EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns vs. Pelicans series preview, Pt. 3: Phoenix’s offensive evolution
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ second year with All-Star guard Chris Paul joining All-Star guard Devin Booker in the backcourt has once again produced one of the NBA’s best offenses.
But as the Suns learned last postseason, the further you get in the playoffs, the harder it is to score. Phoenix needed to rely more on other individuals and the results were mixed. Monty Williams’ offense thrives through team-oriented play but Paul and Booker making the right decision when defenses over-committed to them and setting the supporting cast members up wasn’t enough.
Those players had to remain aggressive with an understanding of where and when they could impact the game in lower usage roles. That is really, really hard to do and get a feel for.
In Year 2 for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges with those guards and Year 4 in their respective careers, it feels like they’ve both had a breakthrough of sorts that could be the difference between the Suns winning a championship.
A matchup in the first round with a New Orleans Pelicans squad that head coach Willie Green will deploy those in-your-face defenses for will be a solid first indicator of the progress Ayton and Bridges made this season carrying over to the games that really count.
Ayton’s improvement is remarkable when you consider how he has furthered his offensive influence despite a pretty minimal role.
As mainly a dive man on ball screens, a huge development for Ayton this year has been short rolls. When Ayton’s man in pick-and-roll situations cuts off the space for the ball-handler, that leaves Ayton some real estate to work with before the help defense rotates over.
That’s when Ayton will get the ball in those short rolls around the free-throw line. From there it’s a matter of the center making the right 0.5 play, the defining characteristic of Williams’ offense in which the goal is to make the correct decision to pass, dribble or shoot in 0.5 seconds or less. Maybe you thought those 0.5 plays mostly came down to the Suns’ perimeter players but it applies to the center too.
“It’s a big factor,” Ayton said Friday of his short roll this year compared to last season. “I think that’s what complements our offense. When we have players like D-Book and C on the floor and they attract that much attention, I have to be a playmaker in that short roll and get the offense going.”
Ayton has earned the trust of getting the ball in those spots because of his consistency. He went from taking 36% of his total shots from the midrange last season to 55% this year, per Cleaning the Glass. Most of that increase is in the short midrange area of 5-13 feet or so.
That’s where Ayton has found his best offensive tool that has become a legitimate weapon in Phoenix’s offense.
As highlighted by The Four Point Play Newsletter, Ayton’s hook shot is that weapon. Per The Timeline Podcast’s highlight reel where you can see a supercut of all the buckets, Ayton converted 66.7% of his hook shots, upping his efficiency by over 10% this season.
Ayton’s also developed a floater. Yes, the very large human has a floater.
On shots NBA.com classifies as a “floating jump shot,” Ayton was 30-for-45 on those this season after attempting a total of 22 in his first three seasons combined.
That 30-for-45 is indeed 66.7%, the same percentage as the hook shot! Pretty neat.
When Ayton catches the ball in rhythm with his defender deeper in the key for a drop, he can do what he calls getting into his college bag a bit more with the jab steps and triple threat moves he busted out a bit more back in his Arizona Wildcat days.
Remember when I said “pass” as a part of the 0.5 decision tree?
That Bridges cut is a key one from the weak side, the area that Williams illustrated on Saturday when discussing Ayton’s short rolls and how the spacing works as a whole when Booker and Paul get contained.
“I think it’s huge for us,” Williams said of Ayton’s short roll. “One, he’s gotten a lot better at it. But the second side, if we can get the ball to the other side and be efficient off of that, you don’t necessarily have to cast up a 3. I think you can get the ball to the other side and do both: knock down the shot or attack the paint.
“They have been pretty aggressive with their pick-and-roll coverages. That could change tomorrow but that’s something that we talked about and our bigs are ready for it. I think you just have to be sound in the short roll. Nobody’s there, go score. If somebody’s there, you can make a play on the second side.”
Sometimes, the help doesn’t have much of a presence and Ayton can dribble all the way to the lane.
Ayton is a supreme basketball talent. There’s a reason he went No. 1 overall in a draft class with Luka Doncic and Trae Young in it. What he has shown in these pockets of the floor speaks to that and will be a huge factor in the Suns’ postseason offense.
With the headline above noting “offensive evolution,” I wrote two months ago how it started with Bridges and he has brought that to fruition by averaging 15.4 points per game in his 51 appearances since Christmas.
And as always, Bridges is doing so with an ultra-efficient touch.
He shot a tremendous 79% at the rim, 51% from the midrange and 38% for 3s this year, per Cleaning the Glass.
The difference is more volume. Bridges’ total midrange attempts were more than doubled from 145 to 314.
Looking at those “second side” rotations Williams talked about, that’s where Bridges can attack closeouts and gets to his signature shot, the midrange turnaround.
Bridges isn’t even dependent on getting set up for it.
Williams has mentioned in the regular season how Bridges is “seeking” the ball out more this year. Again, it is difficult to be Bridges in this offense, not knowing when or how much the ball is going to come to you. He just always has to be ready to score, and this year, it seems like he’s put to use that mix of confidence and swagger that is part of this team’s DNA into becoming a better offensive player.
If Ayton and Bridges can get to those go-to shots with regularity against the Pelicans, it’ll be some long nights for New Orleans and a short series.