Coming off a 125-107 shellacking in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns have a lot to prove in Game 2. They took a shot to the jaw in Friday’s opener, and while it’s too soon to declare Game 2 a “must-win” game, another loss in that fashion would sow seeds of doubt that Phoenix has what it takes to win this matchup.
They absolutely do, but it starts with getting back to their brand of basketball that’s been so effective over the last three years, with or without Kevin Durant.
“There was some optimism, because when we looked at the film today, we knew it wasn’t us,” Josh Okogie said at Saturday’s practice. “That’s not Phoenix Suns basketball.”
Game 1 felt like an uncharacteristic performance, but the Suns’ mistakes were compounded by an effective game plan and stout execution from a very good Nuggets squad.
“You can sit here and make excuses about what we didn’t do; they beat us,” coach Monty Williams said. “They did some things that took us out of certain coverages, took us out of certain plays, so you have to respect that. And that forces you to go back to the lab and make some adjustments to some things. I did not think that we were the aggressors in many respects.”
It would be easy to feel shaken by such a convincing loss to start the series, but the Suns learned firsthand from losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks that it’s called a “series” for a reason. For his part, Devin Booker has faith in how Phoenix will respond.
“I always believe in us,” he 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.”
The question is, what specific corrections need to be made? In nor particular order, here’s a look at the five biggest adjustments for the Suns heading into Game 2.
1. Win the possession game
We covered this in full already, but again: You can’t take 17 fewer shots and 14 fewer 3s than your opponent and expect to win many games. Thanks to 16 Suns turnovers, as well as16 offensive rebounds for the Nuggets, Denver had a glaring advantage in the possession battle.
The rebounding front is one area where the Suns will need a more forceful Deandre Ayton. Their starting center only pulled down 7 boards in Game 1, while Kevin Durant (14) and Nikola Jokic (19) vastly outperformed him.
“He would tell you it wasn’t where it needs to be,” Williams said of Ayton’s motor. “When you look at the film, it wasn’t as consistent. When he plays with force, the table is set, if you will. So he would probably say that he could ratchet it up three or four levels, but I think the whole team feels that way.”
Phoenix has firepower, but nowhere near enough to get by on talent alone. And as Williams pointed out himself, when DA’s sprinting down the floor, setting good screens, diving hard and attacking the offensive glass, it raises this team’s ceiling.
“DA’s a high-level — not big, he’s a high-level basketball player,” Williams said. “A lot of it for him is, when he plays with that aggression and force, it actually energizes the team.”
2. Attack PNR more decisively and with pace
Through the first three quarters, the Suns were still running a highly effective offense on their non-turnover possessions. However, it was one of their worst nights of the season in the pick-and-roll, and an uncharacteristically indecisive one when it came to attacking Denver’s coverages.
“I ain’t like it, too slow,” Ayton said. “It wasn’t Suns basketball, man.”
“Probably just second-guessing our reads, just not playing the type of basketball we play,” Booker agreed. “We have to get more 3s, but more shots in general. We shot 51 percent from the field, we just didn’t get enough of ’em.”
That indecision slowed the Suns’ already slow pace down to an absolute grind, everyone agreed afterward that they needed to push the tempo.
“We can just push the pace, be faster, get into our whatever we’re running, get into it faster, I think that will help us exploit those pick-and-rolls better,” Okogie explained. “When we get into it slow, it kind of gets their defense to set, and they rotate and recover.”
Of course, any time the Suns talk about wanting to play faster, it usually comes down to whether their 37-year-old point guard can actually do it.
“I think the biggest thing is we gotta play faster,” Chris Paul said yet again. “That’s on me, especially early in the game. We just gotta pick up the pace.”
Watching the film back, the Nuggets had Nikola Jokic playing up at the level on pick-and-rolls whenever Booker and Durant were handling the ball, but they mostly stuck to drop coverage when it was CP3. Denver did an excellent job closing passing lanes with active hands, but there were still opportunities in the short roll:
Unfortunately, the Suns weren’t able to capitalize in the middle of the floor as often as they would’ve liked.
“The ball just got sticky,” Williams said after Game 1. “We probably shot more shots off the dribble tonight. We didn’t move it the way that we’re accustomed to moving it, and I thought we could do a much better job of trusting the pocket. When they put two guys on the ball, it should allow for us to get a lot of shots on the backside.”
Too many of Phoenix’s possessions devolved into tough iso shots against a set defense. Whether it was Ayton post-ups leading to ill-fated, midrange hook shots, or Paul and Durant taking leaning, fading middies off the bounce, the Suns were forced into too many high-difficulty, contested looks late in the shot clock.
“Sometimes we can play a little faster and make quicker decisions and cut down on that,” Durant said. “Some of those milliseconds, that stuff matters in the NBA. Those small angles close up quick, so make quick decisions.”
The Nuggets did an excellent job peeling in from the weak-side of the floor, providing opportunities for steals when the Suns failed to see the help shading over to their diving bigs. It was enough to warrant it’s own mini-Bourguet Breakdown, but there were plenty of examples of these types of turnovers throughout the night:
“I didn’t think we made the right read out of it,” Williams said. “When we played these guys before, we’ve done a much better job of making the right read. They crowded the paint a little bit, then they went to some switching with their second unit. We’ve always been really good at making the right read, right away. I thought we were delayed, hesitant in that.”
Durant admitted it was hard not to watch the film before doing so with the team at practice, especially after a performance where he committed 7 turnovers. Going through the tape after a loss is more bitter, but it’s all part of the learning process that makes the playoffs such high-stakes entertainment.
“I’m always trying to figure out different ways to approach the game, so yeah, it’s a fun process, to be honest,” Durant said. “If you love the game, if you a nerd like we all are, you watch games back and forth, you figure out different ways to try to approach them.”
The Suns are fully capable of attacking Denver’s middle-of-the-road defense better than they did in a feel-out game. At their best, the ball moves quickly coming off those screens, with proper spacing around them. It’s all about putting help defenders in compromising situations where they’re forced to choose the lesser of multiple evils, and when the Suns were able to do so, they actually generated some 3-point attempts:
“It’s a lot of stuff that we gotta do offensively to kind of make their defenders make a decision,” Okogie said. “I feel like our spacing at times wasn’t the best, so it kind of forced or allowed one person to guard two people, so they really didn’t have to do too much rotating. But if we can get our spacing right and put a lot of pressure on that backside guy to either pick a side, kind of pick your poison, I think that’ll be better for us trying to attack that.”
The Suns struggled with Jokic playing at the level and weak-side defenders pre-rotating over to cut off passes to Ayton on his short rolls and dives. Against Paul, however, Denver stayed in the drop, and when the Point God got his opportunities to attack, the flashes were there.
As we mentioned in our five keys to the series, this feels like a matchup where Phoenix needs to open its playbook up a bit more and let Chris Paul do Point God things. He was instrumental in dissecting the Nuggets back in 2021, and while these are two very different teams (with an older CP3), his basketball IQ is still essential in this type of chess match.
“The guy hates to lose, ultra-competitive, and one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around and had the privilege to coach, so that doesn’t change,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But as you get a little bit older and maybe you don’t have the same quickness, but his IQ, his ability to use his body, change speeds, make all of his teammates better, it’s just incredible to watch him.”
The Suns offense has been predicated on taking what the defense gives all season, but they can also be more intentional about putting the ball back in Paul’s surgical hands and letting him operate — especially if the Nuggets put their third- or fourth-best defender on him and dare him to beat them in the drop. CP3 serves no one well if he’s spacing the floor and continues hesitating on catch-and-shoot looks.
“When we do play in the half-court, we feel like we can present a package that can go against most coverages, if not all of them; it’s just doing them in a timely fashion,” Williams said. “So if that’s Chris and DA in pick-and-roll, great. But I think this team presents challenges because they rotate so well off of Jokic being up in the coverage, so you have to make good choices out of those different pick-and-roll packages.”
3. Let it fly, Suns
This is part of being able to attack pick-and-rolls better, but in the year of our Lord 2023, the Phoenix Suns attempted 23 3-pointers in a playoff game, including only five in the first half. They were 6-for-20 from deep until garbage time, which Jamal Murray (6-for-10) matched by himself on half as many attempts.
“Yeah, it is a concern,” Williams said. “We didn’t generate enough [3s], and they generated way too much. So we have to look at our offense and make sure that we’re, again, trusting the pocket pass. DA is capable and he’s done it a number of times where he can score or find guys on the backside.”
Letting Ayton operate in the short roll and find shooters on the backside is fine, but the Suns’ 3-point disparity runs deeper than that. This team ranked 17th in long-range attempts during the regular season, only taking 32.6 a night despite ranking seventh in 3-point percentage. Fortunately, they generated the fifth-highest percentage of corner 3s, per Cleaning The Glass.
Since the playoffs started, they’re only taking 23.5 attempts per game from beyond the arc, which ranks dead last among all postseason teams by a mile. (For context, the next-lowest 3-point volume is the New York Knicks, who are taking 30.5 attempts per game). The Suns have made 39 percent of their 3s, which is a top-five mark among playoff teams, but they’re 12th in their frequency of corner 3s.
Through six playoff games, the Suns have been out-produced from 3-point range by a staggering 65 attempts. It hasn’t buried them yet, but at some point, the math is going to math against these Midrange Assassuns.
“We can do a much better job of making quicker decisions with the ball, but also movement on the backside,” Williams said. “I didn’t think we did nearly the job that we had talked about in previous practices. The carryover just wasn’t where it needs to be or needed to be, and that falls on my shoulders. So we talked about it today. We’ve always been a team that makes quick decisions based on the coverage, whether it’s shot, pass or drive, and we gotta do a better job against this defense.”
If the Suns are unable to do so, it won’t matter if they shoot 51 percent from the floor and knock down a ton of tough midrange jumpers.
“We shot the ball pretty well yesterday, but we definitely can generate more 3s,” Durant said. “I think we got some guys open at the 3-point line, but we’re not gonna force any of that either. We just try to play the game, but defensively, rebounding the basketball is something that gives a lot of freedom on the offensive end to do what you need to do to figure it out on the offensive side. So we just gotta be better in that area.”
4. Play Jamal Murray with more physicality
Speaking of the defensive end of the floor, all of these offensive improvements will be all for naught if the Suns can’t slow down one of the NBA’s most high-powered offenses.
“Offensively, we can figure it out,” Durant agreed. “It’s a free-flowing, unpredictable game anyway in the playoffs, so [if] you get stops, that’s better offense anyway. So we’re just trying to figure what we need to do on the defensive side of the ball.”
Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of time to do so. They gave up 125 points in Game 1, and they had absolutely no answer for Suns killer Jamal Murray, who finished with 34 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals on 13-of-24 shooting, including 6-of-10 from 3.
That Game 1 Murray Flurry was a sight to behold, igniting a loud home arena. Watching the film back, the Suns agreed they didn’t do a very good job making him feel the defense early on.
“There were times where we, in the first quarter, I just felt like we didn’t expect him to get the ball,” Williams said. “He back-doored us one time. Like, that should never happen against our defense when we play Denver. We know they want to cut to the basket. We guarded him too high a couple of times, and it created a ton of space.”
Josh Okogie, who was re-inserted into the starting lineup to put a “stronger, more guard-like body” on Murray, shouldered the blame.
“I feel like it all falls on me, I was the first person guarding him,” Okogie said. “I feel like I didn’t put enough pressure on him. Some of our defensive coverages that we were running yesterday, I felt like I didn’t apply enough pressure in those coverages. But watching the film, I see where I can be a little bit more aggressive.”
Okogie was concerned about getting in foul trouble by playing too aggressively, but after Game 1, he said he’d rather be in foul trouble than let Murray get rolling again. Playing with more physicality will be essential in making life tougher for one of the postseason’s shiftiest scorers.
“It’s tough to stop great players, but be more physical and just be there on the catch, be there up on the shot,” Durant said. “I think he made some tough ones over us as well, but yeah, just coming from the tip, we just gotta be physical and get into bodies and make everything tougher.”
It wasn’t just the scoring component Phoenix needs to worry about, unfortunately.
As a playmaker, Murray racked up 9 assists, and the Suns had no answer for his pick-and-rolls with Jokic.
“He got wherever he wanted to go,” Williams said. “That two-man game with he and Jokic is one of the best in the league, and so you have to communicate early, you have to be physical to the legal limit, and at times, you have to change up the coverage so you’re not giving him the same look.”
Williams said the Suns will look at sending different coverages his way in Game 2. Traps might be ill-advised, considering what Jokic can do with a 4-on-3 opportunity, but it’s clear Phoenix has to take a different approach to limiting Murray’s impact.
“Never try to give him the same looks twice,” Okogie said. “We kinda gave him a steady dose of the same things over and over again, so he was able to kinda read and make assists off the coverage we were giving him. But try to throw different covers at him, try to discombobulate his connection with Jokic a little bit.”
Better communication will be vital in that aspect. Okogie said it was hard to hear at times in the arena, which helps explain how he got blindsided on a few screens.
“I felt that we weren’t communicating, especially when Murray was coming off those screens,” Ayton said. “We were a little iffy. We weren’t solid ground.”
5. Put Cam Payne back in the Suns’ rotation
We’ll keep this short and sweet: Unless he’s incredibly rusty or not fully healthy after falling on his tailbone, Cam Payne needs to be in the rotation.
After Game 1, Williams talked about playing with pace, playing with energy and playing within 7-10 on their scale, rather than 1-10. Payne checks all of those boxes, and reinserting him into the rotation with the second unit would minimize the need for Landry Shamet minutes.
“Yeah, it’s all on the table,” Williams said about Payne possibly getting a look. “He may find himself in the rotation, just to create some more pace and so Book doesn’t have to handle the ball all the time. So we’re gonna look at that.”
Game 2 would be a great place to start looking.