EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns setting tone, finding right stride on defensive end in playoffs

Jun 17, 2021, 5:41 PM | Updated: 9:01 pm

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets and Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns play for a loose bal...

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets and Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns play for a loose ball in Game Four of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The teams that are getting better as the playoffs go on are the most dangerous, and that’s what the Phoenix Suns have been doing.

After I highlighted that growth on the offensive end before Game 4, the more promising development of the two sides of the ball, the Suns swept the Denver Nuggets by asserting themselves defensively in the opening period.

Over the course of the season, the team’s defense usually clicks into place around the middle quarters. The Suns hit an extra gear somewhere in there and it helps them grab that control of the game that has been one of their defining attributes this season.

But on Sunday, it was established from the jump. And when you think about it, the middle quarters of a playoff series come in the range of Games 3-5.

The Suns in Game 4 showed a keen understanding for what they had to do against the Nuggets. After enough time playing against them, their own rhythm for when to switch, how to feel out certain actions and more was thriving.

Wings Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder were at the forefront of that.

To go back to defining attributes, another one for the Suns all year has been their ability to scramble through their “shift defense,” where they pack the paint and recover to shooters from there.

The first two rounds for Phoenix basically got to the point of them daring the Los Angeles Lakers and Nuggets to beat them on ball rotations and shooting while doing that.

That sort of freedom head coach Monty Williams gives his guys in that scheme allows them to be playmakers as well, something they’re getting a better feel for as time goes on by knowing their teammates will set them up to be that too.

A few examples to show that.

Here’s Bridges behind Michael Porter Jr. in transition, stalking his prey and timing his arrival perfectly. all while Chris Paul at least impedes Porter’s path:

Crowder had three blocks in the first quarter, and his first was, again, a matter of patience.

He watched the play unfold to be there as the help while Deandre Ayton made the most important effort of the play to get in front of a downhill Nikola Jokic so Crowder could swat the attempt away:

The second, like the first, was all Crowder’s teammate — this time Booker — and him cleaning up the leftovers:

By then, Crowder was feeling it, and he’d gotten Aaron Gordon’s cadences down enough in the series to do this:

That’s when the Suns really get dangerous defensively because they do the team stuff so well.

To the point on “shift defense,” here’s Crowder with more rim protection, abandoning Gordon with two feet in the key so he can swallow up Monte Morris’ drive:

Watch that back again and notice where Bridges is. He’s directly between Denver’s two shooters while facing Morris, waiting to see if the kickout pass is coming and where he’s going to have to rapidly close out to if necessary.

If that’s a feed to Gordon in the corner instead of a shot attempt, Bridges is there, then Booker is on Porter on the wing and the possession is probably dead.

That Suns defense is one tough cookie, huh?

After those blocks, the Suns clearly got some mojo off it and they were ready for what the Nuggets wanted to do.

Watch Cam Johnson and Booker here make tiny but important efforts to keep Jokic’s space tight before perfect switches and recoveries off Crowder’s gamble to contain penetration kill off Denver’s possession.

Whether it’s the Los Angeles Clippers or the Utah Jazz, the Suns’ opponent in the Western Conference Finals might need to take a game early in the series to have a chance, because the Suns in both series have springboarded their play at the midway point of the last two series.

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