It is often said in the NBA that the regular season is about strengths and the playoffs are about weaknesses. For the new-look Phoenix Suns on Sunday, both were on display for 48 minutes as they faced their greatest test yet of the Kevin Durant era in the form of the similarly revamped Dallas Mavericks.
A mere glance at the box score will confirm Phoenix's immense offensive strength. Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combined for 73 points on over 64 percent shooting from the field. The Suns not only have two of the best offensive players in the NBA, but two of the most lethal in the mid-range. When the playoffs arrive and high-value shots elsewhere are taken away, those looks become essential. Phoenix is nearly unguardable in that area of the court. It showed against Dallas.
And yet, Dallas led most of the second half. Had Luka Doncic's game-tying look at the rim gotten a friendly roll, we might've gotten overtime. So how did the Mavericks nearly steal this game? They did it with a defensive strategy Phoenix should expect to see plenty when the postseason arrives and their weaknesses are magnified. The Mavericks couldn't defend Durant or Booker, but they didn't defend anyone else.
That's an important distinction. The Mavericks were so focused on Booker and Durant, and simultaneously unconcerned with the rest of Phoenix's roster, that they simply allowed pretty much everyone else the freedom to fire 3-pointers with impunity. How often do you see anyone as open as Torrey Craig is off of this Durant double?
Notice the half-hearted Doncic closeouts on Josh Okogie?
Amazingly, even Chris Paul got the non-shooter treatment a few times in the fourth quarter. Tim Hardaway Jr. felt his presence was needed at the nail to serve as a secondary deterrent to Booker, and as such, Phoenix's Hall of Fame point guard got one of the cleaner looks of his season, and unlike his teammates for most of the second half, actually made it.
Almost every defense is designed to key in on a team's best players, but the Mavericks took it to the extreme on Sunday, and despite the loss, you could credibly argue that the plan worked. Suns not named Durant or Booker shot just 8-of-26 (30.7 percent) from deep in the game. Dallas lost because it couldn't protect the basket and it couldn't contain the two superstars. There was nothing the Mavericks really could have done to change that given their personnel. The same is going to be true of plenty of Phoenix's opponents. The best they'll be able to hope for is Phoenix's bad shooters missing.
And that, mostly, is what happened. Craig may be above 40 percent from deep this season, but he's below 35 percent for his career. Paul has been a strong shooter for his entire career, and he's even having a bit of a bounce-back year from deep after getting held below 32 percent last season, but he's also averaging a career-low 11.1 total field goal attempts per game. Opponents are going to want to turn him into a scorer over a playmaker.
And then there's Okogie, who was only available to Phoenix at a minimum salary because of his shooting deficiency. A stellar defender and hustle player, Okogie shot just 27.5 percent from deep in four seasons in Minnesota. He's above 35 percent in Phoenix, but shot just 1-of-9 on 3-pointers Sunday.
So how did Phoenix overcome its shooting woes? Well, one Suns reserve finally started making his shots. Ish Wainwright didn't enter the game until late in the third quarter. He stayed on the floor the remainder of the game and made four of his five open 3-pointers.
We've already touched on one NBA platitude so let's acknowledge another: it's a make or miss league. That's true for every team in the NBA. There's nothing especially new or novel about leaving bad shooters open and hoping it disrupts the flow of a great offense.
But this sort of defense is going to define Phoenix's championship push given the makeup of its roster. The Suns were thin even before they traded for Durant. As of right now, their rotation is comprised of:
- Two in their prime superstars (Durant and Booker).
- A max contract center that took six shots on Sunday (DeAndre Ayton).
- A 37-year-old Hall of Fame point guard (Paul).
- Four minimum-salary veterans (Okogie, Damion Lee, T.J. Warren, Jock Landale).
- A player who was converted from a two-way deal last month (Wainwright).
- A mini mid-level forward (Craig).
- A buyout addition (Terrence Ross).
- A backup point guard who nearly fell out of the league before finding new life in Phoenix (Cameron Payne).
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That's two certainties, two flawed but very valuable contributors, and a whole lot of question marks. All of them carry flaws on at least one side of the court, but given the offensive baseline Durant and Booker create, Monty Williams is likely going to skew defense with his fifth slot. That's going to mean a lot of big minutes and bigger shots for players like Craig, Okogie and Wainwright in the postseason.
Craig and Okogie's misses almost proved fatal against Dallas on Sunday. Wainwright's clutch buckets saved the day. If the three of them, along with the rest of Phoenix's island of misfit role players, can't make those shots? The floor is going to cramp for the rest of the Suns, and their playoff fortunes are going to be threatened. But if they can hit them? The Suns are probably going to win the championship. They didn't need many to beat Dallas on Sunday, and that should terrify the rest of the Western Conference as the postseason approaches.