The Phoenix Suns have defended the Golden State Warriors better than any team this season.
In the midst of a game that marked the quarter point of the season, the atmosphere permeating throughout their marquee matchup belied the fact that it was a mere regular-season game. The crowd was loud, the energy intense. Every possession counted; those that were wasted by either team was subsequently punished on the other end.
The playoff-level intensity shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is just Game 21 for the Warriors, who now share the Western Conference lead — and the distinction of the best record in the NBA — with the Suns, the defending Western Conference Champions. At the same time, the Suns proved why they are perhaps the one obstacle to the Warriors’ dreams of returning to the mountaintop.
The league’s second most efficient offense was forced into a mudslinging contest. Even if the Suns were occasionally mired in the same mud they pulled the Warriors in, such a strategy was the best they could hope for against a team that counted on heavy movement and passing as its main offensive currencies.
Stephen Curry himself was especially chest deep in the mud. He scored only 12 points on perhaps the worst shooting night of his career: 4-of-21 from the field (19.0%), 1-of-7 on twos (14.3%), 3-of-14 on threes (21.4%), and 28.0% True Shooting. The expectation going into the game was that Mikal Bridges, the Suns’ premier wing defender, would be given the task of defending Curry in single coverage.
Bridges proved to be a tough nut to crack for even someone as great as Curry, who struggled to capture any semblance of rhythm. Bridges’ size, length, and ability to cover ground in an uncanny amount of time did not provide Curry with the requisite space to operate freely, both on and off the ball.
Even on possessions where the Warriors managed to garner a favorable matchup on Curry — such as on the possession below, where Curry gets the switch onto Deandre Ayton on the perimeter — Bridges’ sublime recovery and timing as a backline help defender proved that the favorable switch provided nothing more than a false sense of security.
It’s true that Bridges provided something of a funky look for Curry. Bridges is an exceptional one-on-one defender, not just because he has the physical tools to bother and disrupt, but also because he’s an extremely intelligent operator who knows his personnel.
Bridges rarely fell prey to Curry’s off-ball genius. He mostly avoided the trap of drifting away from Curry, especially on relocation attempts. He top-locked Curry on several screening actions, all while using his length and long strides to cut off any potential backdoor avenues.
It’s impossible to be perfect against Curry; he will find pockets of space and punish momentary lapses, even if such lapses last for only a split second. The problem for the Warriors, however, was that Curry himself was also far from perfect on the shots he managed to successfully create for himself.
Just look at the possessions below:
The first clip above is the Warriors’ staple combined “Ram” screen action flowing into a “modified” split action, which gets Curry a good look from three after getting Cam Johnson up in the air on a fake, with Ayton dropping back. The following clips involve an exit screen and a wide down-screen that both get Curry equally open.
He normally drills such shots in his sleep — but not on this particular night.
Although the make-or-miss nature of Curry’s shots was a factor, a boatload of credit must be given to a disciplined and organized Suns defense, who clearly came into the game prepared. Cognizant of the perpetual motion, cutting, passing, and off-ball screening actions the Warriors love to employ, the Suns simply were not fooled by the misdirection, usage of Curry as a decoy, and the many moving parts that would’ve thrown lesser teams around for a loop.
Peep at this particular possession:
The Warriors attempt to run their “Iverson” cut into “Rip” screen action — but as soon as Juan Toscano-Anderson forgets to initiate the action with an Iverson cut, the possession is doomed to fail. Curry tries to expedite the action by setting the Rip screen for Nemanja Bjelica, but the Suns are cognizant of the action and simply switch the screen.
The Warriors try to freelance with several swing-swing possessions, while an attempt to feed Bjelica down low on a seal is nullified by Bridges. With no recourse left, the Warriors commit a 24-second violation.
Later on, the Suns blow up another staple Warriors play:
Attempting to run their “modified” split action, the Warriors are visibily bothered by the Suns’ physicality and tenacity. The Curry screen for a Jordan Poole dive cut is denied through a switch by Bridges and Chris Paul. Peep at Paul switching on Curry’s topside, preparing to deny a potential down-screen that doesn’t materialize.
The screen doesn’t materialize because Draymond Green finds himself open on a potential slip and dive to the rim, which Andrew Wiggins is aware of. He tries to find Green on the cut — but Ayton’s timely double results in a deflection. Curry attempts to salvage the possession, but a contest from Bridges forces the miss.
The possession above was exemplary of the Suns’ defensive philosophy against the Warriors: aggressive on-ball defense, rampant off-ball denial through overplaying/top-locking, and copious switching to stagnate motion sets into late-clock isolation possessions. Forcing the Warriors into a perpetual hurried state may have played a part in Curry’s extremely inefficient night, but it definitely was the culprit behind the Warriors’ 22 turnovers.
If there’s a silver lining to this defeat, it’s that the Warriors were able to keep the contest close all throughout, before the Suns pulled away during the closing five minutes of the fourth quarter — a period where the Suns allowed only 18 points. Poole (28 points on 15 shots), Otto Porter Jr (16 points on 11 shots, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists), and Gary Payton II (8 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal) all delivered and played their roles to near perfection.
But the uphill climb turned into a monumental Everest once it became apparent that Curry would have the toughest offensive night of his season. Green seemed to lack the usual synergistic connection with Curry, as well as reverting back to his bouts of passivity in terms of attacking the rim.
This game provided plenty of film to look back on for the Warriors, who will face the Suns in an immediate rematch on Friday. Answers to questions will have to be found. Problems that plagued the Warriors will have to be solved: how to create and exploit gaps within a seemingly non-exploitable defense, and how to contain a varied offensive attack, led by an elite floor general, a scoring machine of a two-guard, and a mobile big who generates a boatload of rim pressure.
But most of all, the Warriors must realize one thing from the film they’ll be watching: The Phoenix Suns — who just won their 17th-straight game — are definitively the real deal.