What to watch for in Round 2 of Suns vs. Warriors
PHOENIX — Tuesday’s 104-96 win for the Phoenix Suns over the Golden State Warriors was an electric game that delivered on meeting the hype of the NBA’s current two best teams facing off.
The best part is they play again in Golden State on Friday, and again later this month on Christmas back in Phoenix.
We’re going to learn a lot about the dynamic between these two teams, one we didn’t get to figure out all that much last year because of the Warriors’ late resurgence.
This season is going to be different, and we could see them match up a handful of more times in the postseason if this keeps up.
Devin Booker’s left hamstring strain and Klay Thompson’s continued recovery means we might not see them at full strength against each other until then, but there is still basketball to be played between two outstanding ball clubs.
Here are a couple of things to keep an eye on for Friday.
I by no means consider myself a predictor, but by golly, I’m going to venture out and say that Warriors guard Stephen Curry is going to be better on Friday than he was earlier in the week.
I know, I know. Reckless. My reputation is on the line.
As I wrote after the game, the 4-of-21 shooting was a result of Mikal Bridges’ effort, the Suns’ team defense around him and Curry missing a lot of shots he normally hits or at least has a decent chance at compared to mortals. It is OK for there to be more than one reason, I promise.
Here is your visual evidence for the makeable misses, provided in no way to disparage arguably Bridges’ best game of his life and how Phoenix defended Curry as a whole.
That, by the way, is mostly good defense by the Suns! That’s the challenge marking the greatest shooter ever and why Suns head coach Monty Williams has made sure not to act like the Suns completely shut Curry down.
Now, the beauty in what the Suns did with Curry is that they were also forcing turnovers. Phoenix was switching the majority of actions on and off the ball, save for in-the-moment calls for the centers. On that switch, the Suns defender was meeting Curry at the level of the screen, giving him no room to shoot and forcing drives.
And when you zoom out and evaluate the Suns’ usual rotation when healthy, they play nine guys who can do an admirable enough job of sticking on Curry in those situations, with JaVale McGee being the lone exception.
This versatility led to a handful of Golden State’s 22 turnovers on the night.
And when Curry got into the teeth of the defense a bit, another defender was there to meet him. Both of those factors forced Curry into some tough looks.
This is why Warriors head coach Steve Kerr after Tuesday’s game mentioned Thompson being a difference-maker with how the Suns were defending. The Warriors currently play too many limited offensive players, which affects their spacing. That allows the Suns to scramble even more effectively than they normally do when committing more aggressively with those switches, and they are already the best team in the NBA at those recoveries.
Draymond Green is one of those offensive players, but he figures out a way to still be effective most of the time. Tuesday was one of those nights he wasn’t, however, and he was not his usual dominant self defensively, either.
Expect him to bounce back just as much as Curry. Those two have a long precedent for showing up in big games.
What changes without Booker?
As TNT’s Stan Van Gundy mentioned on the broadcast, the Warriors went to zone looks a fair bit when the Suns didn’t have both All-Star guards in the game.
Booker’s injury means this is going to be a fact for the whole game, and the question is how often Golden State goes to it.
The Warriors went with box-and-one, which is when four defenders form a box around the key with two on the blocks and two on the elbows while one defender chases around the main offensive threat. The box recovers and moves with the ball from there.
Occasionally in that scheme or just traditional man defense, Golden State chooses to weaponize the excellent defensive menace that is Gary Payton II by gluing him to Booker or Paul.
This brought on Booker and Paul using themselves as a screener, creating a better angle for the ball-handler because Payton is essentially screening his own teammate.
Watch Paul and Booker off the ball on these two possessions.
Booker, as he has done in the past, hilariously will even stand in the corner at half-court and allow his team more space with a 4-on-4 look.
That can’t be done with Paul, though, because he needs to run the show. So how Williams and Paul counter it will be interesting to monitor.
Golden State also twisted in some 3-2 and 1-2-2 zone.
There’s a reason these are ultimately “junk defenses,” a label Booker himself will use, as it adequately describes the defense’s goals of “junking” up the game. The goal is using it to throw off a team’s rhythm for a few possessions but you’ll rarely see it deployed for most of the game.
Phoenix was hit and miss on beating it, but the roster James Jones constructed is perfect for busting zones, armed with playmakers and shooters. Some shots just weren’t going down.
Golden State will deploy those again and it’s an every-game challenge in playing them to break it down.
Variety bag: Offensive rebounds, third quarters, Lee returns, Ayton’s impact
Let’s go rapid fire here through a couple of one-game sample sizes Tuesday provided.
— Golden State grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and was +16 on the glass. Williams said Thursday that the Warriors had a “nose for the ball” to pursue them and noted Golden State is sending multiple bodies in there to try and get extra possessions. Those will really add up and can easily swing a game featuring two great teams. It will undoubtedly be one of Williams’ points of emphasis to his team before Friday’s tip-off.
— Speaking of points of emphasis, if you’re playing Golden State, you better talk about its third quarters. The Warriors came into Tuesday at a mind-blowing +149 across 20 third quarters before Phoenix managed a 24-24 draw for Tuesday’s. Can the Suns avoid that explosion again?
— An additional side note is that Damion Lee returns to the Warriors after missing three games for the birth of his child. That gives some relief to Golden State’s wing rotation that is going to be without Andre Iguodala (right knee) again. And Lee is no slouch — he’s a smart, tough, two-way wing that is the Warriors’ fourth-leading scorer.
— Lastly, Deandre Ayton had a case as the Suns’ best player in the first matchup, even with how well Bridges did defensively. Ayton’s combination of awareness and activity on both sides of the ball was tremendous and back to the standard he maintained last postseason. The Suns need that every time against a Warriors squad that will keep going small.