Davis is the most unstoppable player in the NBA. The two players widely seen as the two most unstoppable players in the NBA do not compare to a locked-in AD: Kevin Durant doesn’t have AD’s low post presence; Giannis Antetokounmpo does not have their smooth midrange jumpers.

Many of these Anthony Davis highlights were in transition. A player of AD’s caliber is going to score in a litany of ways throughout the game. On the fast break, AD is as unstoppable as he is in the half-court. I am not suggesting the Suns can stop AD on the fast break.

The only difference is the Suns can at least dictate the terms in which AD gets the ball whenever the Lakers push the ball.  The Suns can send two guys back on defense to deny AD and force the Lakers perimeter players to either pull the ball back or take an open three-pointer.

Whereas in the half court, the Lakers can set it up and give it to AD in the post. Either the Suns will have to foul or give up a dunk.

Even if they double, it will not be enough to stop Anthony Davis or LeBron James.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unstoppable no matter what. Why would it be any different in transition than in the half court?

The faster the game goes, the less control the coach has over who gets the shots. Lakers coach Frank Vogel draws up plays primarily for LeBron James and Anthony Davis (as he should). But in a faster-paced game, more players are going to get more shot attempts.

When the game gets faster, the other Lakers players will end up shooting wide open 3-pointers in perfect rhythm.

This doesn’t help the Lakers! It helps the Suns!

Check out the other Lakers guards shooting numbers…

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 4-17 from the field (1-13 from three)

Alex Caruso: 8-19 from the field (2-7 from three)

Kyle Kuzma: 3-18 from the field (2-11 from three)

Wesley Matthews: 3-11 from the field (2-9 from three)

Talen Horton-Tucker: 2-8 from the field (1-4 from three)

Here is what I have learned as a Lake Show Life writer: the ONLY way to slow LeBron and AD down is to speed the game up and let all these other Lakers shoot to their heart’s content.

Because when the Lakers shoot three-pointers, they cannot get to the free-throw line. Anything to take the game’s power away from the referees is an added bonus.

Referees tend to call more fouls in a half-court setting. Given what happened with Devin Booker and Jae Crowder at the end of Game 3, it is fair to say the officials will be biased towards the Lakers because the Suns got on their bad side given what happened at the end of Game 3.

Another thing: the Lakers won’t be able to pressure and grab Chris Paul, Cam Payne, or Devin Booker as effectively whenever they push the ball up as quickly as possible. Speed and quick passes ahead in transition always wears down physical half-court defenses.

The Lakers are now the heavy favorites to win this series. With Chris Paul clearly limited, the Suns do not have quite enough ball-handling and playmaking in a half-court setting to score enough points to stay competitive if they play as they have all season long.

To win Game 4, the Phoenix Suns need to channel past great Suns’ teams on offense. And on defense, they must goad the other Lakers players into shooting LeBron James and Anthony Davis out of their unstoppable rhythm.

It will not be easy. The Lakers smell blood in the water and will look to make a statement. The Suns cannot slow things down and play not to lose.

The Phoenix Suns have to be aggressive and they have to play to win.

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