Lessons learned from Suns’ 2021 postseason, Pt. 4: Weaknesses?
Ahead of the Phoenix Suns’ second straight trip to the postseason, we will be taking a look back at last year’s run to the NBA Finals, and what we can learn from it that should also apply to this season’s run.
After covering homecourt, the Suns’ two main young pillars thriving in playoff basketball and the stylistic excellence Phoenix showcased, we wrap on some of the sore spots that led to the Suns coming up short.
The age-old tale is that the longer a team advances into playoff basketball, the more exposed its weaknesses are.
The Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t even in the official playoffs yet, but at the start of Tuesday’s play-in game, the Los Angeles Clippers’ defense left Minnesota forward and non-shooter Jarred Vanderbilt alone to roam in other areas.
That made things harder for All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns and others. It rattled Towns, and the ensuing effects of that nearly lost the Timberwolves the game.
The postseason is a different beast. I wrote in Part 3 of this series about how the Suns are a team that doesn’t have many warts — just a well-balanced and versatile basketball squad. In reality, though, everyone is going to have something ail them by the time the conference finals and championship rounds come.
For the Suns, it was their offense, and the biggest unanswerable question from the Finals run was how much of that was due to what Chris Paul was going through and how much of that was due to just Phoenix’s flow as a whole.
Paul had whatever shoulder injury he sustained in the Suns’ first playoff game, came down with COVID-19 before the Western Conference Finals, had partially torn ligaments in his right hand and then a left wrist injury that required surgery in the offseason.
The Point God had sections of last year’s postseason where he looked like just that. But in the Finals especially, you could see all those injuries catching up to him with how he was uncharacteristically turning the ball over and not attacking his usual pockets of the defense.
As you would expect against championship-caliber defense, it affected the Suns’ offense.
After the Suns scored 36 points in the third quarter of a Game 1 win against the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix averaged 24.1 points per quarter across the next 17 and didn’t break 30 until all four quarters of Game 6 of the series.
Not only was the consistency of the Suns’ offense gone, but it didn’t have the explosion across those four-plus games. There was no huge quarter that would change the game until the Suns went nuts in Game 6.
It continued in the Finals. Phoenix posted 118 points in each of its first two wins of the series versus the Milwaukee Bucks before producing 100, 103, 119 and 98 points in the four straight losses.
As I said in Part 3, this has always been a better team defensively. At times, the Suns are reliant on the defense-to-offense transition to attack a defense that isn’t set.
It was a lot harder to do when they weren’t finishing out those defensive possessions.
The Suns took care of business on that front in the Western Conference Finals, allowing the Clippers to only have 8.5 second-chance points per game. But the Bucks nearly doubled that in the Finals to 15.2 a night.
Defensive rebounding has always been a minor issue for the Suns, not one that is fundamentally wrong with the team, but just something that pops up from time to time.
Milwaukee was an elite offensive rebounding team in the postseason, and even though the Suns were 11th in the regular season in defensive rebounding percentage (74.1%) and were at 74.3% for the postseason entering the final series, they got mauled. It dropped to 66.3% in the Finals, which was nearly four percentage points worse than the Indiana Pacers’ 30th-ranked mark in the regular season.
What didn’t help matters was the lack of offensive execution being good enough. Phoenix allowed 15.5 points off turnovers per game for the Bucks across the six Finals meetings.
The margins lost the Suns that series.
When including fastbreak points to the points off turnovers and offensive rebounds, it was a 53-18 Bucks advantage in Game 3. It got worse at 58-12 Bucks in Game 4.
Milwaukee took a staggering 19 more shots than the Suns in Game 4, and 11 of the Suns’ 17 turnovers were of the live-ball variety, a ridiculously high number in the game you look back on as one the Suns definitely should have won.
Those are the “non-negotiables” and “correctable” parts of the game Monty Williams talks about, ones the Suns cleaned up a bit more in the last two games of the series, but it was too late.
Again, it goes back to something I said in Part 3: If the Suns play their brand of basketball, they will not be beaten. They got away from it just enough against a tremendous Bucks team and a superhuman effort from Giannis Antetokounmpo. That was all it took to lose at the highest level.
Time to see if they — I’m sorry for doing this — learned their lesson.