Elbow grease: Chris Paul and the Suns have taken what’s given
By now, it’s apparent the Phoenix Suns’ second-place finish during the regular season was not a fluke.
Their identity as a defensively focused team that picks its spots in transition and shares the ball in the halfcourt has remained.
There have been no foundation-shaking chess-match moves by head coach Monty Williams. He’s not needed to do anything more than flip the backup center rotation a few times and manage a shoulder injury to point guard Chris Paul as Phoenix defeated the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Denver Nuggets in the first two playoff rounds.
Rotations and style look relatively similar to what they did in the regular season, which has proven one thing: The Suns feel like their regular season formula works.
The Western Conference Semifinals series stuck out like a sore thumb in terms of how a perhaps complex offense — ESPN’s Zach Lowe broke it down to start the Nuggets series — can at the same time be so simple.
Phoenix takes what it is given, and what was given was oh-so obvious against Denver.
“It’s important to me,” Paul told TNT’s Chris Haynes on Sunday when asked about his vicious mid-range attacking. “Some years ago … the whole league went to this drop defense, you know what I mean? I was like, that’s what y’all going to give up, I’ma try to perfect it.
“It’s not about that. I’m so grateful to my family, my team,” he added. “A couple years ago, they was writing me off: ‘You can’t do this.’ This isn’t about me, it’s about us.”
The narrative of this “writing off” — as imagined or real as it might be — grabbed headlines.
But Paul starting off by mentioning that drop defense is significant, though nothing new. He’s been targeting the right elbow jumper for more than a half-decade now.
Yet the Nuggets had no answers for it, and it wasn’t all head coach Michael Malone’s fault.
They had to keep league MVP Nikola Jokic on the floor. Though Jokic is lighter on his feet than he looks, he isn’t going to step up to even the foul line to slide his feet in cutting off Paul or Devin Booker.
The Nuggets also had little choice but to keep Michael Porter Jr.’s offensive punch on the court. Phoenix attacked Porter on switches and Jokic on the pick-and-rolls, leaving Denver to attempt and fail at plugging two defensive holes at once.
After awhile, the Nuggets appeared willing to simplify their defense, sending fewer blitzes at Paul and Booker to avoid getting their help rotations out of whack.
So the Suns set off to attack that drop time and time again.
The result was Paul averaging 25.5 points per game in the four-game sweep.
His mid-range attempts ballooned to 8.5 per game on a ridiculous 65% shooting.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the third-best mid-range field goal percentage in a series over the past 25 postseasons. He did a lot of his work in the fourth quarters and shot 84%, best in the past 25 postseasons.
What that means, firstly, is that Paul is healthy enough after suffering his shoulder issue in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Lakers.
But it was also a result of the Suns finding weakness and exploiting it — so long as there was water in that well.
Remember, Phoenix spent the first round thriving off Los Angeles’ defense that had tunnel-vision on stopping Booker and chasing the Suns’ shooters off the three-point line. That allowed center Deandre Ayton to throw up monster numbers from an efficiency standpoint in the paint.
The Suns were taking what was given.
That’s what a top-seeded team should do.
That leaves you wondering what the Suns will do against either the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
Utah would present NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in place on Jokic, and his length should deter Paul and Booker from getting to their favorite mid-range spots to a much greater degree.
The Clippers with their five-out capabilities and relatively low usage of traditional centers could handle pick-and-roll play from Phoenix entirely differently. Expect tons of switching with wings like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard handing off Paul or Booker to guys like guard Patrick Beverley or even veteran forward Nicolas Batum.
Ayton would seemingly be a clear mismatch, but how the Suns would operate considering the offense did not run much through the third-year center means the Suns could throw together something unseen thus far this entire season.
Through two series, the Suns haven’t taken long to find the opponents’ weak spot.
That ability will likely be tested once again regardless of who comes out of the other Western Conference series.