EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ Devin Booker solves Mavs’ traps thanks to help from Deandre Ayton

Oct 20, 2022, 1:20 PM
Deandre Ayton #22 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at...
Deandre Ayton #22 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on October 19, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 107-105. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Dallas Mavericks made a decision in the Western Conference semifinals last postseason to trap Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker as much as possible.

For over a half-decade now, Booker has served as the calm in the storm when the going gets tough for the Suns’ offense. He can put together a string of three minutes that gives his team a chance to recollect its focus after it was taken away.

Dallas effectively negated that, and with Chris Paul not looking like Chris Paul, it was enough to completely shut the Suns down.

Wednesday’s season opener rolled around, and the same traps came for Booker.

The Suns, obviously, were ready for this and found their consistent counter through the two-man game with Deandre Ayton and was what led to a 107-105 win.

With a hat tip to Empire of the Suns’ Australian correspondent David on Suns Twitter, Phoenix was +25 in the 27 minutes Booker and Ayton played together. It was dynamite and the long-term vision of how that duo could captain a top NBA offense was coming to life.

Booker has a huge amount of trust in his teammates, so when his reputation earns him two defenders on the perimeter, the job is nearly done already. The defense is about to scramble as soon as he makes the pass, so it’s just about making the right one.

Ayton’s man, by default, is the one trapping. So that means Ayton can get position inside while his man recovers. Here is that in action:

When Ayton sets a high ball screen, he can quickly receive the ball a beat or two faster than he normally does on his dive to the basket. Ayton gets the pass around the free throw line, known as the short roll, an area where he really improved last season. That’s thanks to both him and the Suns using him there more.

Head coach Monty Williams and the Suns refer to it as the pocket in the back side of the defense.

“It’s something that we worked on for sure but they have to execute it,” Williams said of the two-man game. “We’ll give ’em structure and then a lot of times they’ll go out there and talk about the angle of the screen, where he needs to be in the pocket. It certainly doesn’t work if you don’t have guys who can make plays on the back side but DA has become really good in the pocket.”

Ayton, to Williams’ point, became lethal at taking a dribble or two if necessary to get to either a floater or hook shot that is now nearly automatic. And when defenses try and take this away, Ayton’s great ability as a passer can get some shine via an open corner 3 or a smart cut to the basket.

“For him to be a dominant post-up big, midrange big, I think that’s the next step he can take to his game — his playmaking,” Booker said of Ayton after the game. “Especially when a lot of attention is on me and Chris. He’s usually around that free throw line being the first person you throw it to out of the double and it’s usually 3-on-2 or 4-on-3 on the back side.”

A big difference on Wednesday was Booker being able to find that pass to Ayton before the trap fully collapsed.

“I think he’s going to find out that it’s going to make his job a lot easier because he’s automatic from that area where he catches it at the free throw line,” Booker said of Ayton.

Watch that last clip back and No. 10 on Phoenix specifically. You’ll notice a wrinkle the Suns spammed in crunch time of the fourth quarter, a double screen from Damion Lee. The one above is a ghost screen, which means he’s faking the screen and will just immediately flash out of it. This, more than anything, forces Lee’s man Luka Doncic to pick the right spot for his help defense.

This presents more threats and also more passing options for the defense to worry about. Booker is a tremendous playmaker at this stage of his career, so the Mavericks know he can make the skip passes and such to break the defense down.

Watch here how the Mavericks’ defenders each spend roughly a second rotating off their initial man before recovering back, with most of the attention on Ayton. This allows Booker to find enough real estate to score in.

One possession earlier, Lee actually set the screen so Ayton didn’t have to. And now, Dallas’ Maxi Kleber isn’t trapping because Ayton never went out there. The Mavs are toast.

Booker had six of his nine assists and zero turnovers in the fourth quarter. He was +17 in the final comeback.

The groove Booker and Ayton found was a treat to watch. Look at the organized chaos here of Booker slithering through what Ayton does and the final crossover into the help defender setting up an easy lob pass.

By the time the game was on the line, the Mavericks were out of answers. They tried switching. That did not work either.

“It was just what the game showed us,” Williams said of relying on the two-man game. “Both teams were, I mean, if you charted how many defenses we changed tonight I bet both teams were all over the board. From zone to switching to blitzes, they were doing everything and we were and we read the game. That was what the game was showing us.”

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