EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets Game 5 preview: Phoenix unlocking its offense

May 8, 2023, 6:44 PM

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Devin Booker #1 after scoring against the Denver Nuggets during Game Four of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 07, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

DENVER — The Denver Nuggets have a problem. It goes beyond Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combining for 158 points the last two games.

The Phoenix Suns offense is starting to look like a Phoenix Suns offense, and in a 2-2 tied series after Sunday’s Game 4 victory, momentum is firmly on their side.

At first glance, with this group, it is a delicate house of cards. If one of Booker or Durant is prevented from flame-broiling Denver, it’ll all come toppling down.

But because of all the extra defensive attention on Booker and Durant, plus head coach Monty Williams’ rotation changes to nearly maximize shooting and offense, we’re back to 0.5 basketball.

“Especially with how we play. Our 0.5 mentality, it kind of puts us in those situations with them trapping all the time,” guard Cam Payne said Monday.

No more getting stuck in the mud some possessions, deferring to some your turn, my turn dynamics.

For the uninitiated, 0.5 refers to making a decision with the ball in a half-second or less. Pass it. Drive it. Shoot it. Whatever. Just go.

Once the philosophy caught on in Phoenix, it has become blatantly obvious when someone is slacking. You know it when you see it, both the good and the bad.

For all the talk about how much Booker’s tour de force is because of playing with Durant, this is the one area of the game to really point at with a why. Booker has never had someone consistently set him up for 0.5 opportunities, nor another scorer to play off where he could do it for them too.

We will get to pace more in a minute, and my goodness, Phoenix was hellacious off misses and makes.

Here is a Durant rebound, and when Booker notices Nuggets below average defender Michael Porter Jr. is cross-matched onto him while jogging back, Booker sprints up the floor to ensure he holds the matchup.

Booker gets it and Denver’s Aaron Gordon feels the need to contain from the help spot, presumably thinking a rotation is going to take place behind him. Either way, no rotation is going to work because its result is leaving Durant.

Watch Booker. As Durant rises up, he turns around and laughs at some fans courtside who happen to be hip-hop legends Cam’ron and Mase.

In the other way around, Chris Paul rarely takes on enough gravity for someone to give Booker that type of cushion. Payne has been playing with Booker since the bubble and he made a good point on how the only other guy drawing doubles before outside of Booker was Deandre Ayton in the post. Having that on the perimeter is a whole different deal.

“It’s pretty cool. To me, it seems like it’s making the game easier for him,” Payne said of Booker. “I know the game slowed down for him way early in his career (but) I think it’s slowing down even more for him being able to play off the ball, not actually having to control it every time. You got KD out there who is drawing two defenders instead of DA in the post. It’s happening on the outside. So when he get the opportunity to go 0.5, it’s easier for him.”

Booker can provide it to Durant as well like we’ve seen. Having two guys forcing dramatic defensive rotations all game rejuvenated the offense and Game 4 saw Durant setting up Booker and vice versa.

“I enjoy it just because Kevin’s gonna make the right plays,” Williams said of Booker getting that from Durant. “He doesn’t play in just 0.5 to jack up a shot, he’ll play in 0.5 to pass it to the weak side or hit DA in the pocket. Those guys have such control and command of the ball and they have great balance and good footwork and I think that allows for them to be efficient in 0.5.”

As you can guess, Booker is a fan.

“I invite that,” he said after Game 3. “That’s my favorite brand of basketball, when they double him and I get to be on the back side and just make a quick decision. It’s just reading it.”

There were so many 0.5 possessions in Game 4 that I had to cut it up into three different videos. One thing I want to point out is look for how many of these are opened up by the dive to the rim by the center. I lobbied for small-ball lineups and Williams sticking with a 5 at all times has paid off.

Here is the first half:

The third quarter:

And the final frame, including a Booker-to-Durant dagger:

Phoenix’s screeners almost exclusively scored off the doubles. Ayton, Jock Landale and Josh Okogie combined for nine field goals in the game and seven were in those scenarios.

“I think it’s been key for us,” Williams said of the screeners in the 0.5. “Our guys have seen pretty much every pick-and-roll coverage. … Whatever it is, I think we’ve seen it. Now it’s a matter of making the right read quickly and our bigs have been really good about putting pressure on the rim and it allows for a little bit of space so we can play in 0.5 in an open vacuum if you will. And we gotta keep that up.”

All seven were assisted by Booker or Durant and were one-pass breakdowns. Here is five of ’em.

Denver will have to go back to the drawing board. It can bet on the likes of Landry Shamet, Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren continuing to make shots but they are wide-open looks for good shooters and/or scorers. And if one of them starts to struggle, Williams can still turn to Damion Lee, the best shooter off the bench as a whole.

There’s more coming that suggests this is sustainable.

Ayton and Payne each had 12 total points in the two home games for Phoenix. Both as starters typically flutter around 14-18. If Paul returns from a left groin strain that will sideline him for Game 5 as well, that’s the similar contribution.

Paul, of course, will have to stick by these principles just as much as anyone. He’s been hesitant in off-ball spots this season.

And with the way the Suns are roasting teams off misses and makes with Booker and Durant, he will have to take more of a backseat in transition duties as well. Sunday was the Suns’ fifth game out of nine in the postseason with 20-plus fastbreak points.

Regardless, Phoenix’s identity and core styles of play are at long last starting to be channeled properly with Durant in the fold. The energy and effort is back at a gear no other team can touch. If you watch Durant on Tuesday, you’ll see him zooming around like everyone else.

This is maybe the best defensive possession Phoenix has had in Game 4. Everyone played a part.

Shamet is draped on Murray as usual and Durant sticks as the low man in case it’s a lob pass to Aaron Gordon. From there, Ross puts himself in a great spot to cover two guys at once. He recovers, as does Durant in the corner to chase Porter off the line. Ross briefly stunts in on Porter’s drive and then Landale finishes it off with a contest at the rim.

Lovely!

Durant co-signed the assessment that this is the most the defense has been on a string together since he got here. Don’t let Denver’s point totals fool you.

“We’re starting to understand exactly what we need to do in each coverage. … Defense is a team sport so we all gotta be on one page if we wanna be successful and coach is doing a good job of making things simple for us,” Durant said Monday. “But guys are also coming in from the bench, guys are being asked to do multiple things out there and we’re not gonna be perfect but we’re making up for it with our intensity.”

I asked Durant if he agreed with Booker’s wear-down effect and Durant didn’t want to pay too much mind to the physical status of the opposition late in a game.

“It’s more so can we sustain energy and this output every possession and how important is each possession to us,” Durant said.

You can see that attention to detail in all the possessions above really starting to come together at a championship level. He would know.

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