The Phoenix Suns’ opening offensive possession in their 122-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Monday set the tone for the types of shots available to them that night and the strain their offense would put on Denver’s defensive principles.
As Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton commenced a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, Jae Crowder, after setting a screen for Paul, migrated from the left elbow to the right corner, ducking behind a Devin Booker pin-in screen for a look from deep. His movement coincided with Ayton’s dive to the rim and left Crowder’s man, Aaron Gordon, in a bind: tag Ayton in the paint or stay with his man to deter the open long ball.
Correctly, Gordon selected the former, and the result was a rhythm three attempt for Crowder, though Austin Rivers battled through Booker’s screen for a serviceable contest.
That sort of play is a subplot of this series. Denver is going to aggressively rotate to tag rollers in the paint and will leave the corners open. Phoenix’s offense consistently compromises the responsibilities of the low man, either removing their presence altogether with calculated floor arrangements or running weak-side actions to ensure options are available beyond the roller if a tag does occur.
An Ayton bucket from round one exemplifies the way the Suns bend defenses by removing the traditional low man and forcing someone else to rotate, a rotation that might deviate from standard defensive instructions.
Typically, there will be someone near the right corner — behind Anthony Davis — required to help on Ayton’s roll. Instead, the tag would have to come from Davis, leaving Crowder open for an easy three off a swing pass, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is technically on the strong-side — most defensive schemes don’t encourage helping from the strong-side. Caldwell-Pope is late and undersized. The result is two points for Phoenix.
This is exactly how the Suns twist defenses into atypical responsibilities with their offensive alignments and sets. Caldwell-Pope eventually recognizes he must tag Ayton, but Phoenix expected confusion and capitalized.
Denver’s disregard for the corners benefits Phoenix, which has ranked third in corner three-point frequency (10.6 percent) during the regular season and playoffs, and second (43.7 percent) and third (47.5 percent) in proficiency, according to Cleaning The Glass.
During their first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets adhered to the same philosophy and vacated the corners. The Blazers lack the blend of passing talent and size that the Suns tout with Booker and Paul, so they did not as frequently target those soft spots in the defense. It didn’t particularly inhibit them, as they generated an offensive rating of 122.1 against Denver. But the Nuggets will need to tailor their approach in this series because Phoenix will crush this level of dismissal.
Someone please get Norman Powell the ball, I implore you pic.twitter.com/mrDDRDPY9G
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 25, 2021
The Suns routinely derived offense from open corners in Game 1, whether it was teeing up threes or launching Denver into rotation by demanding an initial closeout to those regions. Corner threes composed over 15 percent of their shot profile and they converted five of their 13 attempts (38.5 percent), many of which were comfortably open, or at least to the point of undisturbed shot preparation.
To posit that corner three aptitude was the lifeblood of the Suns’ offensive success would be overstating its impact, though. Ayton dominated as a play finisher. Paul torched switches in the final frame for pull-up buckets. Booker and Mikal Bridges poured in a combined 44 points with differing styles.
Another common thread, however, was that aforementioned manipulation or targeting of the low man. Often, the onus rested on Michael Porter Jr., who struggled mightily to balance staying home with shooters and punctually tagging rollers inside. The Suns repeatedly produced good offense by involving him as a weak-side defender because he is prone to aggressively rotating before it is necessary (even by the standards of Denver’s scheme) or merely hugging his defender and failing to help at all.
If he does remain connected to shooters, his unwillingness to truly crowd assignments and impose his 6’10 frame upon them to the point of discomfort proves troublesome. Whenever this postseason run concludes for the Nuggets, there will be an assortment of data points from which Porter can learn, especially on defense. On Monday, the Suns were content to provide many of them as they flummoxed varying low men of the Nuggets.
Some notes: Every single clip in that montage is a quality shot at the rim or from deep. The set-up of the Dario Saric dunk is gorgeous. On the third quarter lob, Booker shifting Porter away from Ayton by staring down the wing is tactically masterful. Despite the missed three, that final play captures how Phoenix burdens defenses with its ball-screen actions. The Suns’ offense was dizzying for the Nuggets last night.
Phoenix is not necessarily a more potent offense than Portland. The latter finished the regular season second in offensive rating (117.1) and rosters scoring extraordinaire Damian Lillard, while the former finished seventh (116.3) and offers a more balanced attack, as evidenced by its four 20-point performers Monday (a feat the Blazers did not once accomplish in this year’s playoffs).
Yet such an approach from Denver, fleeing the corners and aggressively rotating, simplifies decisions for Suns ball-handlers and only exacerbates its hurdles toward containing them, given the challenges their offense poses without the Nuggets inviting shots from Phoenix’s preferred areas.
Tweaks can and will likely be made, perhaps better timing on tags to rollers rather than a full-fledged, early sell-out. Regardless, the Suns present different problems than Portland. Their series-opening victory helped illuminate many of those different problems and why the Nuggets should not focus all of their defensive alterations to opposing ball-handlers, as they largely could against Lillard and the Blazers. Otherwise, they’ll continue leaving themselves susceptible to back-side breakdowns, just as they did far too regularly in their Game 1 defeat.