24 Jan

How Suns fixed their late-game offense vs. Pacers by running the same play over and over again

The Phoenix Suns should have the best fourth-quarter offense in the NBA. When games grind to a halt in the final minutes, they are frequently decided by individual superstars creating and making tough shots coaches would rather avoid at any other point in the game. The Suns have three players capable of making those shots in Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, and they can surround them with as much shooting as the situation requires. Quibble with their overall roster-building approach all you want. Nobody expected the Suns to struggle to generate offense late in games.

Yet if you’ve seen many Suns games this season, you’ll know that their offense, for most of the season, has tended to disappear in the biggest moments. The Suns rank eighth in first-quarter offensive rating, fourth in second-quarter offensive rating, first in third-quarter offensive rating… and dead last in fourth-quarter offensive rating. There are a number of reasons for that ranging from injuries to poor shooting luck to poor lineups to poor design, but regardless of circumstance, it is a problem the Suns needed to solve in the regular season if they hope to have any chance in the postseason.

They’ve taken steps in the right direction lately. Their 22-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Kings came when Frank Vogel decided to embrace his roster’s small-ball destiny and move Kevin Durant to center. They went back to that look again late in their close game against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, and in the process, they took another step toward fixing these fourth-quarter issues. They realized that with a single play, they could all but break most opposing defenses.

Let’s set the stage. The Suns, who have led by as many as 14 points, suddenly find themselves in a bare-knuckle brawl at home against a Pacers team missing Tyrese Haliburton. Neither team scored a single point between the 6:12 and 3:21 marks of the fourth quarter. The Suns turn to their small-ball death lineup of Durant, Booker, Beal, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon with 3:20 left on the clock. The Suns take a 107-105 lead after a Durant 3-point and a Booker free throw. Indiana ties it back up with two Andrew Nembhard free throws. And then, the Suns found their kill-switch.

It’s an incredibly simple play. Bradley Beal takes the ball up. Grayson Allen screens Pascal Siakam off of him. Beal tortures Buddy Hield one-on-one for the bucket.

Get comfortable, because the Suns are running that same play again. Same setup. Same result. But keep an eye on Siakam as Beal drives. He’s under the basket, theoretically positioned to help… but can’t. Allen and Gordon are too dangerous to leave, so Siakam is stuck in no-man’s land. Hield has no answer for Beal.

Guess what play the Suns run their next time down the floor? Yup, it’s that same Beal-Allen pick-and-roll, only this time, the Pacers aren’t conceding the switch as easily. He sticks with Beal after the first screen, so the Suns adjust. Allen screens for Beal again, but this time, Beal passes it to Allen before Hield can scamper back into position. Allen, like Beal, can beat Hield comfortably.

Good news, Pacers: you don’t have to see the Beal-Allen pick-and-roll for a fourth-straight possession. Instead you get… the exact same play, but with Booker in Beal’s place. Once again, the Pacers refuse to concede the switch, so once again, the Suns hit Allen for a quick pass on the second screen. This time, the help comes, so the Suns put the Pacers in the blender. Allen kicks it to Gordon, who draws Siakam, so he passes it to an open Beal. Obi Toppin has to frantically charge out to the perimeter to challenge Beal, so Beal drives right past him and scores easily at the basket against, you guessed it, Hield. Phoenix pushes its lead to five with 46 seconds left. The game is essentially over from here.

None of this is groundbreaking stuff. It’s a basic switch-hunting concept. The Suns adjusted well when the Pacers decided not to concede those switches. But the way in which the Suns ran it is what separates their offense from other great ones around the league. Remember, they’re not running this through their best player. They’re running it largely through their third-best player. The defense still has to devote the requisite energy to Durant and Booker even when they’re off the ball, but Beal is good enough on it that the Suns lose very little by running their late-game offense through their No. 3 option.

The result here is an unprecedented control over matchups within a switch-hunt. Most teams hunt switches to get to the final matchup, the one in which their star ball-handler is face-to-face with the worst opposing defender. That is ultimately happening here, and Hield is Phoenix’s target, but the quieter impact here is that Phoenix’s three-headed monster also has the capacity to hunt the initial matchup. They don’t just have to think about who is guarding Allen. They can look at who is guarding Beal, Durant and Booker and figure out who they want the second defender in the equation to be as well. They landed on Siakam here. If they would have preferred Andrew Nembhard, Booker would have been the catalyst. Aaron Nesmith has been Indiana’s best perimeter defender this season, and he’s conspicuously kept out of the play.

There’s no good answer here. Let’s say the defense doesn’t offer help, as it didn’t in that second clip. The Suns can therefore not only dictate what defenders are in the play, but which defenders aren’t as well. They got themselves a 2-on-2 pick-and-roll with the two defenders of their choosing. If they do help as they did in the fourth, Phoenix’s overwhelming shooting and ball-handling is equipped to punish defenses in rotation.

The Suns still have a long way to go when it comes to late-game offense. They are going to develop variations and specific counters as they go. They won’t always be able to afford to go small from a defensive perspective, and most of the defenses they’d expect to see late in the playoffs are going to be better than Indiana’s. But many of the best teams have weaker links. Denver isn’t going to take Jamal Murray off of the floor in crunch time. The Clippers will have James Harden in the game. Minnesota can get to five defenders if it wants to, but that requires offensive sacrifices they aren’t really equipped to make.

This is, in essence, what makes the Suns so dangerous. Their firepower gives them a greater degree of control over the matchups they want to face defensively than a typical elite offense, and they’re starting to figure out how to weaponize that control late in games. They can beat plenty of NBA defenses just by spamming the same play over and over and over again.

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