EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Mavericks Game 5 preview: Can Phoenix get back on track?

May 9, 2022, 4:30 PM | Updated: May 11, 2022, 4:38 pm
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks looks to pass around Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns ...
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks looks to pass around Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game Four of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals at American Airlines Center on May 8, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Monty Williams heard a question from a media member after practice in Dallas on Saturday centered around a word he’s heard a lot more in the last couple of weeks: adjustments.

With the Phoenix Suns starting their playoff run, lots of focus through a series from an outside perspective tends to rightfully go toward how each team can make changes to best benefit themselves along the way. The chess match really gets going when you play the same team four-to-seven times in a row at the highest level of play. It’s part of what makes basketball’s postseason so fun to watch and is a big key to Williams’ job as the head coach.

The question, a good one, was on the difficulty of not overreacting or over-adjusting after a playoff loss.

Williams’ response really shines a light on a few different things we’re going to hit on here for Tuesday’s Game 5 in a 2-2 series against the Dallas Mavericks.

“I think the thing that gets lost in whatever this is is we make adjustments almost every timeout,” he said. “Regular season, you make adjustments in games, in the playoffs you do it. It’s just like this thing where people think we wait until the playoffs to make adjustments. Like, we do it all the time. It’s not like, ‘OK guys! It’s April! Adjustment time!’ It doesn’t work that way. It’s every timeout.

“To your point, you have to fight over-thinking and adjusting too much because then guys are out there not playing with their instincts. … For me, I don’t want our guys thinking about the adjustment as much as I want them playing in our normal system. If the adjustment can handle the system, then I think we’re much better in that place.”

To start, adjustments shma-adjustments. The Suns just have to be better individually.

As my podcast co-host Kevin Zimmerman pointed out on Twitter after Phoenix’s Game 4 loss on Sunday, if we are solely judging the eight teams left in the NBA and analyzing their depth based on the playoffs, the Suns arguably have the least of it.

And this comes after a regular season in which they were the deepest team in basketball and their supporting cast beyond Chris Paul and Devin Booker has been one of the biggest strengths of the team.

After a six-game battle versus the New Orleans Pelicans had hardly anyone not named Paul, Booker, Deandre Ayton or Mikal Bridges step up, it has been more of the same in the second round.

Bridges has been replaced in that group by Jae Crowder, who is putting in his best basketball for the Suns since last year’s Finals with 15 points per game on 55.3% shooting. Bridges’ point totals in the four games have been 13, 11, 12 and six against a defense that is OK with the ball winding up in his hands on the back side.

The Defensive Player of the Year finalist also hasn’t been able to have a legitimate impact on Dallas point guard Luka Doncic, which has a fair bit to do with the Suns’ scheme allowing soft switches. That’s where Doncic has been hunting out Cam Johnson quite a bit, another good defender but someone who is really getting targeted and has to either offer up better resistance there or have a huge offensive game fast.

Ayton’s last three games are the ones in which we’ve been taught the last three years to not look at 14 points and 11 rebounds or 16 points and 11 rebounds as an indicator that he has played well. His fingerprints are absent from the game.

He was indeed “DominAyton” against New Orleans but that guy has disappeared since Game 1 of this series. And it comes in a matchup against the smaller Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. The aggression has to come back.

Dallas’ Kleber on 31 shot attempts in the series has 53 points, which is more than the Suns’ JaVale McGee (25 points), Cam Payne (15) and Landry Shamet (10) combined.

That’s six Phoenix players I mentioned. It plays nine! Two-thirds of the rotation!

And I didn’t get to Paul yet, who is coming off the two worst playoff games he’s played as a Sun in back-to-back outings.

To continue the 1 + 1 = 2 analysis, the Suns can’t keep turning the ball over like this. It has been 17 turnovers in three straight games. In the regular season against far worse defenses, Phoenix only had one three-game stretch where it committed over 15 in each fixture, and it only happened in two straight games three times.

That should, in theory, clean up a lot of the offensive issues.

Booker has been tremendous. It’s 45.9% shooting efficiency on 26.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He can’t carry the offense with Crowder. But actually, he might have to.

To that point and getting back to adjustments, Paul’s foul trouble in Game 4 brought on Point Book lineups.

With what Williams said about playing within the system, Booker always does that and facilities that when he runs the offense. The two-guard taking the reigns when Paul is resting would help make sitting Payne easier.

Payne through 10 playoff games is now shooting 31.7% from the field and 15.4% at 3-point range. The Suns need Payne’s pop off the dribble as the secondary floor general, which is why Williams has been sticking with him. But the potential pros have been far outweighed by the cons and it’s hurting Phoenix every time Payne’s out there.

Playing either Aaron Holiday as the off-ball guard or shortening the rotation to eight players has to be under serious consideration.

Phoenix could go a step further by replacing McGee with Bismack Biyombo or two steps further by not playing a backup center at all and going small with either Torrey Craig (if he’s healthy) or Ish Wainright. McGee’s inability to deal with Dallas’ five-out has led to open 3s for the Mavericks in every game.

Defensively, to complete our lap on the track and begin again with just being better, the Suns require improvement in their defensive positioning.

Phoenix’s execution in occupying the right spaces Sunday was bad and it hardly had to do with Dallas’ great disposition as drivers to attack with downhill physicality.

Going back to the Mavericks’ 20 3-pointers, 15 of those came in half-court situations that weren’t in transition or off an offensive rebound.

On 12 of those 15, the initial ball-handler for Dallas did not even have to get two feet in the paint. Most of the time, it was neither.

Watch that last clip back and take a look at the Suns’ bench, where assistant coaches Bryan Gates and Kevin Young were yelling for the rotation to the corner. Didn’t get there in time.

In the last two triples, you can see Kleber cutting causes the Suns’ defensive foundation to crumble. Williams alluded to that after practice on Monday.

“You’re gonna be in rotations over the course of the game but we’ve been in consistent rotations,” he said when asked about the number of corner 3s the Suns gave up. “And a lot of it is being able to guard the ball but they’ve done a really good job of cutting and that cutting has put us in rotations unlike any other concept that we’ve dealt with this year so we’ve got to do a couple of things to counter the cutting.”

We can sit here and blibber blabber about tweaks to schemes, who is responsible for those 3s and all that but it doesn’t need to go beyond that.

If the Suns play at a slightly above average level compared to what they showed in the regular season, they will win this series. They didn’t come close to doing that in the last two games and for stretches of the first round as well. Plus, with the even tougher challenges looming in the potential next two rounds, it would behoove them to snap out of it quickly in order to meet championship expectations.

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