PHOENIX – Even without Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns were able to generate enough offense to supply free tacos.
A solid 1 for 1 in snack redemption at US Airways Center without Nash, the Suns – whose fans convert ticket stubs from any 99-points-plus outing into fast food – had moments of clarity and confusion while unveiling some of their altered attack at home.
“I think it was a typical preseason game,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after Friday’s 104-93 triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers.
But for witnesses of Nash’s wizardry in screen-roll and other facets of the Suns’ signature offensive system, this wasn’t exactly typical. Without the usual trigger-man, Gentry and the Suns are incorporating some swell scoring techniques often traced to current Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman.
The base system is known as the “Corner” offense, and – although Adelman once had former Princeton coach Pete Carril on his coaching staff in Sacramento – the structure is not as close to the Princeton offense as many have assumed. With more high-post action, the Corner has some similarities to the Triangle.
Original wrinkles can be added to any system, of course, but – regardless of the origin – Nash’s successor is a big fan of the new offensive order in Phoenix.
“I really think it fits the players we have,” Goran Dragic said before handing out 9 assists in the 30 minutes he played in his first outing back in Phoenix. “Especially with a player like Luis Scola, who’s a really good passer from the high post.”
Dragic, who – like Scola — played for Adelman in Houston two years ago, looked quite comfortable running new elements of the Phoenix show. After spending most of training camp compromised by an ankle injury, the Dragon appeared to have most of his usual burst against Portland.
“I like the way he played,” Gentry said of his new-old point guard. “You know, he’s getting himself in better condition where he can really push the ball and run.”
The Suns, who put up 83 points through three quarters Friday, finished the night with 30 assists and shot 51 percent from the field. Their 28-15 first-quarter blitz included 71 percent shooting (5 of 7 from 3-point range), due to a couple of things they didn’t accomplish during Wednesday’s preseason-opening loss to the Kings in Sacramento.
“Goran’s dribble penetration had a lot to do with that,” Gentry said. “And I think our spacing was a lot better than it was the day before in Sacramento.”
It also should be noted that Friday’s first half didn’t offer a steady diet of Corner alignments. Several half-court possessions featured an overload that included a baseline or “flex” screen designed to create an open lay-up or post up for the cutter.
“Alvin has had that in his playbook for years,” Suns assistant Igor Kokoskov said.
So even though Gentry and the Suns’ coaching staff is wisely mixing in tactics familiar to four players who used to play for Adelman (Scola and Dragic in Houston; Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson last season in Minnesota), a lot of the offensive flow is supposed to look familiar.
The Suns will continue to seek a quick tempo, using ball screens off of Corner sets and other designed quick-hitters.
But with versatile front-court players such as Scola, Beasley and second-year pro Markieff Morris, the Corner could be an effective option in Phoenix.
With the Suns demonstrating enough trust to give up the ball to the high post more frequently in Friday’s second half, corner-screen opportunities led to several easy third-quarter buckets. Phoenix shot 62 percent in that period and rang up 30 points.
“You just have to read how the defense plays it,” Dragic said. “If they (defense) block the top side (on the corner screen), you just go back door.”
Shannon Brown, who finished with 12 points, eventually figured out that instead of a steady diet of accepting a ball screen from the high post, giving up the ball and starting on off-ball, two-man game can make things trickier for the defense.
“It’s taking us a little time in making the right reads,” Suns assistant coach Elston Turner, who assisted Adelman for several season in Sacramento and Houston, said when asked about the Corner offense before the game. “But we’ll get it. It fits our guys pretty well.”
Beasley, who made half of his 8 shots and scored 10 points Friday, is working at small forward and – thanks to the Corner keeping both sides of the defense occupied – could have several post-up opportunities without weak-side defensive corruption.
“We have one already for him,” Dragic said of the Beasley post-up out of the Corner set.
Johnson took advantage of Blazer defensive help and slow recovery in bagging 4 of 7 shots – including 3 of 4 from behind the arc – to contribute a dozen points off the bench in his Phoenix debut.
Morris, looking very much like a player who put in work during the offseason, led the Suns with 14 points. Markieff also collected four quick fouls in the first half, looking very much like the player from last season on the defensive end.
Morris, who made 6 of 11 shots, would have been even more impressive had he successfully finished a couple of slick, lane-area spin moves.
“It was just a good win,” Gentry said. “I think for us … we’re trying to create a winning environment, so first and foremost, I think you have to do it at home.”