In a pivotal Game 5 in the friendly confines of the Footprint Center, the Phoenix Suns reminded everyone just which entity of the game is their backbone. Even though Game 6 went south, what we saw in Tuesday’s contest will be key in taking the series tonight.
By the masses, the allure and gravity that the Suns have offensively can oftentimes serve as a distraction in a sense to the true identity of this team. Shiny pieces of the elite stratosphere like Chris Paul and Devin Booker at the helm understandably garner attention for their offensive exploits and pyrotechnics.
If you add to that the way their pieces fit together as a whole offensively, and include the symphonic orchestration of their sets within the half court and their top tier numbers to match on that end, it’s completely understandable. Offense sells tickets.
However, defense is where it all starts for this group. Games 3 and 4 in Dallas where their defense came undone represent prime examples. The offense, however, lacked rhythm and flow due in large-part to them not dictating much defensively, and subsequently taking the ball out of the net and being forced to run against a set defense.
Garnering stops allows for the Suns to dictate pace, then free-flow into their offense with the assortment of tactics they have in initiating sets, or even free flow in read-and-react offense.
Game 5 presented a prime example of just that, as the Suns strung together big-time runs to end the second, and even more-so for the duration of the third. The third being where they forced 12 turnovers, of which, seven came via steals.
In that quarter, they also allowed just four points in the first six minutes and 14 total for the period, ending it a +19 on the scoreboard as they put up a resounding 33 points in the frame. That completely shifted the game’s momentum, tilting the scale heavily in their favor stop after stop.
They did so via a “heightened level of awareness” as Monty Williams coined it, in a few specific areas, and that’s what we’ll be diving into here.
The Suns did so on offense as well, as I noted early in the series, but duping Doncic inversely was the foundation of Phoenix’s game plan for the series. In theory, the Suns would “allow” for Doncic to do what he does as a scorer, but make it tough on him while simultaneously taking away from the all-encompassing impact of his heliocentric play.
They were fine with it if Doncic averaged 40 points per game, trusting their efforts independent of making him work, so long as he had to work hard for that 40 and they limited the production of the rest of the Mavericks rotation.
A daunting task in-and-of itself, they’ve executed more often than they haven’t.
The “struggles” of Doncic in efficiency, especially on the volume he’s shooting at, have been documented. As of Game 6, Doncic averaged 32 points on 25 shots this series with .464/.304/.769 shooting slashes.
The Phoenix Suns Lock up the Point of Attack
First in line on defense is always Mikal Bridges at the point of attack. He’s done his job and then some with navigating screens, staying attached, and applying pressure with physicality on Doncic to initiate.
“I thought [Bridges] did a really good job pressuring him a bit more,” said Williams. “I thought we were much more physical against [Doncic].”
The excessive attempts Doncic is putting up indicates that he’s either settling, being forced to take attempts late, or both. The latter is the case here, as there is a lot of matchup hunting going on, which is a clock-consuming tactic against a team that’s active. That’s coupled by his comfort in certain matchups and the confidence he has in his deliberate step backs.
The Suns compilation of defenders who have a turn on Doncic were all locked into the game plan of staying solid in Game 5, keeping the ball in front of them and being legally physical with him as well both before the catch or after.
Aside from Paul for difference in stature, the Suns have a laundry list of defenders (including Ayton and Biyombo) who combine the prerequisite stature with foot speed and coordination, enabling them the ability to stay with him move-for-move out in space. They can then contest his release points viably as well, altering his timing and sight of the rim.
The conceding with an appropriate level of intent and attention to detail, knowing Doncic likes any matchup the Suns throw his way, is the elixir and allure that Monty and company want. They duped him into these clock-consuming scenario’s that keep him in a pinch under the duress of the clock. It’s reverse psychology. He’s going after what he wants, and they’re giving him that more easily, as bait, to in-turn stagnate the ball movement and involvement of others within their offense.
A lot of this, as mentioned before, comes in the latter-seconds of the shot clock. Now, the Mavericks in theory have three players who can score in this scenario via self creation, but typically only two of the three are on the floor at once, rendering them to untraditional catch-and-shoot attempts.
This exact scenario played out in Game 5 for the duration of the third quarter, and the Suns were able to lock in on their men while also in trust of the on-ball defender to allow no wiggle room for Dallas.
The Phoenix Suns Reel in Deflections
To exacerbate things, these late clock scenario’s saw plenty of timely dislodging of the ball by the primary defender whether it was one-on-one or if a trap came. That sped up the clock for the Suns even more as it ticked down rapidly and pressure was applied.
Phoenix also got the necessary disciplined efforts needed in space as well, in the one-on-one scenarios, as the on-ball defenders were trusted more, and the help stayed up the line in denial. That took away passing lanes on repeat.
The adjustments in positioning off-ball after a few film sessions proved fruitful as also the communication and overall connectivity shown was a stark difference from that of Games 3 and 4. In total, the Suns tallied 17 deflections. A good majority of those came in the late clock scenarios, specifically in the third quarter of Game 5.
The Phoenix Suns Run the Mavericks Off the 3-Point Line
Phoenix’s closeouts whenever the ball was skipped around the perimeter in Game 5, especially when it was a pass coming from Doncic, saw the level of competitive ferocity that makes the vaunted Suns defense elite as well.
We saw them run Mavericks off the 3-point line, both closing out and recovering, which is one of the toughest scenarios to execute especially after a skip pass from the blocks, elbows, or the nail to the weak corner or wing.
This, in turn, netted the Suns a return of just 32 3-point attempts against Dallas in Game 5. Of those 32, 21 were marked as contested. In all, this resulted in the Mavs having their lowest attempts from deep in these playoffs, well below their 40.5 attempts a game. This occurred while the Suns also held Dallas to its lowest percentage of the postseason.
It was time on task in the most resounding fashion.
That’s how you hold an often-times prolific offense to it’s third lowest point total of the season, and by far it’s lowest of the postseason. Dallas had their ninth worst showing in the half court too, netting just 80.0 points per 100 plays.
The saying goes “defense travels,” and if the Suns can get that side of the game to show up in this fashion in Game 7, they’ll do what they’ve done consistently as a group and move onto the next round. The defense always leads to their pace-garnering offense, and when one flows into the other and that blend sustains, that’s when this Suns team operates at its highest peak.