Even the best team in the league has flaws and things to work on. Great teams identify and adapt...
Record: 23-4 (.852)
Place In Standings: First (+1.5 on Minnesota)
Points Per Game: 84.93 (1st)
Points Against: 74.30 (1st)
After losing one game in the past month and a half it is sensational and trendy to say the Phoenix Mercury need to get back in the lab and figure out what they are doing wrong. What they did wrong was run into the second best team in the WNBA, in their home arena, at full strength... The Mercury were not at 100% and they lost the battle with an impending war on the horizon in the Western Conference Finals.
Not much the Mercury could control in that game beyond their effort level.
For the most part the Mercury played with effort. They lost by only eight points, had more steals/blocks, equal free-throw attempts, and equal turnovers for the game overall, but were dominated in the first quarter as well as on the boards. That is the concern for the team right now.
With a lead heading into the final stretch of the season in the standings and guaranteed home court in round one the question of fatigue rears into view. Should the Mercury rest certain players heading into the playoffs? Or, should they trust the bench more and give them more minutes in big games. There are only big games remaining for the Mercury with the season coming to a halt and the playoffs on the horizon...
One of the trademarks of the Mercury's winning streak was coming out of the gates strong, pushing their opponents into a hole, and then imposing their will on teams throughout the rest of the game. They did that to perfection in the first 15-games of the winning streak. Then fatigue, confidence, or whatever you want to call it set in for the team as they lost the first quarter of the last win in the streak and the streak ender.
Comparing the first 15-games to the last three overall games for the Mercury:
15 Wins: +87 (+5.8 per quarter) First Quarter Margin & -9 (-0.6 per game) Rebounding Margin
Last 3 Games: -13 (-4.3 per quarter) First Quarter Margin & -19 (-6.3 per game) Rebounding Margin
Quality of opponents has to be mentioned here as the last two games were against the Minnesota Lynx and Indiana Fever who are Top 4 teams in the WNBA looking to win a Championship. The Mercury have to execute against these teams as they become the only teams on the schedule in 17 days.
Right now the Phoenix Mercury are 79.4% through the season with a nearly spotless record of 24-3 (.852) as they march towards the playoffs. At this point the Phoenix Suns, 37-28 (56.9%), and heading towards the playoffs if all things clicked. In the end they did not click, but the Suns and the Mercury are putting together a year of basketball that the fans of the Valley will look back fondly on for years.
Tuesday vs. Atlanta Dream at 7:00 p.m. AZ Time
Thursday at San Antonio Silver Stars at 5:00 p.m. AZ Time
Saturday vs. Minnesota Lynx at 7:00 p.m. AZ Time
Welcome to Film Study! We can all be as enamored as much we want by the Eric Bledsoe negotiations, but other than that, not much is happening. With that in mind, let's take a look at some film of the Suns from last season. We will start with the negatives and the pain of course. The Suns were in the playoff race till the very end, but the blown leads against the Spurs and the Clippers were a large part of their demise. Today we will look at where the Suns went wrong defensively in that blown game in San Antonio. Prepare yourself.
There are many ways to approach a box score like this. Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, and Markieff Morris were fantastic. Bledsoe had his line of the year, with 30/11/9 on only 16 shots and the Green/Keef monster went for 47 combined while having one of the best defenders in the league Kawhi Leonard on them for portions. You could blame the loss on Danny Green going off with 33 points and you can blame P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris for going 2-15 combined. You could also assume the Spurs were just the amazing team that they are late and Tony Parker made some absurd shots while creating for this 3-point shooters off the bench. That's where you'd be wrong though.
It's a strange place we've landed ourselves in with basketball, as about 95% of the time you can assess where the swing was in a game without even watching it. Box scores account for individual offense, but are extremely limited in accounting for a player and team's defense. I really have no idea how much I account on the defense/offense spectrum, but I definitely agree that "defense is half of the game." The box score argument wins again on the Suns 20 turnovers, 7 for Bledsoe, and the 26 points the Spurs got off of them. That'll do it, but there was a lot more going on here besides that.
As a Suns fan, the most frustrating part of watching the Suns is the amount of simple defensive mistakes the young and inexperienced team makes. It's one thing to lose to the Spurs because they were the better team that night, but it's another thing to hand them open looks. It's even worse that it nullifies the outstanding performance offensively from those three I mentioned earlier. For those of you who hold some Suns close to your heart please take it easy. I know I am looking at just bad examples in this and I'll be sure to cover the good as well over the course of this summer.
Due to the magic of technology, let's look at some examples.
There is a lot that should jump out to you right away about this possession. First of all, Gerald Green is extremely out of position. The guys to keep an eye on here are Bledsoe (pursuing the ball), and Plumdog Millionaire sitting under the basket. Austin Daye has the ball and proved in this game that he can't really shoot. Due to Green being out of position Bledsoe has to pursue Daye here, but as we will learn through these examples Eric over pursues and allows Daye to get around him easily. It's not as bad here, as Eric is fortunate enough to force him into the heart of the defense. Ignore the open man on the wing by the way, just like Daye did.
Uh oh. Still can't tell where on earth Gerald should be. Anyway, Bled has overpursued, allowing Daye to get in. Plumlee is still giving Splitter WAY too much room for being so close to the rim. Daye begins to penetrate, and has so many possibilities to go with.
Daye chooses to ignore the wide open wing man still and passes to Splitter. Channing Frye has done his job and cut off the penetration. Once again though, Bledsoe, Green, and Plumlee are all in helpless positions. Only P.J. Tucker has successfully guarded his man in this possession.
Plumlee being in another county causes him to come from out of position on Splitter and while he did go straight up, coming from out of position makes it an easy call for the ref and Splitter gets an easy and-1.
Archie Goodwin is in the game, because that's fun! Anyway, Archie is going to go under a Danny Green ball screen, which is usually not wise. Did anyone watch the 2013 playoffs or was that just me? Don't blame Archie though, as it appears Markieff Morris is supposed to come out and cut off Danny Green's lane to the basket.
Here comes Keef! Wait. Keef. Why are you not facing Danny Green? Keef is denying the pass like Diaw is Tim Duncan and even if he was he's allowed the best 3-point shooter in the building to be open. This might have been an adjustment for Tony Parker, but Keef has to know better. Archie recovers as best as he can but it's already too late...
Instead of Keef playing aggressive defense on Green he's left Archie out to dry and Green nails the open 3. This is the area where the Suns have a very long way to go, as good to elite defensive teams are able to make the plays Keef should have made. They can rely on their rotations to cover for the open Diaw and then the presumably open Belinelli in the corner.
Another starring role for Keef. Diaw gets the pass here on the wing, and for whatever reason, Keef is already extremely out of position. Yes, Keef was denying penetration off of the play on the right wing, but he's supposed to have that one step to "appear" to deny the key and then get back to his man. It's a difficult thing to master and obviously, Keef has a long way to go on it. Either way, the penetration wasn't even going to get there as you can see, so Keef had no reason to be there.
Keef thinks Diaw is Reggie Miller so he over-rotates like a mad man instead of just closing out nice and slow. Even allowing the Diaw jumper here is fine. Keef does not and looks like his ankles are about to snap. Plumlee is keeping an eye on the action, so he's about to swat this into another stratosphere right?
Nope. We've all seen Diaw move and while he is graceful, he's not quick. Plumlee had time to be ready to swat this Diaw lay in, but he's so caught off guard by a lay up that he didn't even jump. Yikes. Miles is a great shot blocker, but only in situations when it's very clear where the shot is going to come from. Diaw surprised him here, but Plumlee had plenty of time to make the adjustment and swat this. He did not. Open finger rolls for Boris.
The man to keep an eye on is Patty Mills (bottom of the screen). That step-in we talked about defensively for Keef is what Bledsoe is doing at the free throw line right now. He's done it well, as the ball is going to get swung to Mills in the corner. Bled's a fast man, so he will get there.
Bad screenshot skills by me, but Mills is actually catching the ball here, not pump faking. Bled has taken a very bad angle here, basically allowing Mills a path to the basket. He may sacrifice a half step, but he needs to deny Mills the basket.
Whoops. Not only has Bledsoe allowed Mills to get to the basket easily, but he didn't close out properly. The over-extension allows Mills to get right by him. Once again, Mills didn't even pump fake. Just ran right by him.
Channing does just about everything he can here, but Mills gets the floater to go.
This is a fun one. For our second time tonight, Gerald Green finds himself in no man's land with no responsibilities at all. A loose ball allowed the Spurs to catch the Suns not properly matched up and now Parker is attacking Plumlee. Due to wherever Gerald was on the rebound he is helping out Plum right? Take a look at the shot clock. Gerald had seven seconds (or less) to figure this out and he's still in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, the help for Plumlee is not a horrible idea, but he's gotta have the basketball sense to see that Tucker (free throw line) and Frye (under the basket) are both in position to help Plumlee. Parker is absolutely loving this and keep an eye on Danny Green at the bottom of the screen seeing the future.
Parker has got by Plumlee with ease and somehow Gerald has still allowed Parker to get by him as a help defender. This forces Tucker to go for at least a swipe of the ball. Take a look as all five Suns are looking at Parker. Danny Green is slowly drifting over.....
Bledsoe has tried to outsmart Tony Parker which is always an awful idea. He has not only guessed wrong, but he went to deny AUSTIN DAYE an open three instead of Danny Green. Whooooooops. Parker could have had an open layup, but naaaaaah.
I love P.J. Tucker for his rotation here, but he's so far away that in order to contest he has to get there very quickly. He slightly overplays it and fouls Danny Green for the 4-point play.
For the first time I encourage you to take a look at the score. While I am only highlighting mistakes, I still missed a lot of them. The cut was about 75/25 in terms of defensive mistakes to the Spurs being a great basketball team. That's how much the Suns let this slip. Here we go. The Suns have kept themselves in this despite a massive 3rd quarter from the Spurs and need a stop here. First of all, do you see Tony Parker on the floor? Pop is the best. Belinelli has a pick and roll here with Diaw and attacks the basket. As you can see, Belinelli is 3298572395872 miles from the basket, so the Suns should be fine in rotations here or getting back to Belinelli. Keep an eye on Danny/Gerald Green from screen cap 1 to 2, and Keef's defense (covering Diaw) from here on out.
First of all, somehow Danny Green got all the way to his favorite right wing while Gerald Green is still in the key. How is this possible when Danny Green is absolutely on fire at the time? Keef is still where he was last screen cap while he expects his teammates to cover Diaw rolling. P.J. Tucker's ability has allowed him to catch Belinelli, AKA Belinelli was eons away from the basket like I said, so Tucker caught him. Green still stays in the key to help here (NOOOOOOO) and Keef is still in the same place.
Keef is still in the same spot. He's moved maybe 5 feet? Gerald is in no man's land again, as he has failed to cover Diaw, Belinelli, AND DANNY GREEN. He chooses to stand in the middle of all 3 and the rest probably went in slow motion for him. Once again, as you can see, Tucker got back to Belinelli, so none of this was needed. In screen cap 2, it was Keef's job to swing over to Danny Green. He has see right away that despite the other flaws here, the open guy closest to him is Danny Green. The one thing I want you to see is the FOUR OPEN SPURS. Everyone is open except Belinelli. But what do the Spurs do?
They find the hottest guy in the building in his favorite spot. Once again, there were 4 wide open players in the most crucial possession of the game. As you might have guessed, Green made this, and the Suns lost.
As you can see, there are so many places that a lot of Suns need to improve on defensively. If you think that I am overanalyzing because I can take screencaps and watch in slow motion, watch a great defensive team play. The rotations and lack of mistakes are astounding, and it's so fun to watch once you realize that. The Suns were the best story in the NBA, but if they want to take it into the playoffs, they need to stop doing this. Sometimes they are just lazy (Lakers late last season), but other times, they are just out executed and absolutely demolished for their mistakes (Clippers/this game late last season).
Once again, those 6 examples were from just about 10 Spurs possessions I looked over. There were so many more examples and a lot of them were much worse. The crazy thing is, this team has actually been pretty great on defense at times. I've seen them do these things correctly that I highlighted here. They can get it done, it just takes the maturity that we hear old players and talking heads bash into our skulls on TV. That's the next step for the Suns next season.