Suns use win over Mavs, break to ‘get ahead of the storm’
PHOENIX — Suns head coach Monty Williams was grateful his team got a day off Wednesday before coming back to practice. It acted as a reset coming off a three-game road trip that included the emotional toll as the NBA processed the loss of Kobe Bryant.
The three days separating a Tuesday game against the Mavericks and a Friday game against the Oklahoma City Thunder also allowed Phoenix to flush any “hangover” from the dominating 133-104 victory over Dallas.
But specifically, returning to work Thursday allowed the Suns to find things clean up. And Williams said working on pick-and-roll coverage was the focus — something that against the NBA’s best offense was a perfect thing to nitpick.
“We use the term ‘get ahead of the storm,'” Williams said. “If we get ahead of the storm, we’re going to have some sort of preparation that can help our guys in-game to avoid a situation where they’re giving up everything, threes and dunks.”
Going over Dallas tape isn’t a bad idea in that regard.
The Mavs previously had one of the NBA’s best pick-and-roll duos with Luka Doncic handling the ball and forward Dwight Powell creating gravity as one of the most athletic rim-rollers in the league. Putting above-average shooters around them allowed Dallas to produce the top-rated offense in the league.
Powell recently suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, and the importance of a guy widely viewed as a role player was shown not only in how the Suns held them to 104 points, but in how the Mavericks reacted after the tough news. They swung a trade with the Golden State Warriors for center Willie Cauley-Stein, a similar rim-rolling athlete.
While Cauley-Stein debuted Tuesday for Dallas, the Suns can still gain a lot from the tape.
“Every team in the league is dealing with handling tagging a dynamic diver and getting out to the three-point shooter,” Williams said. “It’s something that we all have tried our best to take away without falling into just switching all the time. We’re always working on that.”
On the clip below, you’ll see a basic example of how Dallas creates problems by overloading defenders with decisions.
As Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton were engaged in a pick-and-roll featuring Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber, Kelly Oubre is put in a compromising position. He must determine if Kleber, who is more of a shooter than a diver, is going to roll or pop. Leaving Dorian Finney-Smith, a 38% three-point shooter, is a risky proposition.
Do you tag aggressively? Do you fake it? Do you not even bother if your man sitting in the corner is that good a shooter?
Oubre makes some effort to feign dropping into the paint without physically tagging Kleber, and it’s not enough to disrupt the roll as Ayton attempts to keep Hardaway in front of him as Booker recovers.
Hardaway appears to go up for a shot but with nice timing elects to dump off a pass to Kleber as Booker attempts to box him out, thinking the shot is going up.
Even without knowing how the Suns wanted the coverage to work, the decision-making complexities put on Oubre on that play are immense.
Luckily for Phoenix, it helped Tuesday that the Mavericks are still feeling out their Powell-less roster.
On the other side of the ball, the Suns of course would like to cause the same problems they’re trying to stop. A 13-of-15 shooting night for Deandre Ayton certainly had the same elements of success that’s made Dallas so great.
Here’s Doncic putting in effort to stop Ayton’s role while leaving Mikal Bridges open in the corner. Doncic does his job, but Ayton’s size and strength over Finney-Smith — plus his willingness to hold his position just long enough — allows Booker to get him the ball for a short jump-hook.
Even doing it right doesn’t mean it’ll work. Ayton scored 31 points, and the shooters knocked down 12 of 28 threes (43%).
“I think he’s locked in on all cylinders,” Booker said of the second-year center. “I’m not saying he wasn’t focused before, it’s just finding out what works, what doesn’t work and sticking with that. I think his effort and energy, using his size, early seals in transition, creating mismatches with his screens, there’s countless numbers of things that he’s doing on the floor that I think he’s figuring out one day at a time.”
Those pick-and-roll-focused film sessions hold value for Ayton’s development too.
“Every game he’s probably going to see something different,” Booker added. “That’s just the learning curve, you know, figuring out how teams are going to guard you or how teams think they’re going to stop you.”
Such are the details that Williams hopes can be soaked up by his young team to string together better games more consistently.