The Suns can’t count on matching the star power of the Clippers and Lakers or the know-how of the Jazz and Nuggets. It will take everyone.
Whatever hole you want to poke in the Suns’ postseason chances, from inexperience to a lack of star power to just flat out not believing in Chris Paul or Devin Booker, what’s clear is the best way to combat those deficiencies is to get enough out of every player on the roster that not one single thing can end up being the Suns’ demise. In practice, this means many of the issues we saw crop up in the Suns’ pair of playoff-level battles this week cannot continue.
Item one on the Suns’ internal memo about these games has to start with ball movement. It’s integral to what the Suns want to do on offense, and it helps explain why many of the team’s role players were not at their best in this week’s back-to-back against two of the best teams in the West. The Suns had just 40 assists over the two contests compared to 28 turnovers. What happened to point five?
It’s not just missed shots. The ball did not move enough. On the season, the Suns have made nearly 288 passes per game. Against Utah and the Clippers, that number fell to 260 per game. This shows in the low three-point shooting totals as well. Most threes are assisted, and a low number of attempted threes is often evidence of less passing. The Suns took just 58 threes across these two games despite averaging more than 34 a night over the whole season.
What that means is the role players were put in a tough spot. Both Dario Saric and Cameron Payne struggled, combining to shoot 7-19 from the field and turning the ball over five times in the Clippers game alone. The fulcrum of the Suns’ bench ought to be a pick and pop between those two, but when teams switch on them or go under screens on Payne, it can get sticky.
But the bench wasn’t the only group that struggled. Jae Crowder was 2-9 in the first game before basically disappearing in Los Angeles. You don’t want Crowder doing too much, but his confidence and range as a shooter make him a useful floor-spacer. Not getting him the ball open behind the arc is bound to make the offense sputter.
Defending threes and stars
Of course, it’s not all about offense. After all, the Suns broke 100 in both games and mostly scored enough to keep pace with both the Jazz and Clippers. Pull-up three-point shooting, especially from Donovan Mitchell and Paul George but even from Rajon Rondo and Jordan Clarkson, hurt the Suns badly this week. Nearly a third of Utah’s shots on Wednesday came on non-corner threes, and late in the game, Mitchell sunk a couple that got the Jazz back in the game. The next night, the Clippers went 12-22 on non-corner threes, mostly thanks to George’s explosion.
Those are the shots that superstars are going to take and make in the postseason. To win multiple playoff series, the Suns need to be better defending the arc. Their season numbers are fourth-best in the NBA in terms of opponent three-point percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, so they usually do this well. But in the regular season, not many players really put pressure on the defense in this way. In the playoffs, it’s an every night adjustment. The Suns could reasonably have to go through Luka Doncic, George and Kawhi Leonard, and then LeBron James in the postseason — all guys who can kill you with that shot.
Some of today’s three-point heavy games are just about luck. Rarely will there be as big of a discrepancy between teams (the Suns shot 6-24 from deep while L.A. shot 18-37). But it’s also important for the Suns to keep their best defenders on the floor. The Jazz only got back in the game because Mikal Bridges hit the bench with foul trouble, allowing Mitchell to find his rhythm. It’s an ongoing battle for Bridges to keep his discipline and play aggressive defense without fouling.
Could small ball kill the Suns?
A much bigger set of adjustments could loom for Monty Williams and the coaching staff come playoff time with regard to Deandre Ayton. The Clippers obviously went into last night’s game knowing they wanted to play small against Ayton. When Ivica Zubac was finally pulled and Patrick Beverley was ejected, Ty Lue played like-sized, versatile lineups the rest of the night. We frequently saw Marcus Morris or Nicolas Batum matched up inside with Ayton, and because the big man still is not a trustworthy shot creator who can punish mismatches, the Suns didn’t make the Clippers pay for downsizing.
That brings us to some positivity. Someone who did play well in both games but actually may not have played enough is Torrey Craig, who seems to make good stuff happen with his energy, IQ and defense every time he’s stepped on the floor since being traded to Phoenix. He needs to make shots to really make his mark in the rotation, but the Suns have an obvious path to playing smaller themselves if they lean on Craig more.
In just that brief synopsis, I mentioned nearly every Suns player’s name. Because of some of these valid limitations and questions facing the Suns as they get ready for the postseason, the margin of error is smaller. While there’s a chance Paul and Booker just go supernova and make life easier on everyone, it’s far more likely to me that the Suns have to keep winning the way they have in the regular season: with everyone chipping in and the collective effort and chemistry of the team getting the Suns over the top.
The Suns aren’t built for simple star ball
If you believe like I do that stars win in the playoffs, this may seem counterintuitive, but if everyone fills their role, it in turn makes things easier on Booker and Paul as well. They need space to operate, and Booker is much better working off the ball with cuts, screens and spot-up looks than simply isolating. We’ve seen what happens when opponents can beat up on Paul while he pounds the ball into the ground. To avoid injuries and reach peak effectiveness, Paul needs his teammates.
And of course, neither Booker nor Paul is a game-changing defender from the guard spot. To keep opponents close and limit other teams’ stars, the Suns will need consistent, high-level impact from Bridges, Ayton, Craig and Crowder. It’s all or nothing for these Suns.
This week showed that against a team like the Clippers, pure superstar mano a mano basketball is not going to work for the Suns very often. Even the Jazz had Mitchell’s newfound deep shooting brilliance to fall back on. The way the Suns will win — and quiet the loudening doubt surrounding this team — is to get contributions up and down the roster and solidify into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.