E’Twaun Moore picks up Milwaukee Bucks point guard D.J. Augustin as he crosses halfcourt with less than one minute to play in the first half. Augustin passes to All-Star Khris Middleton on the left wing, who is guarded by Mikal Bridges until a screen by Torrey Craig (then with the Bucks) prompts Devin Booker to switch onto Middleton.
Middleton quickly gets the ball back to Augustin at the top of the key. Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is guarded by Deandre Ayton, sets a screen and rolls sharply as Augustin dribbles to his right. Ayton switches onto Augustin, while Moore follows Antetokounmpo and Bridges comes over from the left corner to double-team in the post.
Two quick passes — from Augustin to Middleton and back to Augustin — leave the point guard far outside the 3-point line with less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Augustin takes three dribbles, passes again to Middleton on the left wing, who tries to drive right past Booker. Ayton comes over to help cut off the lane to the basket, Middleton kicks back to Augustin and Ayton recovers to close out. Augustin takes one dribble to his left, then pulls up from deep as Ayton jumps to get a hand in his face with less than two seconds left on the shot clock.
The airball falls short of the rim as the shot clock buzzes, the possession over without Antetokounmpo ever touching the ball.
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That 24-second stretch from a one-point Suns win epitomizes Phoenix’s defensive identity. Though Booker’s creative scoring, Chris Paul’s passing wizardry and the continued development of a promising young core are easy to point to as reasons for Phoenix’s rise in 2020-21, the Suns thrive on a defensive mentality that has been embraced up and down the roster.
The numbers prove it. Phoenix, which has not finished a season ranked in the NBA’s top 10 in defensive efficiency since 2000-01, entered Tuesday ranked fifth in that category (108.5 points per 100 possessions) and has risen as high as third at multiple points. The Suns are 13-0 when holding opponents under 100 points through 49 games. The Suns’ unit faces its next important test Wednesday night, as the Utah Jazz also boasts a top-5 defense (third, 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and ranks second in offensive efficiency (117.1 points per 100 possessions).
“Our defense is something we can rely on,” Booker said. “ … People always say, ‘It’s a make or miss league’ and, ‘Oh, we just lost because we missed shots tonight.’ We just try to take those excuses away and make the other team miss shots. Not just say, ‘They were hitting everything’ — make them make tough shots.
“If they make it, slap them on their (behind) and keep playing. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Monty Williams does not know any other way to coach.
He entered the league as a player with Pat Riley’s New York Knicks, where spending two hours on defensive drills during practice was commonplace. Then he went to San Antonio, where Hall of Famer David Robinson was the centerpiece of legendary coach Gregg Popovich’s system that became Williams’ “foundation.”
As an assistant coach, Williams learned more about effective zones by working with Nate McMillan and Dean Demopoulos in Portland, and about switching from Gary Kloppenburg, who recently won the 2020 WNBA championship as the acting head coach of the Seattle Storm. As a first-time head coach in New Orleans, Williams had strong defenders Paul, David West and Trevor Ariza on the roster. Williams picked up on opponents’ philosophies from afar, such as the way Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley got over screens in the pick and roll when they were teammates in Boston, the shot contest rate of recent iterations of the Spurs and how last season’s Lakers used their length to pack the paint.
“It’s basically all I’ve known,” Williams said of his attention to defense.
So when Williams got a second head-coaching opportunity in Phoenix, he immediately implemented a defensive culture.
On film, he had seen the potential of Bridges and Ayton — and noticed Booker fighting over screens despite his reputation as a poor defender. Williams shared historical numbers with players that demonstrated “it’s hard to win big in this league if you can’t get a stop.” The Suns bought into the approach, using a relentless style to frustrate opponents throughout the 2019-20 season. Phoenix rose to 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, after ranking in the bottom three in the league in that category in each of the previous three seasons.
“It’s the one thing that travels,” Williams said. “You can defend anywhere. … If you really want to win in this league, you better have a defensive mindset, a defensive focus and guys that are willing to commit to that end of the floor.
“We had a ton of young guys last year, but they played hard every single night and they allowed us to coach them on that end of the floor.”
Williams regularly commends lead assistant Willie Green for what he has brought to the Suns’ defense from his time on the staff at Golden State, where he learned under respected defensive mind Ron Adams. The identity has spread throughout a deep rotation, as the Suns’ defensive rating is best when small-ball center Dario Saric is on the floor (100.8 points allowed per 100 possessions in 571 minutes).
Tactically, the Suns’ goals include stopping the ball, switching when appropriate and forcing opponents to shoot non-paint 2-pointers. They aim to limit transition opportunities by using a “sprint, turn and talk” approach, and use disciplined play to keep teams off the free throw line. They work to stay down on pump fakes, get their hand up to challenge shots and finish possessions with a rebound, including guards crashing the glass at times.
That all gives a big lift to an offense that entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the league in efficiency (115.5 points per 100 possessions), making Phoenix one of three teams in the NBA ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating (Utah, Milwaukee).
“Our best offense is our defense,” said Bridges. “Just getting out in transition, getting open shots, driving and getting to the rim … it makes you play more confident when you know that you get stops on defense.
“You can come out there and be more aggressive because you get stops. It’s just how it is. That’s just the feel when you play basketball.”
Over the course of the season, the Suns have developed an ability to adjust on the fly and adapt to fit the opponents’ personnel — such as the time they changed their plan to defend the 3-point line during shootaround hours before a December win at Utah. While breaking concepts down on the floor, they use assistant coaches to play against the starters so the second unit can observe and learn.
Even with limited practice time due to a condensed schedule and strict health and safety protocols, the Suns drill defensive basics such as rebounding fundamentals. For example, veteran forward Jae Crowder said that boxing out on free throws was part of a recent film session.
“You rarely get to see that in a professional locker room,” Crowder said. “But we’re trying to just create habits that are gonna help roll over into when it really does count.”
3 STOPS IN A ROW
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Williams can’t remember exactly where he picked up this benchmark. Could have been in San Antonio. Perhaps during his time as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers. Maybe during an impromptu coaches’ gathering.
“It’s pretty obvious that I don’t come up with this stuff on my own,” the constantly self-deprecating Williams said. “So I probably stole it from somebody else … but it’s just been something that’s stuck with me.”
It has stuck with him because it’s a simple starting point while instilling defensive principles, and something coaches can easily log and relay to players. Consistently putting together three stops in a row has helped the Suns launch comebacks, create separation and close victories throughout the season.
Some notable examples:
* Last week’s dominant win over Oklahoma City, when the Suns got stops on 12 consecutive first-quarter possessions (including holding the Thunder to 1-of-15 shooting) to help them build a 43-13 lead. That plus-30 scoring margin was the largest in any individual quarter in franchise history.
* A March 11 win at Portland, when three instances of at least three stops in a row helped flip an 11-point Suns deficit into a 13-point advantage to clinch a crucial season series against the Trail Blazers.
* A Feb. 19 victory at New Orleans, when 17 stops on 20 possessions helped the Suns outscore the Pelicans 41-12 in the fourth quarter to turn a double-digit deficit into a 132-114 victory. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 18-point margin of victory was the largest in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55) for any NBA team that entered the fourth quarter trailing by 10 or more points.
* When Phoenix recorded one sequence of five stops in a row and another of four stops in a row as part of a 16-point defensive fourth quarter at Chicago on Feb. 26, helping the Suns rally from 16 points down to win 106-97.
* When the Suns began the second half on March 28 at Charlotte with 10 consecutive stops to build a cushion needed to pull out a 101-97 overtime win.
“In those moments, you think to yourselves, like, that’s the defensive team that we want to be able to impose on teams every single night,” Williams said. “ … When we can get three or four stops in a row over and over again, that’s when you know your defense is foundational for you as far as having success.
“And it gives you a ton of confidence, especially when you can do that on the road.”
Two elements that lead to those stretches of stops: Multiple-effort plays and communication.
“Multiple effort” is another way of saying to not give up on a play. If an opposing ballhandler gets past a Suns defender in the pick and roll, for instance, they can recover by going for a contest or block from behind, or by tapping a missed shot to a teammate for a “rebound assist.”
Williams uses the mantra “ELC” — early, loud and continuous — to describe how the Suns should communicate on defense. That alone can help make up for unintentional lapses.
“You might not even be in the right spot, but if you’re talking and communicating to your teammates, it brings you together,” Booker said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. (We’re) not scared to be honest with each other, not scared to tell somebody when they messed up. And nobody’s taking it personal if somebody lets them know that they messed up.
“That’s a good team that you want to be around.”
THE PERIMETER STOPPER
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In his third season, Bridges is already regarded as one of the NBA’s best wing defenders, making him an All-Defense candidate for 2020-21 and, perhaps, a future Defensive Player of the Year. He has showcased that ability while guarding many of the league’s best perimeter players, including Damian Lillard, Luka Dončić, Kawhi Leonard and Donovan Mitchell.
Bridges’ 7-foot-1 wingspan — or “Go Go Gadget arms,” as Williams says — is his prime physical gift on that end of the floor. It allows him to cloak ballhandlers, close out on shooters, disrupt passing lanes and deny while playing off the ball. That, combined with anticipation and quickness, gives Bridges a unique ability to swipe steals (0.9 per game) and block shots (0.9 per game), or to cover ground to set up those types of opportunities for teammates.
“He gets his hands on a lot of balls, or he forces a lot of hangtime passes because he is long,” Williams said. “And on the backside, our guys can get steals or deflections.”
Bridges also always seems to be in the right spot to rotate or make an impact (or under-the-radar) defensive play — a nod to his basketball IQ, relentless motor and diligent work ethic that prompted Williams to proclaim that Bridges’ nickname should be “Every Day.”
THE NEW ADDITIONS
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Williams highlights whenever the Suns record the top-rated defense among NBA teams that play on any particular night. But Crowder has had even loftier quest, proclaiming following an early season shootaround that the Suns’ goal was to become the league’s No. 1 defense at the end of the season.
“I know when I said that, you didn’t believe me, too, by the way,” Crowder recently said with a wide grin. “None of you did. But I had a vision and I knew what we’re capable of doing with the bodies that we had and the people that we had in that locker room.”
Crowder’s belief carries weight, considering the teams he’s played for throughout his career. He was part of the 2015-16 Celtics that ranked in the league’s top five in defensive efficiency, the 2018-19 Utah Jazz with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and last season’s Miami Heat that made the NBA Finals. And Crowder has been a contributor on that end of the floor everywhere he’s been, bringing versatility and physicality that make him effective at guarding superstars such as Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
Crowder’s confidence is also a nod to the abilities and leadership of fellow new acquisition Paul, one of the best defensive guards in NBA history who has led the league in steals six times and made the All-Defensive first or second team nine times throughout his Hall of Fame career. Paul, despite his smaller stature, has never been afraid to “just stick his nose in a crowd of people” to disrupt a play, Williams said, and nobody demands more communication from his teammates on that end of the floor.
“It’s a lot easier when you have Chris out there relaying the message (and) you have Jae out there saying what he needs to say and communicating through everybody,” Booker said. “It’s something that’s contagious amongst all of us.”
The Suns’ also turned to defense with their midseason acquisition of Craig, a strong, active wing who can guard multiple positions and helped last season’s Denver Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals.
THE WILLING STAR
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Booker insists he never had a reputation as a bad defender while growing up. That is backed up by revisiting NBADraft.net’s scouting report when Booker was coming out of Kentucky, which highlights his lateral movement, IQ and effort on the defensive end. Yet a narrative that Booker was a poor defender emerged early in his NBA career, a tag he chalks up the Suns’ overall struggles as a team.
Whenever Williams is asked about the two-time All-Star’s game, though, he regularly emphasizes Booker’s willingness to guard his positional counterpart.
“Devin doesn’t run away from matchups,” Williams said. “There are times when I want him to go guard someone else so he can be fresher in the fourth quarter, and he’ll be like, ‘Nope, I got him,’ and that to me is a complete player.”
It’s been that way since the beginning of Williams’ and Booker’s partnership. When the coach dissected Booker’s film after joining the Suns, he was confident in Booker’s body type and desire to get over screens. Booker was also quick to pick up new defensive terminology and apply team concepts on the floor.
Now, with more eyes on Booker as the Suns make their push toward the playoffs, he has garnered attention for hustling highlight plays such as these chase-down blocks against Denver and Indiana.
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Ayton essentially ties all elements of the Suns’ defense together as the man in the middle. And Crowder acknowledges “we demand a lot” of the third-year big man.
He must be the early and constant communicator, an initially unnatural task for a guy who was not vocal on the floor. He has a variety of coverage responsibilities, especially in the pick and roll, because of his impressive athleticism and footwork. He sometimes switches out onto smaller players to guard the perimeter.
And, of course, he is the rim protector responsible for using his verticality to block and distract shots without fouling, and secure the rebound. He totaled a career-high five blocks during a Jan. 20 win at Houston.
“He can do a lot of different things because he moves so well, and we’re trying to exploit that,” Crowder said. “That makes us a much more prolific defense as a unit. A lot of different coverages are getting thrown at him, because we know he can get them done. With his body and his stature, he can be a force.”
Added Ayton: “Trust isn’t something you just give somebody. That responsibility, you have to earn it. And on this team, I’m proud to be that anchor. I’m proud to take on that challenge and just be there for my guys. … That’s the pride and dignity that I have in it: I’m not gonna let that guy beat up on my brother. And I know, if I help, my brother gonna have my back. That’s just how it is.”
A March 23 win at Miami perhaps best illuminates Ayton’s potential. He totaled 16 rebounds and three blocks, and helped limit Jimmy Butler — one of the NBA’s best guards at drawing fouls — to zero free throws.
“I’m never satisfied as far as pushing him, because there’s so much there,” Williams said. “But yes, when he plays with that kind of force and focus, it gives us a chance to be that kind of defensive team.”