As a team that routinely wages an uphill battle against basic math, the Phoenix Suns have little room for error when it comes to the possession game. Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Denver Nuggets proved how ugly it can get when they lose on both fronts, especially against such a quality opponent.
Make no mistake about it: Jamal Murray and the Nuggets took it to the Suns in convincing fashion on Saturday, earning a 125-107 win at home to open up this second-round series. But until another Murray Flurry put the game away in the fourth quarter, Phoenix’s biggest problem was a mathematical one: Denver was getting way more possessions and taking way more shots, and of those shots, they were generating way more 3s.
After the game, Kevin Durant was quick to point out some glaring numbers on the stat sheet: The Nuggets took 101 shots to Phoenix’s 84. They also attempted 37 3-pointers to the Suns’ 23, and made 16 of them to the Suns’ seven.
“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “We talk about a lot of different things involving our game like defense, get back on defense, make an extra pass, but if you just make more shots than your opponent, you got a good chance in a basketball game. That’s what they did.”
So how does a team wind up with 17 fewer shot attempts and 14 fewer 3-point attempts? In Game 1, the Suns found multiple avenues to lose the possession game.
“The difference in possessions, turnovers and offensive rebounds, just destroyed us tonight,” coach Monty Williams said.
After a loss, NBA players and coaches typically fall back on “we have to go back and look at the film” as a go-to response about in-game tactics, but this was pretty cut and dry after Phoenix got beaten so soundly on the road.
“I always say I gotta run the game back and watch it and digest it, but the early things that you look at are that exactly — getting 17 more shots than us, turning the ball over, getting 18 points that way, second chance points, also, offensive rebounds,” Booker said. “So those are the main things I can see off the bat.”
The question is, how many of the Suns’ turnovers were self-inflicted? How many Nuggets offensive rebounds could have been prevented? And how can Phoenix overcome the math problem that’s plagued them since last season as a team of Midrange Assassuns? A look at the film from Game 1 offers some insight.
Suns turnovers in Game 1 are largely fixable
Chris Paul, another notorious “we gotta go back and look at the film” truther, didn’t know how many turnovers the Suns finished with in Game 1. But without looking at the stat sheet, he knew it was too many.
“They was getting out in transition,” he explained. “I don’t know how many turnovers we had, but it felt like a lot. We just gotta play better, and I think we’re a team that we usually learn from what we do and go from there.”
He’s not wrong about the “just play better” part.
Through three quarters of last night’s game, PHX was generating 1.25 points per chance on non-turnover possessions. Denver was at 1.12.
The issue is that DEN had 17 (!!!) more cracks at it (92-75).
I’d bet ball control (and transition defense) will be a major point of emphasis.
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) April 30, 2023
Many of the Suns’ turnovers were avoidable, like Booker bobbling the ball on a pass Michael Porter Jr. got his hands on, Bismack Biyombo fumbling a catch on the short roll or Deandre Ayton’s offensive foul against the smaller Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Some of them, like Booker trying to weave through multiple players in transition or throwing a pass to Ayton that got tipped by KCP, just felt careless.
Those types of mistakes piled on in the third quarter, when the Suns had multiple chances to cut into their 17-point halftime deficit, but only managed to trim it to 13 heading into the final period.
“Every time we had a chance to get it under 10, I don’t know how many turnovers we had in the middle of the floor, but that spot was like an ambush spot for them,” Williams said. “They just kept coming towards the ball. But we couldn’t get over the hump. Every time we had a chance to get under 10 or get to 10, we turned it back over.”
The Suns committed 16 turnovers as a team, leading to 18 Nuggets points. Phoenix, meanwhile, could only turn 10 Denver turnovers into seven points. The most egregious offender was also the Suns’ best player in Game 1, Kevin Durant. He put up 29 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks on 12-of-19 shooting, but his game-high seven turnovers were a clear blemish on his night.
“I slipped a couple of times, I threw a couple bad passes,” Durant said. “I mean, I only had one assist and seven turnovers. We’re not winning basketball games like that. I gotta be way more careful with the ball. I gotta either look to shoot the ball or make the correct pass. So they got 17 more shots up, I damn near got half our turnovers. So I put that on me, just keeping the ball in my hands, not trying to make the home run play.”
Turnovers will happen, but not all of them in Game 1 were of the careless, preventable variety. The Suns also fell into the Nuggets’ trap with some of their pre-rotations, sending a weak-side defender over early to tag Ayton’s dives down the lane. Phoenix was proactive in looking for their big man, but Denver’s defense was all over it:
In the first clip, Porter rotates early from the corner off Torrey Craig, but Durant has tunnel vision trying to get the ball to Ayton as the big fella slips the screen into space. Without an angle for the pocket pass, Durant lobs it up to DA. Porter comes flying in to break up the play, while a wide-open Chris Paul stands in the corner.
In the second clip, Durant drives into the lion’s den, not realizing he has Landry Shamet in the corner and Booker on the wing. He tries to take his temporary opening with a bounce pass to Ayton, but the Nuggets have packed the paint, allowing Murray to get his hand on it.
In the third clip, a double-team on Booker puts Denver in rotations early. Book makes the first pass to Shamet, but Shamet doesn’t recognize KCP drifting over from Craig in the weak-side corner until it’s too late, rifling a pass to DA that’s quickly picked off.
And in the last two clips, Paul has Durant open in the weak-side corner, but Denver packing the paint and showing bodies obscures his passing lanes as he looks for Ayton on the roll. Paul throws the first pass to empty real estate, and the second one goes back out to Josh Okogie, who turns the ball over with a pass right to Aaron Gordon.
A look at the film will show the Suns can use Denver’s overzealous rotations to their advantage if they continue. Either way, this group can certainly clean some things up for Game 2.
“We had a number of turnovers tonight for 18 points, and then you, again, complement that with offensive rebounding, it just wasn’t a good night for us,” Williams said. “We dug ourselves a hole.”
Crushed on the offensive glass again
The Suns were a top-10 offensive rebounding team during the regular season, but since the NBA calendar flipped to the playoffs, it’s been a familiar story: Phoenix cannot keep anyone off the boards.
The offensive rebounding disparity was more prominent in the first half, but that just so happened to be when Denver used a 37-19 second quarter to blow the game wide open. At one point in the first half, the Nuggets had nine offensive rebounds, while the Suns had nine rebounds total.
It’s no wonder Ayton chalked up his team’s areas for improvement in Game 2 to rebounding and communication on defense.
“We’re gonna be a completely different team Game 2,” he said solemnly. “I can tell you that. But the physicality’s gonna turn up a notch. They were playing Nuggets basketball, but they were playing a little too comfortable, and we didn’t have our hands on ’em like how we’re supposed to, and when we did, it was a little too late. They were aggressive, and the tone of the game was already set.
“We just can’t let stuff like that slip out of our hands, because they’re a really, really good team, and once you’re trailing against a team like that, you’re gonna be trailing the rest of the game. So it’s really getting them off the glass where there’s no momentum plays or letting the crowd get into it.”
Once again, Ayton has proven his ability to say the right thing. Now he’ll need to back it up, because his effort on some of these plays was inexcusable.
While Ayton grabbed just 7 rebounds, Durant doubled him with 14. Nikola Jokic dominated the glass, pulling down 19 rebounds total, including more offensive rebounds (eight) than DA had overall (seven). The Nuggets finished with 16 offensive boards, and while they only yielded 18 second-chance points, those extra possessions helped account for the shot disparity.
“We understand it’s gonna be physical, they’re a physical team,” Booker said. “They’re gonna be on the offensive boards, there’ll be a lot going on in the paint. We just need to take care of that.”
Of course, not all of this issue can be pinned on DA. Sure, there were one too many examples where Ayton failed to box out, but as Durant noted, Jokic’s rebounding numbers were slightly inflated by how many tip attempts he got.
“I just think Jokic got like five of ’em on one possession, you know what I’m sayin?” Durant said. “They got some here and there, but I think with Jokic, it just made his numbers look better. He does a good job of tipping that ball, keeping that ball alive, so we just gotta hit these guys. They thrive off of playing fast-paced and getting up more shots than their opponent, so we gotta be better.”
Even without those tip attempts for Jokic, Ayton shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame alone. He’s the starting center playing on a max contract, obviously, but there were a few examples of other guys dropping the ball too.
In the clip below, Booker fails to impede Joker’s dive after Ayton switches out onto the perimeter; Aaron Gordon gets a weak-side rebound right over the top of Shamet; and Gordon flies in for a tip attempt over Durant.
“I thought there were times where we had a guy boxing out and pushing us under the basket, but we had three guys standing outside the paint watching, where we could have helped that guy boxing out,” Williams said. “There was a few times where Gordon was on a smaller guy, or [Jeff] Green was on a smaller guy. We just didn’t go down and help those guys enough.”
There were also two instances where Durant blocked a shot, only for it to return to the offensive player, which technically counts as an offensive rebound. In any case, after getting out-rebounded 49-38 overall and 16-8 on the O-boards, it feels like a necessity to help even out the possession game and live up to Ayton’s Game 2 promise by increasing the physicality.
The Suns continue to have a math problem
The Suns ultimately got to 23 3-point attempts on the night, but by halftime, they had only taken five attempts from beyond the arc.
Five! In the year 2023! Not 1993, 2023!
“It’s a lot,” Williams said of the disparity. “Yeah, it is a concern. We didn’t generate enough, and they generated way too much.”
The Suns took 14 fewer 3s than Denver and were outscored by a staggering 27 points from downtown. For those wondering how a team could shoot 51.4 percent from the floor and still get their teeth kicked in like the Suns did, the basic math of “three is greater than two” helps explain it.
It’s a war the Suns have been waging for the last few years as midrange savants, but Phoenix didn’t put Denver’s defense in nearly enough rotations after the first quarter. The ball got “sticky,” as Williams calls it, and the Suns finished with just 20 assists on 43 made buckets.
Durant said getting stops and letting 3s fly in transition can help boost their number of attempts. Williams also cited the man rolling in the middle of the floor as one key to generating more 3s moving forward.
“We have to look at our offense and make sure that we’re, again, trusting the pocket pass,” he said. “DA is capable and he’s done it a number of times where he can score or find guys on the backside.”
Of course, the Suns shouldn’t have to rely on their center catching the ball in the short roll and finding guys on the weak-side to hoist more 3s. When you have three capable ball-handlers and playmakers in the pick-and-roll like CP3, Book and KD, this really shouldn’t be rocket science.
This three point attempt problem should be incredibly easily to correct. Can’t see why it’d be hard for Durant, Booker, and Paul to create open shots for others. Sure, the others may miss. But right now the problem is attempts. Really should be solvable.
— Max (@maxmcc11) April 30, 2023
“Just creating for each other, getting by that first line of defense, putting them in rotation and just having a quick trigger,” Booker said. “If the shot’s there, just take it.”
The Suns are still adjusting to having a player like Durant, but that ongoing process is exacerbating their 3-point problem at the moment. Phoenix just doesn’t take enough 3s, even though they ranked seventh in 3-point percentage during the regular season.
“Sometimes we might pass up some looks too and try to kick-drive a little bit more, so probably gotta shoot those,” Durant said. “But we’ll be fine, I think. We just gotta play with confidence, shoot the ball with confidence. See what happens next game.”
The bench could be key in this equation. Landry Shamet continues to get more rope than he probably deserves, but if his defense isn’t making an impact on Jamal Murray — the reason he’s played more minutes over Damion Lee and Terrence Ross — why not lean into the offensive side of the floor? Lee and Ross were dynamic 3-point shooters this season and could help space the floor.
If Chris Paul is going to continue to turn down shots, and if Booker is going to continue to play like the 3-point line doesn’t exist, and if the Suns aren’t going to fall back on Double Drag or Spain or their other sets to generate 3s on the weak-side, Williams may have to entrust some of the bench guys with taking and making the 3s that defenses will be willing to concede. Torrey Craig proved he could do it last round, and Josh Okogie may be called upon to do the same.
That may not sound encouraging, but the Suns’ supposed “let it fly” mentality has been nowhere to be found since the playoffs started. If they want to stop fighting math itself, they need to start generating more looks at the rim and more 3s.
“I always believe in us,” Booker said. “We’ve been a good team all year of digesting the game and seeing what went on and learning from it and making those corrections.”