EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cavaliers’ size a wildcard for Suns to deal with on Saturday

Oct 29, 2021, 4:38 PM | Updated: 6:09 pm

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns fights for a rebound against Jarrett Allen #31 of the Cleveland C...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns fights for a rebound against Jarrett Allen #31 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the third quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on May 04, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — With the Phoenix Suns still attempting to sync up after a 1-3 start, the Cleveland Cavaliers come to town on Saturday with a bit of buzz.

Cleveland raised a few eyebrows across the league when it started 6-foot-11 Lauri Markkanen at small forward alongside 6-foot-11 Evan Mobley and 6-foot-10 Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt. That’s three bigs.

But at least five games in and prior to Friday’s action, the experiment is working.

The Cavaliers at 3-2 before tip-off Friday were ninth in defensive rating and 18th in offensive rating, the type of balance that will get them in the playoffs if it holds up.

Now, there are some near-seven-foot bigs that have the high-end lateral quickness to hang and sort of make something like this work, but Markkanen and Allen are nothing more than fine there.

Mobley, though, is much more than that and has been terrific to start the year. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft has the quick feet to survive on guards and already looks the part of a true rim protector.

His presence changes things for opposing offenses.

With the three towers together, the core principle defensively appears to be there will always be at least one of them waiting at the basket if the ball gets there.

This presents an interesting choice for Suns head coach Monty Williams. Last season, he started centers Frank Kaminsky or Dario Saric alongside Deandre Ayton 14 times.

This season in the forward rotation, the Suns have used 6-foot-6 Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, 6-foot-8 Cam Johnson and 6-foot-5 Abdel Nader.

Williams hasn’t been afraid to match size with size in the past, and if there’s a team across the league to do that with, it would obviously be the Cavaliers.

When asked if this is an idea floating in his head, Williams brought up instead how they can look to take advantage of that size with their wings’ speed.

“For me, I wanna make their size move around with our smaller forwards,” he said. “Overall, you can lose against that size in some areas but I think you can gain some too when you have to chase Jae and Cam Johnson around.”

Williams also mentioned we could see 6-foot-10 second-year big Jalen Smith in the rotation for the first time this season. Doing some guessing here after Williams said that, it would theoretically slide Nader out, Johnson to small forward and Smith at the 4, where the Suns have been developing him.

In a separate answer on the above clip with the Cavaliers’ rim protection, Williams made the wise point that it will allow the Suns to get off some looks from the midrange, the area where Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges were more efficient than just about anyone last year.

“We’ve been really good in midrange shots, so when you have a guy that’s sitting back … we don’t mind that shot,” Williams said. “It goes against conventional wisdom in the NBA but I think we’ve proven that you can have success with that shot.”

But the beauty in what Cleveland does is that those tall gentlemen have skilled starting guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland to initiate the offense and present multiple threats, plus another catalyst off the bench in former Sun Ricky Rubio.

Garland and Rubio alone combine for over 15 assists per game and Cleveland’s percentage of assisted baskets at 63.1% ranks fifth league-wide. Across the 62 minutes the three bigs play with two of those guards, the Cavaliers are +10.

All of this isn’t to say that Cleveland is an incoming juggernaut that has revolutionized the league. The Cavaliers are really young and teams now have the film to try and counter what they are doing.

But specifically looking at the Cavaliers’ defense, the degree to which they can stall out possessions by denying a ball-handler any space around the basket makes it a good litmus test for a Suns offense that wants to play faster. That’s harder to do against a group that forces a team to reset a look with the shot clock winding down. That ball movement will need to be back on point to keep things chugging and back to a constant flow.

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