The Phoenix Suns begin their journey through the 2023 NBA Playoffs with Game 1 against the LA Clippers on Sunday. While Phoenix should be favored in this first-round series, the Clippers are no pushover — even without Paul George.
Over the last week, we’ve examined keys to the matchup, the Suns’ biggest playoff concerns and Deandre Ayton being an X-factor despite his reduced role. However, there’s still more to this series that meets the eye, and to that end, it’s time to take a look at a few other X-factors.
From Chris Paul’s willingness to let it fly, to Monty Williams’ bench rotations, to the ballistic offensive rebounding of a few mad men, here are five X-factors that could play a pivotal role for this series…and the Suns’ title aspirations in general.
Individual iso defense for the Suns
Last year in the playoffs, the Suns’ top-10 defense was undone by dribble-drive penetration. Ball-handlers like Luka Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson routinely blew past the first line of defense, either getting easy buckets in the paint or kicking it out to open shooters.
The Suns couldn’t keep their man in front of them, and it cost them a shot at a title during their best season in franchise history. They’ll face a similar challenge with Kawhi Leonard and this LA squad.
“It’s how they play,” said Landry Shamet, a former Clipper. “They’re a team that’s gonna hunt matchups, they got really good iso scorers and guys who play off of those iso scorers, and they shoot at the highest rate in the league from 3 on close-outs from Kawhi iso.”
Between Leonard, Norman Powell, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Marcus Morris and Bones Hyland, the Clippers have a lot of guys who can get to their spots off the dribble. They’re an iso-heavy group that relies almost as heavily on the midrange as Phoenix does, ranking third in the NBA in their frequency of shots from the long midrange.
“They’re a big matchup hunt team,” Torrey Craig said. “They try to find the matchup that they want and exploit that, so it’s gonna be vital for us to contain the ball, to guard two dribbles, three dribbles. And also our help defense, our shift, is gonna be very important too.”
Looking at the numbers from The BBall Index, it’s clear they have a number of players who take a lot of iso shots, are efficient on their isos, or both:
- Kawhi Leonard: 94th percentile in isos per 75 possessions, 97th percentile in PPP
- Norman Powell: 39th percentile in isos per 75 possessions, 71st percentile in PPP
- Eric Gordon: 52nd percentile in isos per 75 possessions, 92nd percentile in PPP
- Russell Westbrook: 92nd percentile in isos per 75 possessions, 16th percentile in PPP
- Marcus Morris: 85th percentile in isos per 75 possessions, 66th percentile in PPP
Whether it’s primary penetration or drive-and-kicks to slashers, the Suns have to do a better job of containing off the bounce.
“Guys that can score on all three levels are the hardest guys to guard in the league, so you just gotta be prepared for anything,” Kevin Durant said. “And most of that stuff you make up for by just playing hard and strong and physical.”
Having another 7-footer on the back lines will help cover for some of the inevitable perimeter mistakes that arise over the course of a playoff series. But when it comes down to it, the Suns’ new playoff mantra is fitting: It’s all about getting a bucket and stopping your guy from getting one.
“At this point in the season, everybody knows your plays, they know some of your counters, and it comes down to the ability to stay in front of the ball, contest without fouling, and you gotta finish it with a rebound,” coach Monty Williams said. “So we’ve talked about all that stuff and different ways we can cut down on certain tendencies, but for the most part, that’s what it is. You gotta stay in front of the ball and play great defense.”
Leonard is the head of that snake, and the Suns will need to balance their man-to-man defense with showing him different looks. Those decisions about when to send the blitz and rotate or play straight up are on the coaching staff, but it’s also about players calling the shots in real time. The Suns take pride in their defense, which has remained at a top-10 level all season despite injuries and the Durant trade.
Now that pride will immediately be put to the test as Phoenix tries to stop an offense that’s ranked in the top 10 since the trade deadline.
“It’s very important,” Josh Okogie said. “But as long as we stick to our principles, be in our shifts, and we have each other’s back, I think we’ll be fine.”
Chris Paul taking and making open 3s
With all the defensive attention being paid to Durant and Devin Booker, opponents are going to have to pick their poison in terms of what they’re willing to give up. More often than not, it’ll be the fifth guy in the corner, but sometimes, it’ll be leaving Chris Paul unattended.
And in those situations, the Suns have made it very clear how they feel about him letting it fly.
“Never thought I’d have to tell a Hall-of-Fame player to shoot the ball,” Williams joked. “He’s driving Kevin crazy, Book and Kevin Durant are going nuts, ’cause they all want him to shoot.”
After last year’s second-round defeat, the Suns wanted to put the ball in other players’ hands more, easing the burden on a 37-year-old Paul to dribble up the court every time. It would also allow other guys to get comfortable initiating offense. Early in the season, CP3 struggled with his adjustment to more of an off-ball role.
“I think it’s just something that he’s not completely used to, people helping off him at some times and him getting overlooked,” Booker said. “I think he’s always been in the position where he had to make plays for everybody on the court. So it’s gonna take a little adjusting, but you’re always in a good spot if you’re looking for a Hall-of-Famer to be more aggressive.”
Even a newcomer like Kevin Durant recognized the need for Paul to be more assertive, not only because he now has more space, but because it can throw off the Suns’ revamped attack on the offensive glass.
“He’s such a facilitator that he’s trying to get everybody involved, but most of the time, he’s gonna have a lot of space to operate,” Durant said. “So we need him to go out there and be aggressive.”
According to NBA.com, Paul is shooting a scorching 52.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, as well as 44.9 percent on “wide open” 3s. Since Durant arrived, he’s looked far more comfortable in that role, which bodes well for the high-quality looks he’ll receive sharing the court with Book, KD and Ayton.
“When you’re playing with this much talent or whatnot, guys that can score and shoot, I think a lot of times I catch myself trying to find them, knowing that I have the ball just about every possession,” Paul admitted. “I throw the ball up the court, I feel like I can get a shot whenever. I’m always looking for them, but of course, seeing the way that they guard K and doubling and trapping and all that, I definitely have to shoot more.”
And as annoying as it can be to have teammates constantly in his ear telling him to shoot, Paul looks at it a different way.
“I mean, it could be worse,” he said with a smile. “They could tell you not to shoot.”
Deandre Ayton doing the little things for the Suns
We’ve already covered this X-factor in fuller detail, so we’ll keep it brief. But in this series in particular, against a Clippers team that may go small at times, Ayton’s ability to punish switches could come up huge.
“We’ve gotten better at it over the years,” Williams said. “My first year here, we were not that good at it, and over time, DA’s been a guy that if you try to switch onto him, he can really hurt you.”
Jock Landale is another guy who can capitalize on mismatches if LA goes small, and the Suns could always go with the nuclear option by playing Durant at the 5 in small-ball lineups of their own. But Ayton’s comfort with playing physical, sealing deep and imposing his will against smaller players could go a long way when Tyronn Lue inevitably decides to throw Phoenix a different look.
“I think we have enough ball-handlers and playmakers to make the right plays, especially when we can’t get it down there to me, but make other plays and try to get somebody else open,” Ayton said. “I’m generating so much offense rolling to the basketball on a mismatch and things like that, but mainly just not overreacting and not overthrowing the ball and things like that. Making sure I’m a presence down low, and just making sure I’m generating as much offense as possible.”
The ballistic offensive rebounding of Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie
There’s no way around it: Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig are absolute nightmares for opponents on the offensive glass. And with pure scorers and playmakers like Booker, Durant, Paul and Ayton to contend with, those opponents will feel the sting of those second-chance opportunities even more.
“I feel like in any basketball game, it’s huge, but kind of honing into these last couple of games, especially going to the playoffs, every possession is big,” Okogie said. “As many possessions that you can take away from the other team, and as many possessions as we can give ourselves extra, I think that that’s really gonna be huge for us.”
As a team, the Suns rank fifth in offensive rebounds (11.8 per game), fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and eighth in second chance points (14.8 per game). It’s been a point of emphasis all season at assistant coach Kevin Young’s insistence, and it’s paid dividends.
“I think that’s a credit to our coaching staff,” Paul said. “That was something that we wanted to focus on coming into the season, and I think it really transformed our team and gave us another element that we didn’t have.”
Ayton is obviously the Suns’ best offensive rebounder, but it’s pretty common for “box him out!” to be on the scouting report for most NBA starting centers. What isn’t quite as common is for opponents to have to devote part of that scouting report to wings and guards who crash the glass like ballistic missiles.
“I feel like teams game-plan for me now, ’cause every time I go to crash, they make sure they get a body on me,” Craig said. “And sometimes guys just turn around and just face-guard me. So I’ve noticed that like the last 15-20 games. I’m like, ‘Man, it used to be easier than this!’”
Crashing the O-boards has been a focus for Craig since the beginning of the season, and whether he’s come off the bench or filled in for injured (or absent) players as a starter, it’s a trend that’s continued…even at the cost of his own physical well-being.
“Sacrificing your body, we talk about that a lot,” Durant said. “Sacrificing for your teammates, and that’s that’s what his game is. That’s why he’s in this league: to defend, go out there and do the dirty work, and be there for his guys at all times.”
Craig is the epitome of doing the dirty work, and he takes a beating for it on a nightly basis. Even when he doesn’t get hit, that type of role takes a toll.
“A lot of people don’t realize how exhausting it is,” Craig said with a laugh. “If you crash 100 times, 100 possessions, you might get it two or three. So it’s like, you’re using extra energy, now you’re like the last man back on defense, so you gotta sprint to get back. So it’s definitely exhausting, but it is rewarding when you’re able to get one or two and give your team extra possessions and bring energy and fuel the team like that.”
Durant’s arrival moved Craig back to a bench role, but from his perspective, that means he can unleash all that energy on the offensive boards in more concentrated doses.
“You definitely use it to your advantage and use it to crash more,” Craig admitted. “Your crash rate can be more and try to get extra possessions for the team.”
The scary thing is Craig isn’t even the best offensive rebounding wing or guard on the team. While Okogie fell short of the type of NBA history ESPN’s Zach Lowe was tracking, the 6-foot-3 guard posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 7.8, trailing only Phoenix’s three centers on the roster. Craig wasn’t far behind with his 7.3 offensive rebounding percentage.
Once he started getting more playing time, Okogie quickly asserted himself as a mad man on the boards. Craig simply called him “weird” for the way he crashes with peak athleticism, and that weirdness has made him a walking X-factor for months.
“It’s huge,” Paul said. “The more possessions that we can get with our offensive firepower, the better. So we’re gonna need that, especially in the playoffs.”
The problem is, LA is a very good defensive rebounding team. They’re seventh in defensive rebounding percentage, seventh in opponent offensive rebounding percentage and 11th in opponent second chance points. Gaining an edge in this category thanks to the “other guys” could allow Phoenix’s high-powered offense to overwhelm a subpar Clippers defense.
Monty Williams pulling right strings with rotations
Down the stretch of the regular season, Williams’ rotations were impossible to predict. It was a constant source of frustration for the fanbase, but it made sense with Durant playing so sparingly; the Suns had a few new faces to evaluate, and with KD out, the coaching staff wanted to gather as much data as possible.
Whether it was T.J. Warren finally getting a shot, Cam Payne being a healthy scratch to let other unconventional options initiate offense, or alternating between Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale, Phoenix experimented quite a bit. Aside from Payne (who’s questionable for Game 1 due to low back soreness) and Craig, it’s hard to peg who will actually be in the Suns’ bench rotation.
Williams said he understands guys’ frustrations about the inconsistent lineups, but he was upfront with everyone about what he was doing on a nightly basis.
“I think if guys weren’t upset about that or competitively upset about it, I’d be surprised,” he said. “Everybody’s accepted it. When I have conversations with guys about their roles and what I’m planning to do, I go directly to those guys so they know what to expect, and guys — I wouldn’t like it. But they understand what we’re trying to do.”
Looking at the Suns’ bench options, many of them have more one-sided skill-set. Terrence Ross is a renowned shooter and bench scorer who can create his own offense, but he’ll be targeted on defense whenever he’s on the floor. Warren is another midrange weapon, but as hard as he’s worked on defense, he’s still not a lockdown defender by any means.
Damion Lee has been lights out from 3, but as hard as he works defensively, his lack of size can be exploited in playoff mismatches. Landale is a great offensive threat against smaller switches, but Biyombo is the stronger, more athletic rim protector.
Wainright is a strong, versatile defender as well, but his 3-point shooting goes cold too often. Aside from Craig, Shamet is the closest thing Phoenix’s bench has to a two-way player, but will the shooting hold up? The Suns will stagger their starters to make sure at least one or two of the “core four” are on the floor at all times, but Williams now has the unenviable task of actually putting the right lineups together.
“I do feel like we’ve learned more this year because of all of the obstacles, trades and injuries putting guys in different positions, if you will,” Williams said. “Torrey started, Ish played a different role this year, Cam Payne was in a different role, Landry was in and out. So I think in those situations, you learn a ton.”
Last year, Phoenix breezed its way to 64 wins without putting guys in different positions. This year, they only won 45 games, but there’s more confidence in what they’ve learned about their role players. The problem is not the Suns’ lack of depth; it’s more of a question whether Williams will be able to effectively pull the strings with the right substitutions when the situation calls for offense, defense or both.