EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns vs. Pelicans series preview, Pt. 1: Willie Green’s inside knowledge
PHOENIX — It’s hard to think of anyone outside of the Phoenix Suns’ coaching staff and roster that knows this group better than Willie Green, the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Suns’ first-round opponent.
In Suns head coach Monty Williams’ first two seasons with the Suns, Green was his lead assistant, helping run a defense that has become Phoenix’s staple while Williams’ core principles drove the offense.
Green has already shown how his knowledge of Phoenix’s system and its head coach’s tendencies can give the Pelicans an advantage.
In a Feb. 26 Suns loss in Phoenix, Green’s defensive gameplan stifled All-Star guard Devin Booker in the 25-year-old’s second game running the offense since Chris Paul broke his right thumb.
Despite a 10-of-24 shooting night for 30 points provided by Booker, the more important numbers were his five assists and four turnovers. Mikal Bridges (!) wound up leading the team in assists with six in that 15-point loss the Suns only amounted to 102 points in.
On the other end of the floor, the Pelicans’ formula of two elite shotmakers in C.J. McCollum (32 points) and Brandon Ingram (28) plus 16 offensive rebounds (more on that in Part 2) was enough offensively.
But three weeks later, of course, the Suns hung 30 points or more on the Pelicans in all four quarters and the backcourt tandem of Booker and Cam Payne combined for 16 assists and four turnovers in a resounding 131-115 victory that Paul and Ingram both missed.
Because, remember, this goes both ways. Williams hasn’t been in the room for Green’s coaching this season like Green was for Williams the two years prior, but Williams knows what Green likes too.
In that March 15 Suns win, Phoenix only had nine turnovers as a team and 35 assists (!!).
Which end of that spectrum are we going to see more of in this series? Green’s aggressive defenses causing issues for the Suns or Phoenix punishing it?
That was the story in the two aforementioned games these two teams have played since New Orleans traded for McCollum in mid-February.
The biggest difference for Phoenix was 3-point shooting. It was 12-of-40 (30.0%) in the loss and 18-for-32 (52.9%) in the win.
Green, a former teammate of Paul’s too who he has referred to as someone that is like a brother to him, will not let the Suns beat them offensively by having his big man camp back in a drop coverage on ball screens.
That’s the look Paul has turned into BBQ chicken for 15-plus years now and Booker will roast it too. Green isn’t going down like that.
The initial space will be cut off and it’s down to the Suns’ ball rotations and the plays made by the players in those positions from there.
The bad turnouts for the Suns led to missed shots and turnovers.
The Pelicans defender forcing those last two turnovers by the way is rookie Herb Jones. If you’re not familiar with him yet, you’re about to be. The second-round pick out of Alabama is someone Williams said on Friday has been one of the best defenders in the league.
Green went through initial workouts and training camp with his team and almost immediately realized that not only was Jones going to play right away, but he was also going to start. Jones will be deployed on both Booker and Paul, and how up for that Jones is as a rookie will be pivotal for New Orleans.
The good turnouts for the Suns were flawless execution to swiftly dissect New Orleans’ exposed pockets of the defense.
Booker will get in these grooves as a passer where he picks up the pace he is attacking the defense with because he’s found this rhythm in the read and react portion of the game.
All of these clips, of course, do not feature Paul. He is the ultimate chef in the kitchen when it comes to cooking up opposing defenses and always finding a breakdown, the “good offense beats good defense” king of the league with how far ahead he is of everyone else on the court.
Pre-McCollum trade, Paul had 33 combined assists in his two outings against New Orleans.
Both were without Deandre Ayton. Paul made a two-man game work with Frank Kaminsky in Phoenix.
And shut down the second meeting in New Orleans with Bismack Biyombo.
New Orleans goes big with the long and lanky 21-year-old Jaxson Hayes starting at power forward, and me thinks Paul and the Suns will enjoy targeting him.
This is a small way of presenting the enormous task at hand for Green’s defensive mind. Can he limit or stagnate the every-possession impact Paul and Booker will have?
Green will have options on an albeit far less talented team that still has some depth.
New Orleans’ front office did a great job with Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and Jones, three rookies who all did not look afraid of the moment in either play-in game.
Larry Nance Jr. was phenomenal on Friday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, producing 14 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block as a small-ball 5. He offers better defensive mobility at both the 4 and the 5, which I think could translate to him having a big role in this series as a trap and recovery guy or weak-side rim protector.
Further down the bench, we saw veteran wing Tony Snell thrown out there for four minutes on Friday. Naji Marshall is solid. Devonte’ Graham is a flamethrower scorer.
Then again, those three rookies are, well, rookies. Hayes is young too. Marshall is in his second season. Believe or not, like those five players, this will be Ingram’s and Graham’s playoff debuts too despite their healthy tenures in the league already. McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas were not as important to their old playoff teams as they are to this New Orleans squad.
To me, if the Pelicans were coached by at least 20 of the other head coaches in the league, I’d feel comfortable with a Suns sweep here. That’s still my prediction but Green could make it a more plucky five or six games instead.
That’s the key and the unknown variable to this series. Green will utilize the tricks he has up his sleeve but is his group ready to get the most out of them?