Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker picks up the ball in the first half of Game 3 of an NBA second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Friday, June 11, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
DENVER — Let’s face it. The nuts and bolts for this series are behind us, at least to this point with the Phoenix Suns up 3-0 over the Denver Nuggets.
We’ll find out as the postseason goes on if there’s a team up for the task of stopping the Suns’ dynamic ball screen offense through Chris Paul and Devin Booker, but it certainly does not appear to be the Nuggets, and it wasn’t the Los Angeles Lakers either.
That’s most of what the series has boiled down to in its core, as even when Denver found a bit of life in Game 3, there was Paul dismantling its defense again in the fourth quarter.
“I think they’ve thrown the book at him,” forward Jae Crowder said Saturday on what the Nuggets have tried against Paul. “They’ve done a lot of different coverages on him. He’s just doing a good job of just, when he’s not even scoring he’s just affecting the game by just making the right play. He’s making the right play each and every time. When you look at his assist-to-turnover ratio, it speaks for itself.
“He’s making the right play time after time and I just think it makes it tough on a defense. We gotta continue to play off of him. If they do decide to blitz him or whatever, trap him and get the ball out of his hands, someone else has to step up and make the play and I think our group is ready for that and prepared for that.”
After the Suns tore the Nuggets to shreds with ball rotations and generating quality, open looks in the pair of games in Phoenix, Denver tweaked its schemes to involve more drop coverage instead of something more aggressive.
Some of this was likely influenced by Paul’s injured right shoulder, but he looked comfortable taking a shot he’s not used to getting so easily.
As usual, Booker had more variety in the coverage he saw, and while he had some turnovers in assessing the changes, he was still able to find a rhythm within them.
Denver’s inability to produce consistent offense has allowed for the Suns to operate off misses more, and that plus being unable to solve Paul and Booker is a recipe for disaster.
That’s because the Suns, through head coach Monty Williams’ offensive principles, are such a well-oiled machine at this stage of the season that they slice through just about any defense, no matter how much it is changing.
On the team’s current six-game winning streak in the playoffs, the Suns are shooting 49.0% from the field and 40.5% at three-point range. While it’s easy to scoff at a small sample size and say it’s just some hot shooting, the eye test and Phoenix’s 26.7 assists and 9.5 turnovers per game over that stretch back up that offensive gusto.
These guys are clicking like they haven’t all year, in a way that feels like everything coming into place at the perfect moment if you choose to be that optimistic on the next couple of weeks.
The variety in answers on how that functionality has come to be is interesting, mainly because they are all pretty much the same thing.
Williams went a few different ways, mainly shouting out his two star ball-handlers for their own skill to deconstruct those gameplans.
“We teach a lot of stuff. Situations and different coverages, we try to drill certain things, but you can’t take away from the ability and the vision of Chris and Book and their willingness to make the right plays,” Williams said Saturday. “Don’t think Devin gets enough credit for those plays that he makes where a guy doesn’t make the shot. When I watch the film I can see his effort to make the play. Chris, he just figures stuff out.
“It helps, I’ve said this before, the schedule that we had the last part of the season when we played so many teams on the road. And we were seeing different defenses. Switching defenses, traps, drop defenses, some teams would zone us — all that stuff helps you in these moments. So as a staff, we try to put our guys in situations where they can see things, we show it on film, but those guys have an ability to make plays on the floor.”
In the least surprising spinoff from that answer, Paul a day prior went the route of giving a nod to the coaching staff.
“We so prepared man, going into every game,” he said after the game Friday. “And I think the dopest part about it is to see the progression of it. To see the attention to detail early in the season, the regular season, halfway through the season and it’s fun playing the way we play. The coaches have prepared us for everything. ‘If they trap look at this, share the ball, 0.5.’ This is a special team to be a part of.”
It would be hard for a player in the league to not be jealous of the number of winning teams Crowder has been on over the course of his career, and his answer spoke to how he’s seen this type of process come to fruition before.
“Just all year, you gotta go through stuff, ups and downs throughout the year to prepare you for these moments,” he said. “I feel like when you have a full season ahead of you, you’re able to go through different scenarios and I think we’ve been put through a lot of different tests when it comes to stopping our offense, stopping our ball-handlers, stopping our playmakers and trying to slow our offense down. I just think the stuff that we went through earlier on in the year, throughout the year, the ups and downs of it all, has prepared us for the moment.
“I just feel like it’s coming to play now. We know what to do when a team is ready to trap us, blitz us, take away different things and we’re prepared for it. It’s like clockwork right now. We’ve been checking the boxes a little bit, making sure that we’re doing everything hard and together and I think it’s working out for us.”