The Mavericks just gave the Suns a preview of the sort of defense they’re going to see in the playoffs
It’s often said in the NBA that the regular season is strengths and the playoffs are weaknesses. As for the revamped Phoenix Suns on Sunday, both clubs were on display for 48 minutes as they faced the greatest test of the Kevin Durant era in the form of a similarly redesigned Dallas Mavericks.
A simple glance at the box score will confirm Phoenix’s formidable offensive power. Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combined for 73 points on over 64 percent shooting from the field. The Suns not only have two of the best offensive players in the NBA, but they also have two of the deadliest mid-range players. When the playoffs hit and valuable shots elsewhere are taken away, those views become important. Phoenix is almost unguarded in this part of the court. It showed against Dallas.
Still, Dallas led most of the second half. If Luka Doncic’s decisive eye on the ring got a friendly throw, we could get overtime. So how did the Mavericks almost steal this game? They did it with a defensive strategy that Phoenix should look forward to when the off-season rolls around and their weaknesses escalate. The Mavericks couldn’t defend Durant or Booker, but they Not protect anyone else.
This is an important distinction. The Mavericks were so focused on Booker and Durant and at the same time didn’t care about the rest of the Phoenix roster that they just let pretty much everyone else shoot 3-pointers freely with impunity. How often do you see someone as open as Torrey Craig outside of this Durant lookalike?
Noticed Doncic’s indecisive breakup with Josh Okogi?
Surprisingly, even Chris Paul was accused several times in the fourth quarter of not shooting. Tim Hardaway Jr. felt that his presence was necessary to serve as a secondary deterrent to Booker and so the Phoenix Hall of Famer point guard got one of the cleanest looks of his season and, unlike his teammates, for much of the second half, actually did it.
Almost every defense is designed to use the team’s best players, but the Mavericks took it to the extreme on Sunday, and despite the loss, it’s safe to say the plan worked. The Suns, not named by Durant or Booker, only shot 8-of-26 (30.7 percent) from deep in the game. Dallas lost because he couldn’t defend the basket and couldn’t fit two superstars. There was nothing the Mavericks could do to change that given their staff. The same will be true of many of Phoenix’s opponents. The best they can hope for is the absence of bad Phoenix shooters.
And that’s basically what happened. Craig may be above 40 percent of depth this season, but he’s been below 35 percent his entire career. Paul has been a strong shooter throughout his career, and he even has a short recovery year after dropping below 32 percent last season, but he’s also averaging 11.1 field goals per game. Opponents will want to turn him into a scorer, not a playmaker.
And then there’s Okogi, who was only available to Phoenix for minimum wage due to his lack of marksmanship. A star quarterback and hustle player, Okogi made just 27.5% of his shots in his four seasons in Minnesota. He’s shot over 35% in Phoenix, but hit just 1 of 9 3s on Sunday.
So how did Phoenix overcome his shooting problems? Well, one spare Sans finally started making his shots. Ish Wainwright did not enter the game until the end of the third quarter. He stayed on the floor for the remainder of the game and hit four of his five open 3-pointers.
We’ve already touched on one NBA platitude, so let’s acknowledge another: it’s a make-or-miss league. This is true for every NBA team. There is nothing particularly new or original about leaving bad shooters open and hoping it will disrupt the flow of a great offense.
But such a defense will determine Phoenix’s championship run, given the composition of its squad. The Suns were weak even before they traded Durant. At the moment, their rotation consists of:
- Two in the prime of superstardom (Duran and Booker).
- Most contracted center who made six shots on Sunday (DeAndre Ayton).
- 37-year-old Hall of Fame point guard (Paul).
- Four minimum wage veterans (Okogi, Damion Lee, TJ Warren, Jock Landale).
- A player who was transferred from a two-way deal last month (Wainwright).
- Mid-Level Mini-Forward (Craig).
- Redemption Supplement (Terrence Ross).
- A reserve point guard who nearly dropped out of the league before finding a new life in Phoenix (Cameron Payne).
These are two certainties, two erroneous, but very valuable participants, and a lot of questions. All of them are flawed on at least one side of the court, but given the base offensive line that Durant and Booker create, Monty Williams is likely to skew the defense with his fifth slot. For players like Craig, Okogi and Wainwright, this will mean a lot of big shots and big shots in the postseason.
Misses from Craig and Okogi nearly proved fatal against Dallas on Sunday. Wainwright’s clutch buckets saved the day. If the three of them, along with the rest of the Phoenix Island RPGs, couldn’t fire those shots? The rest of the Suns will be crowded, and their playoff success will be in jeopardy. But can they hit them? The Suns are likely to win the championship. It didn’t take much for them to beat Dallas on Sunday, and that should scare the rest of the Western Conference as the postseason approaches.