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How The Suns Came Crashing Down To Earth

The Phoenix Suns finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record, eight games better than the next closest team. They led the league in net rating and were the only team in the league to sport a top-five offense and a top-five defense. And yet, their disastrous defeat Sunday at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks was the biggest home-court Game 7 loss in the shot-clock era. In the most important moments of the season, the Suns saw both of their units fail spectacularly. 

After taking a 2-0 series lead, Phoenix lost four of the next five games and scored only 104.1 points per 100 possessions in that span, a rate that would have ranked 28th in the league during the regular season. It also yielded 113.7 points per 100 to the Mavs, which would have checked in 26th in the NBA. For the majority of Game 7, it appeared as though the Suns had either forgotten how to play basketball or had never played the sport at all.

The defensive struggles were in large part the result of a ruthless targeting campaign against Chris Paul. CP3 was an elite defender for the significant majority of his career, and he’s remained a strong positive on that end even as he’s aged. He does have one weakness, though, that cannot be fixed: He’s tiny, for an NBA player. As we noted in our post-Game 1 story on the different ways the Suns and Mavs were attacking in pick and rolls:

One way the Mavs may be able to create more of an advantage in pick and rolls is by leveraging [Luka] Dončić’s size. They could use Paul’s man to set the screen on Bridges, rather than Ayton’s, in an effort to get Paul switched onto Dončić. Paul, after all, is listed at just 6 feet, 175 pounds, while Dončić is (conservatively) 6-foot-7, 230.

However, Dallas set only six picks with Paul’s man as the screener in Game 1. The only score the Mavs got out of that action came on a tip-dunk where nobody boxed out Dorian Finney-Smith, but they also got a few high-quality looks that came because the Suns were more willing to send help Paul’s way when he had to guard Dončić one-on-one than they were to other defenders in that situation.


I’m not saying Mavericks coach Jason Kidd read that story, but boy did he take the lesson to heart. Paul has now played 702 combined regular-season and playoff games during the player-tracking era, which stretches back to the 2013-14 season. In terms of the number of times CP3’s man was used as the screener in pick-and-roll action, Games 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of this series rank third, fifth, second, fourth and first among those 702 games, representing five of the nine total games where he’s defended the screener double-digit times.

Dallas attacked Chris Paul on the pick and roll in Round 2

Games of Chris Paul’s career since the 2013-14 season in which he has faced at least 10 picks set by the player he’s defending in a pick and roll

Season Game Paul’s Team Opponent Picks
2021-22 R2, G7 Suns Mavericks 24
2021-22 R2, G5 Suns Mavericks 17
2021-22 R2, G3 Suns Mavericks 16
2021-22 R2, G6 Suns Mavericks 16
2021-22 R2, G4 Suns Mavericks 13
2021-22 Dec. 23 Suns Thunder 12
2019-20 R1, G4 Thunder Rockets 10
2021-22 Feb. 10 Suns Bucks 10
2021-22 R1, G3 Suns Pelicans 10

Source: Second Spectrum

It wasn’t just about volume, though. The strategy was effective, and not just with Dončić, but with the comparatively smaller Jalen Brunson as well. They each attacked Paul relentlessly in space, then battered their way through him and into the paint. As TNT’s Reggie Miller kept remarking during his commentary, it was like a boxing match where one fighter was wearing other down with body blows.

The fruitfulness of those possessions — as well as, surely, the effect they were having on Paul’s body — led to uncharacteristic mistakes made by the Suns and Paul himself. Blown switches, missed assignments, over-aggressive help, late rotations … the kinds of things the Suns rarely did during their romp through the regular season.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but it’s difficult not to draw the connection between the physical toll Paul took on one end of the floor and his collapse on the other. After scoring 47 points across the first two games of the series, Paul scored a combined 47 over the next five games, and his Game 7 plus-minus of -39 was the worst of his career. Most troublingly, he found himself unable to do the one thing he does better than arguably any other player in the NBA: punish drop coverage.

During the regular season, Paul saw drop coverage more than any player in the league other than Trae Young, with opponents employing it on 1,208 of his pick and rolls, according to Second Spectrum. Among the 39 players who saw drop coverage at least 500 times, Paul had the third-best effective field-goal percentage, and his possessions were third-most fruitful overall. He also outperformed expectations on his shot attempts (based on shot location, defender location and more) by the largest margin among those 39 players. He kept on punishing defenses in Round 1 against the Pelicans, and in Games 1 and 2 against Dallas. And then he dropped off significantly.

Paul’s efficiency dropped off dramatically in Games 3-7

Chris Paul’s points per possession and expected vs. actual effective field-goal percentage on pick-and-roll plays defended with soft coverage, 2021-22 season

Effective field-goal %
Time frame Pts/Poss Actual Expected Diff.
Round 2, Games 3-7 1.015 40.74% 49.58% -8.84
Round 2, Games 1-2 1.387 64.52 52.54 +11.98
Round 1 1.322 59.50 47.93 +11.57
Regular season 1.210 59.51 49.82 +9.69

Expected eFG% is given as quantified Shot Quality, which measures the likelihood of a shot being made in a given situation, accounting for defender distance, shot location and movement.

Source: Second Spectrum

The Suns were able to overcome Paul’s injury-related diminished capacity early in last year’s run to the NBA Finals, and they even excelled during his 15-game absence with a fractured thumb during the second half of this season.1 But they were unable to do the same in this series for several reasons.

First, backup point guard Cameron Payne — who had emerged over the past two seasons as one of the league’s most reliable reserve lead guards, shining when Paul was either absent or not himself — was so ineffective that Suns coach Monty Williams benched him outright, turning instead to Landry Shamet. Shamet can shoot from outside like few others in the league, but he does not have nearly the same level of off-the-dribble dynamism or creativity as Payne, let alone Paul.  

Paul struggling and Payne riding the pine left Devin Booker as Phoenix’s only reliable option for perimeter creation. The Mavericks upped the aggression when Booker had the ball, sending traps and blitzes and double-teams his way in hopes of turning him from a scorer into a distributor. He found his way to a decent amount of points anyway (22.2 per contest across the final five games of the series), but he shot only 42 percent from the field and averaged 4.8 turnovers compared with only four assists a night.

Even when Booker handled the pressure well and created a look for a teammate, things went awry. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson combined to shoot just 51 of 131 from the field (38.9 percent) and 21 of 61 from beyond the 3-point line (34.4 percent) in Games 3 through 7. Deandre Ayton, meanwhile, went from dominating the game with force to whatever the heck this is.

Ayton played only 17 minutes in the Game 7 defeat, which Williams cryptically called an “internal” decision in his postgame press conference. The former No. 1 overall pick — drafted by the Suns ahead of Dončić, by the way, even though Phoenix had just hired Dončić’s former national team coach (Igor Kokoškov, who is now a Mavericks assistant) as its head coach — scored just 5 points on 2-of-5 shooting, and the Suns were blasted by 23 points with him in the game.

At the most inopportune time, all of the fail-safes Phoenix built into its roster failed to keep its series lead safe. Despite employing multiple high-level ball-handlers, a cavalcade of shooters, a post-up option in case the system didn’t generate a good look, several All-Defense-quality stoppers, a roster full of strong positional defenders and more, the Suns were still dismantled. The Mavs applied maximum pressure at the one point where the Suns were most likely to break — the body of the team’s now-37-year-old point guard. Without Paul operating at full capacity, the rest of the Suns did not shine nearly as bright.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. They went 11-4 in those games.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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