Breaking Down the Phoenix Suns’ Championship Level Defense

Phoenix Suns, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images) /

The Phoenix Suns currently stand above all their other NBA opponents, assuming something of a regular season throne now halfway through March.

Their 57-14 record helped them make that climb—and it also has them nine games ahead of the next closest team in the Memphis Grizzlies. Phoenix owns a league-best +8.5 net rating, largely thanks to their 106.0 defensive rating—which ranks second best.

Coming out of the break, they possessed the sixth easiest schedule. However, in the past few days it’s grown to become one of the more difficult remaining slates left, now ranked tenth toughest with 11 games remaining.

In getting to this point, Phoenix snatched up notable wins against the Miami Heat, and the surging New Orleans Pelicans even without relevant talents in Chris Paul, Cameron Johnson, and Devin Booker.

Depleted and injured, Suns fans need to thank Monty Williams first and foremost for Phoenix’s 9-4 record after the All-Star break. In keeping this team on a winning track, his in-game planning and schemes have been near perfect—leaning on the team’s aforementioned defensive prowess while implementing a highly-complex system.

Phoenix Suns 2021-22 Defensive Play: Taking a Look Back

Retract and recount with me for a second…

Phoenix’s defense has been arguably its most consistent entity this year; it even helped pull the team out of the gutter following a slow start to the season for those that remember.

Weeks prior to the All-Star break, Monty began tinkering with his defensive schemes, playing a new card which teams had never seen before: deploying both zone and two-on-the-ball coverages.

Monty did this specifically during the team’s previous games vs the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. Both resulted in wins amidst a streak of eight, and both involved an all-intriguing defensive scheme deployed to close airspace in the middle of the floor, take away pick-and-roll chances for Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, and force teams out of their initial sets.

The defensive sets during both games proved (very) active with hands and communication. Guys always kept contact with Embiid/Antetokounmpo, and were “pointing their guns” in using their hands and words to acknowledge what went on around them.

In the zone scheme, Phoenix’s players typically flipped back to man defense after the first or second pass—all used as a tactic to slow the offense down, confuse them, and force them to work under the duress of the shot clock from disadvantageous positions on the floor.

The Suns even switched and passed guys off amidst triangles within their 2-3 zone like on ball screens to either take away penetration angles on a pick’s opposite side, or take away the angle for a roll man.

Each time they went zone, it gave them the element of surprise, working ideally after a made basket or a timeout. That, in turn, allowed them to steal about two possessions at a time as the opposition scrambled to react.

This complex defense allowed Phoenix to climb back into games and sustain momentum, while doing the opposite for their opponents.

Phoenix Suns 2021-22 Defensive Play: Back to Present Day

Looking now at this current window coming out of the All-Star break, Williams keeps experimenting even more by putting two guys on opposing ball handlers.

The Suns frequently do this on defense after an initial screen comes to start a possession. At times, it works as an all-out blitz on the ball handler, especially when the screen occurs high above the 3-point line.

But every other time, it comes when Ayton steps out from his typical drop coverage to rush the screen. He comes up to meet the ball handler, and whoever’s playing defense up top fights over the screen to bring the double.

That action is then met by the “low tagger,” typically Jae Crowder, as he pre-rotates near the elbow while the ball handler comes off the screen to stop the short roll as Ayton recovers. That typically forces the ball to the weak side out.

What’s occurring on the weak side amidst all of this strong side defense looks almost like a zone, as two players are responsible for guarding an entire area of the court.

In this area, the “low man” covers up for the “tagger” and works to deny the high-low entry pass for an easy shot inside. The next defender in nail, or around the free throw line, typically helps by  splitting the difference between the two remaining defenders on the wing.

While doing this, this defender is solely responsible for the first pass that comes from the rolling big man. The corner is then typically conceded and that pass is natural/easier to make, prompting two defenders to switch as they recover, also known as an x-out.

The Suns did this often vs the versatile Bam Adebayo in their game against the Miami Heat last week. Booker often operated as that nail man by splitting the difference and still returning to his man, then performing an x-out with Cameron Payne.

It worked masterfully, as the Suns went on to win that contest by three touchdowns, holding the first place Heat to just 90 points.

How does this Defense Separate the Phoenix Suns from the Pack?

To be able to go from zone, to man, to doubling and rotating effectively, all while tending closely to an opponent’s unique skills and tricks takes a ton of buy-in and attention to detail from a team—as even the slightest misstep, hesitancy, or late rotation renders the whole scheme vulnerable.

That’s called time on task, and the Suns have displayed an abundance of it on the defensive end this year.

This sharp play is solely responsible for their success after the All-Star break despite the team’s growing injury report. It has them looking like the NBA’s best half court defense, as they allow just 91.8 points per 100 plays—just a fraction of a point off from the top mark.

These repetitions, being so consistently crisp and disciplined, regardless of which lineup combinations they involve, bodes extremely well for when called upon in the playoffs.

Next. Mikal Bridges Giving the Suns what they Missed Last Year. dark

Monty’s given us a glimpse into his inner-tactician at varying points this season, and his troops have been ready to perform on demand whenever he signals for it. On the defensive end, this team looks even better than last season’s rendition, which consequently better-positions them to achieve their ultimate goal when the games grow more meaningful next month.