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Suns’ team defense coming together through multiple efforts

New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball (2) drives on Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The majority of the attention on the Phoenix Suns’ roster construction this offseason was on two All-Star ball-handlers and depth, as it should have been.

What was overlooked, however, was the defensive upside of the team.

Chris Paul is a nine-time All-Defense honoree and is still very good at the age of 35.

This is putting the youngins in place.

Jae Crowder has always been great on that end, Mikal Bridges will have his own All-Defense nods soon enough and Deandre Ayton’s improving constantly with his galaxy-level defensive ceiling.

Crowder had an outstanding third quarter defending the New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson in the Suns’ 111-86 victory Tuesday night.

The duo of Bridges and Ayton produced a handful of great outings last year containing star perimeter scorers in ball screen actions, such as Luka Doncic. Here they are doing it to Brandon Ingram, who only took 11 shots Tuesday.

Those four are the foundation of a defensive team that plays its tail off.

Outside of that core four, Jevon Carter is terrific, Dario Saric is always in the right spot and Cam Payne is flying around. Even the players not known for their play on that end like Devin Booker and Cam Johnson are high IQ wings getting better by the day through those high motors.

Booker, in particular, is a guy you can see almost going too hard on some possessions as he gets more of a knack for the right steps. Ditto for Johnson, who topped being faster than expected last year with being stronger than expected this year. Both do not defend like the liabilities they were pegged to be at one point in their careers and keep progressing.

Through four games, the Suns have the NBA’s second-best defensive rating at 99.0. Short sample size aside, it’s a trend in the right direction, as Booker put it Wednesday. Given what the Suns should expect to get out of Paul and Booker running an offense, a top 15 defense would be enormous.

Head coach Monty Williams said Tuesday before the win that he’s seeing the “multiple efforts” on defense.

“It’s too early to get caught up in [the high defensive ranking] but we do like where we are,” he said Wednesday. “It is something we feel like we can hang our hats on. A number of our players have talked about it as far as our identity has to be on the defensive end and we certainly want to be in this spot as the season progresses.”

When Williams was asked Wednesday about the multiple efforts he’s been seeing, he brought up the below defensive possession specifically.

Great defense is just about an impossible watch in real-time unless it’s strictly on-ball containment. There are three players we will focus on to illustrate that.

The biggest play is by Deandre Ayton, who has to cover for Mikal Bridges potentially being sent through a dribble handoff for Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe makes a great backdoor cut instead, but there is Ayton to cover before a terrific on-ball effort that gets neutralized by an even more terrific shot. Good D, better O, blah blah blah.

That’s the first thing you’ll see. Take another look, though, and watch Jevon Carter’s possession.

Carter gets right up on J.J. Redick, ready for any cute quick seal-out from Bledsoe or quick exchange to get Redick where he wants to be: on the move to his right shooting. From there, Carter tracks Redick’s motion through the middle of the key. When he does that, he’s got time to sit in the paint for a second and be there to help Ayton if he needs it. Carter does it while denying Bledsoe’s easiest pass, a kick-out to Redick.

Now, watch Jae Crowder’s possession.

Crowder gets himself between Jaxson Hayes and his man Nicolo Melli in case there’s a quick pass there. As he moves with Melli to the weak-side corner, Crowder’s right behind Redick in case Carter’s not quite there (he is) or there’s a lob over the top (there isn’t). He’s also in the paint to help on Bledsoe like Carter. Once Bledsoe has nowhere to go, Crowder swipes his hands up, assumingly because he saw Bledsoe looking Melli’s way for a pass. Crowder then quickly makes his way back to Melli as the possession concludes.

See? Pretty impossible to catch all that in real-time!

Sometimes it’s a bit easier, even with three guys involved. Here, Paul pushes his man off the line, Crowder cuts off the basket, Paul covers the dump-off pass to Zion Williamson and then Booker has the best effort of the possession by closing out and then recovering for a strong contest on Lonzo Ball.

“It’s kind of hard to point out single defenders, especially on a bad defending team,” Booker said Wednesday on the concept of team defense. “But when everybody’s hitting on all cylinders, everybody’s communicating with each other, you have trust, if you rotate for somebody and your teammate has your back — I think that’s what we’re gaining right now … last night was a prime example of that.”

Williams described what the multiple efforts are.

“The first effort is just a sprint-and-turn mentality in transition,” he said. “If we can get back and form that wall, it allows for us to be in position to know what effort we need to implement. And then the abiltiy to cover up the paint so teams can’t just continue to attack the paint and get rim shots. Once there’s an action by the offense, our defense has to counter that with a scheme and great effort and that’s what I saw last night.”

Williams said that scheme was what the Suns refer to as a “shift” where they wanted to get the Pelicans off the three-point line.

Even in a clip as simple as that, you can go back a second time and see how both Paul and Booker do that with how they close out.

It’s been working for the Suns so far, as they give up the least amount of three-point attempts per game, 26.8. That’s while being tied for 18th in opposing points in the paint, a fair defensive trade-off that could still improve.

But when things aren’t 100% there schematically, the Suns still have that effort down.

Watch Carter and Langston Galloway (in the corners) sprint back in transition, the first effort Williams spoke on.

The Suns will get at least a dozen or more strong defensive possessions off strictly energy plays like that. If it keeps up, they’ll be a playoff team.

“That’s going to be the name of the game for us,” Booker said on defense.

“Defense is what’s gonna get us where we’re trying to go every night.”

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