The Phoenix Suns find themselves knotted at two games apiece in this inaugural, best-of-seven playoff series with the well-coached and scrappy New Orleans Pelicans.
The Suns entered this series as heavy favorites. But with the team holding home court advantage in a now best-of-three series even with an injured Devin Booker, you have to take it. With that in mind, Phoenix will want to make these adjustments to end this series a game early.
Chris Paul’s Aggression
The Suns have significantly benefited from Devin Booker’s monster first quarter scoring efforts all year. In the regular season, he finished second in first quarter scoring, averaging 9.3 points per period on 7.3 attempts.
He kept working as an early ignitor for Phoenix prior to his injury as well. Based on his two opening quarters in these playoffs, he leads in scoring and shots taken from all areas, averaging 13.0 points, 9.5 field goal attempts, and 5.0 3-point attempts per period. He’s doing all this while shooting a crisp 52.6 percent from the field, and 60.0 percent from deep.
It’s audacious, but also doubles as assertive in putting the Suns in the driver’s seat to dictate any game’s pace and direction. However, Paul’s dynamic of dominance is unique from Booker’s—and he’s the one that’s healthy right now.
CP3 often waits until the final period to make a large impact. In the first quarter though, especially in the pick-and-roll, he instead works to feed Phoenix’s ancillary players. He’s currently averaging 2.3 points on 1.8 attempts in opening frames.
Beyond the impact any first quarter assertiveness from Paul would have for the Suns, such efforts would also put the Pelicans in a precarious situation. If Paul applies himself as a pressure point in getting both downhill and to his spots he can wreak havoc, especially in pick-and-roll since Jonas Valanciunas often neglects to creep up.
Early pressure from Paul may force Willie Green’s hand in playing more varying coverages, making them do so because they have to, and not because they want to. That then promises to unlock Paul’s all-encompassing passing skills, which will help slow things down for his teammates, allowing them to play off of his gravity as the leader of the Suns symphony on offense.
You add an aggressive, shot hunting Paul to the first quarter Ayton we’ve seen of late, and the Suns are cooking with gas to set a tone.
This doubles even more as, in this iteration without Booker, the pick-and-roll becomes even more so the base of the offense. No other primary action can tug at the rotations and shape-shift the defense like that tandem-action can right now.
Getting this one-two punch clicking, in a similar fashion to their game three exploits, only earlier, could bust any scheme deployed by New Orleans early, and keep them playing from behind all game.
Mental and Emotional Stamina
These two factors inevitably tend to wane, especially on the road, at this point of the season. The Suns, in a very atypical fashion, compiled a handful of occurrences (bad fouls, techs, turnovers) that although occasionally justified, were strange to see.
While they conduct film sessions and discuss strategy ahead of tonight’s game, re-calibrating the team’s usual “cool-headed” approach to the game should be a point of emphasis. The testing of this team’s mental and emotional discipline will only grow more difficult, especially with more talented teams on the horizon should Phoenix advance.
Third Quarter Execution
Phoenix is presently second-to-last in third quarter scoring, at just 23.3 points per period. They’re shooting a putrid 40.5 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from deep out of the half, both predictably last in the playoffs.
To add to that, they allow the most points on the most efficient averages, surrendering 34.3 opponent points per period on .600/.538 splits. That has accumulated into a -11 point differential, making for—you guessed it—another playoff worst ranking.
Phoenix needs to prioritize execution on both ends of the floor coming out of the break, as it could make their league-best efforts in closing 10x less strenuous, potentially even avoiding the need for a dramatic late-game surge.
A Rotation and Scheme Shake Up, or Two
Game four saw Willie Green deploy an altered rotation, matching Valanciunas’s minutes with some off-minutes for Deandre Ayton. This, in turn, saw a lot of Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. frontcourts up against JaVale McGee and a variety of wings.
This allowed New Orleans to kill Phoenix on the glass, as the Pelicans grabbed 19 offensive rebounds; 48 in total to carve out a +9 advantage.
In that, the Suns must respond with their own doctored lineup, returning to their double big man lineup which they utilized only a few times this year, most notably vs the Milwaukee Bucks. Any tandem of the new look frontcourt trio for the Suns (Ayton, McGee, Biyombo) could certainly both survive and offset this wrinkle that New Orleans took advantage of in Game 4.
By doing this, the Suns set themselves up to run some “2-up” high horns actions used (almost exclusively) offensively, while also requiring solid containing of the ball by whichever guards/wings are on the floor.
Past that, I would experiment with some additional infusing shooting/scoring into the starting lineup. Jae Crowder’s defense continues to hold up, but his offense has somewhat canceled that out, as he finds himself with .280/.059/.727 splits.
Yes, you read that correctly.
With Cameron Johnson, who went 5-12 from deep in his past two games, already in the starting lineup, I’d double-down on shooting and add Landry Shamet to the starting five in place of Crowder.
Shamet gives the Suns more off-ball movement and another sniper for Paul or Ayton to pass off to. Plus, another ball-handler promises to take some pressure off Paul, who has had Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado constantly breathing down his neck.
This move also allows Paul to work out of their horns, “elbow” sets, and also find touches on the move into their “77” drag pick and roll variants, as well as their “Chicago” and “Miami” actions.
Doing so makes it tougher to double or pressure Paul, but also allows the Suns to start their offensive sets far more quickly, with 20 seconds for their vaunted half court offense four or more seconds to work with, versus having duress of the clock dictating pace and decision-making.
3-Point Shooting/Creation Outside of Paul and Ayton
When players/teams hit a hot streak, there’s an expected plateau affecting regression that typically ensues as things return to their normal rate of conversion. Inversely, the same can be said in a drought, only in a positive respect.
That “positive regression” is what’s expected to show up at some point (hopefully in the not too distant future) for the Suns, and could swiftly end this series all the same.
As a collective this season, Phoenix’s ability to create without involvement from their three best players represents this team’s biggest development from last season. This was accomplished thanks to the following:
- Bridges’s improved handle, midrange, and playmaking
- Johnson’s improved handle in attacking closeouts while playing off of his shooting gravity, and finishing/generating rim pressure
- Crowder’s floater
This mass hysteria they cause going off-script to display these entities in a seemingly perfect harmony of randomness, rendering defenses completely helpless, became a near-relied upon development that made this team the Suns’ best in franchise history.
Add to that the trio’s collective acumen and propensity in both movement and relocation shooting, and you have a compilation of ancillary involvement keeping a defense in rotation. This all occurred with the main rotation fully intact. But now with one of the two lead guards out, these entities grow from “near-relied upon” to “truly depended on.”
Look for these many growths to be seen in that aforementioned perfect harmony, and for the Suns to “rediscover” that flow to where their random offense (slips, ghost screens, backdoor cuts) takes over in waning stretches.
This is all predicated, however, in the Suns (mainly Bridges and Johnson) executing their base offense as they function in the roles Booker typically assumes. A “torture twin” showing would come as the aptest of occurrences at this stage of the series.