The Houston Rockets took advantage of the Phoenix Suns scheme by scoring 64 points in the paint and 28 more from the free throw line. But despite that, the Suns scheme is still a winning formula.

After last night's tough loss to the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns have to assess whether their system and scheme is up to the task of a playoff run.

The Suns scheme is designed to force teams into contested shots in the paint to get their points. The Rockets did just that, scoring 64 points at the rim and another 28 points at the line on foul calls. The result: 115 points on nearly 53% shooting.

But before we go into any panic moves, rotation changes or questioning of a scheme that is allowing the entire roster (sans Leandro Barbosa) have career years, let's look closer at the season-long numbers.

Screen_shot_2014-02-24_at_6

*Data courtesy nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

Points in the paint

After a game in which the Rockets scored 20 points in the paint in the first quarter alone, and 64 for the game, you might think the Phoenix Suns are getting clobbered in that area all season.

The fact is that, yes, the Suns allow more attempts in the paint per game than most every NBA team. But a closer look at the numbers reveals three things:

  • the Suns defense is designed to prevent three-pointers (which, by definition, count for more points) by closing out hard on shooters and forcing them to drive to the paint
  • the Suns defend the paint respectably (middle of the pack) on those drives
  • the Suns get in the paint a lot themselves, and only lose 4.3 points per game down there.

Small consolation after seeing the Rockets dominate the paint last night, but it's worth noting the Suns know in advance games like this will happen.

The problem is the conversion rate the Rockets enjoyed. The Suns are okay at defending down there and are 11th overall FG% allowed to the other team (44.8% per game), their best rating in several years.

But last night, the Rockets used those attempts in the paint to finish by making nearly 53% of their shots overall.

"This is our house," a frustrated coach Hornacek said after a game in which the Suns lost an 11-point fourth quarter lead. "If you let them shoot 53%, you don't deserve to win."

Free throws

The Suns allow a lot of free throws. Probably more than anyone would like. But that's part of the defensive scheme. While the Suns of mid-2000s prided themselves on committing the fewest fouls, these Suns are nothing like that. These Suns are intentionally aggressive.

Hornacek on calling a timeout 24 seconds into the second half against Houston--

"We came in the half saying we need to get back on defense and the first play they run right down and get an easy layup. It's that same starting group that got us in a hole in the first place (20 paint points in the first quarter) so I just wanted to get on top of it right off the bat and try to not let that happen again, what happened in the first quarter."

Gone are the days of giving up the layup in order to get back on offense as quickly as possible. These Suns are in-our-face aggressive from the perimeter to the rim.

That scheme has been effective, with the Suns allowing the league's 11th-best shooting percentage to the opposition and the 14th best defense overall (points per possession).

The Suns make most of the free throw deficit (including a 29th ranked free throw defense) by getting to the line themselves. A jump shooting team by nature, the aggressive Suns are 10th in the league in free throw attempts and lose less than 2 points per game at the stripe.

The difference last night was that the Rockets got eight more points at the line than the Suns usually allow.

"They shoot a lot of free throws" Hornacek said after the game. "They're good at getting the ball inside they're good at driving the ball and kind of leaning in. They got them but they made them - they were 28-for-32 that probably won them the game."

The Suns got to the line as well, but missed more than usual. Ultimately, what is usually a 2-point deficit at the line turned into an 11-point deficit last night.

Three pointers

This is where the Suns win their games. As you can see in the chart above, the Suns outscore their opponents by 9.1 points per game behind the arc.

But that's not just by being the best three-points shooters in the league (9th overall %, on all three-point attempts) but also by defending the three-point line better than anyone else. The Suns have allowed the lowest opposing three-point % in the league, and allowed the 7th fewest total attempts.

For the Suns to win game with this scheme, they must continue to defend that line with as much success as they have all season.

Summary

No team is perfect. The Suns personnel is not the most talented in the NBA. We have discussed the genesis of this team many times: two starters who played 55 total minutes last year, two more starters who spent multiple seasons out of the league, and a fifth starter with only 1.2 years of prior starting experience.

There are no All-NBA defenders. Nor are there any three-point champs. Or devastating scorers.

What the Suns have is a collection of guys willing to do whatever they possibly can to win games. And they have a coaching staff who put together a scheme on offense and defense that actually works.

  • force the opposing team off the three-point line and into the teeth of the defense
  • contest everything
  • at worst, make them earn their two points at the free throw line rather than a layup or dunk
  • Shoot a bunch of threes
  • get to the line nearly as often as the other team
  • Win the game

To that last point, the Suns are 33-22 after 55 games, their best 55-game start since 2007-08.

No need to change any schemes or rotations. The Suns only need to play better. The Houston game was an anomaly. The Suns prior three opponents (Denver, Boston, San Antonio) didn't crack 40% shooting, while Houston shot 53%.

The Suns have 5 home games to only 1 road game in the next week and a half before a long stretch of travel to end the season, and need only to go 15-12 to finish with 48 wins and a near-certain playoff berth. With Eric Bledsoe returning in the next 1-2 weeks, the Suns are igniting the present while still planning for the future.

Welcome to the Madhouse! Bright Side of the Sun is an amazing and diverse community and it deserves a place where the tyranny of topicality does not rule. And that's what The Madhouse is. It's Bright Side of the Sun's place to talk about whatever you want, whenever you want: trade ideas, news from around the league or how the trade deadline sure was quiet. It's all fair game here. Get crazy, y'all.

PHOENIX —  On the night the Phoenix Suns (33-22) celebrated the 20th anniversary of Kevin Johnson’s dunk on Hakeem Olajuwon, it was only fitting that a little guy stole the show....

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PHOENIX — Houston got up early and Phoenix led heading into the fourth quarter, but the Rockets made the plays late at U.S. Airways Center to hand the Suns their first loss of the post-All-Star...

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Goran Dragic hit a career high 35 points, including 25 in the first half, but it wasn't enough as the Rockets came back from a 10-point deficit to rally to a win over Phoenix.

The Houston Rockets read the Phoenix Suns scouting report and decided to take the game into their own hands. The Suns are good at defending the three-point line but give up a lot of paint points. So, the Rockets spent the entire first quarter passing into the paint, to the tune of 20 of their first 26 points.

But then the Suns second unit, along with ironman Goran Dragic, went on an answering 29-8 run in the second quarter to take the lead back at 48-45 and the game was ON despite the Rockets taking back a 4-point lead into halftime. Goran Dragic had 25 point in that first half, along with 2 assists and 3 steals.

In the third quarter, the Suns ran roughshod over the Rockets 37-23 on an onslaught of forced turnovers and Gerald Green (18 points in the third). Green ended the Q with a banked in three pointer to give the Suns a 10-point lead.

After that first quarter, I would have never thought the Suns would come back. Even in the third, I had a strong feeling that the Suns would be clawing back all night only to come up short, much like they did in Houston before the All-Star Break.

But happily, I was wrong. The Suns took a 10-point lead in the fourth (93-83).

The fourth quarter was an exercise in staying in front, and hoping that Goran Dragic didn't run out of steam before the Rockets found their range.

And then there was that "clear path foul" where Chandler Parsons tripped himself on the way to the basket and the Suns Rockets got 4 points out of it. Suddenly, the Suns lead was down to 2.

From there, the game was back and forth to the end. Heavy weight hits vs. heavy weight hits. Crazy stuff.

The refs really made the whole last few minutes tough to swallow, with bad call after bad call - even after giving themselves a chance to review it.

Patrick Beverley came up really big in the fourth quarter for the Rockets, with 12 points in the fourth quarter (20 for the game) and hounding defense on Goran Dragic.

Dragic got a career high 35 points in the game, but only 6 in the fourth as he was gassed himself and dogged by Beverley.

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First half notes:

The game started with the Houston Rockets shooting short, while the Suns were shooting long. Quickly, Houston got three point-blank shots for Terrence Jones while the Suns just tried to keep pace. The Suns didn't help themselves by missing three free throws in the opening three minutes. The Rockets just kept coming, with scoring from secondary scoring options Patrick Beverly and Terrence Jones (10 of Rockets 18 points).

Overall, it was a first quarter to forget. Everyone trying too hard, but playing terrible. Making awful passes and generally failing to look cohesive at all on offense.

That it was only a 14-point Rocket lead at the end of one was... oh screw it, that was terrible. Terrible basketball. After a 20 point blowout last time, the Suns are playing like they have no idea how to beat this Rockets team.

It took a little into the second quarter before the Suns began to show some life against the Rockets second unit. The Suns went on a 29-8 to take the lead back with a back court of Goran Dragic (13 of those 29 points) and Ish Smith leading the way, and the Morris brothers doing work down low.

But then the Rockets righted their ship, going on an 11-0 run before Dragic sank another pair of threes and Gerald Green sunk a couple of free throws to cut the Rockets halftime lead to a manageable 4 points.

Dwight Howard said during the halftime interview that Dragic had been playing at an All-Star level all year.

Dragic scored 25 points in the first half alone. But the half really belonged to the Rockets and the Suns were just trying to stay close.

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