PHOENIX — Having flummoxed NBA soothsayers through seven fun-filled evenings, the Suns seem committed to the game-winning properties of string music.
The string we’re referencing is not the one attached to a rim; instead it’s an imaginary implement connecting Phoenix defenders, who just happen to be performing at rare levels of competence.
For contextual input on this defensive evolution, let’s take a moment with highly qualified Suns forward P.J. Tucker.
“Mike has everybody on a string,” said Tucker, the team’s defensive anchor since returning from Euro-style exile last season. “Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be in each situation.”
“Mike,” by the way, is first-year assistant coach Mike Longabardi, who followed in the footsteps of Tom Thibodeau as a Boston Celtics’ defensive-oriented mastermind.
Anyway, this knowing of where to be seems about as anathema to historical Phoenix protocols as a snow plow.
The string Tucker refers to ties all five defenders together. And when the ball moves and/or an offensive player moves, simultaneous movement of one Suns defender creates movement of the other four. (There’s also early movement, and we’ll have more on that in a jiffy.)
Anyway, it’s a concept known among dreamy-eyed coaches as five against the ball — whereby individual, on-ball defense is abetted by total team buy-in to preventing the opposition from scoring so stinking often.
Through an impressive grasping of Longabardi’s philosophical approach — a ball-pressuring, floor-shrinking, lane-clogging and early-helping system — the Suns have risen to sixth among NBA teams for defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). They checking in at 23rd last season. For the record, the efficiency number sits at 99.5; it was an alarming 108.1 during the final stretch with Alvin Gentry and the cameo from Lindsay Hunter.
Beyond any schematic upgrades, however, getting better on defense requires a coaching staff to make it a point of emphasis in camp and enforce the articles of accountability as the season progresses.
“When you mess up, he knows,” Tucker said of Longabardi. “He’s going to be on you … from top to bottom, no matter who it is.”
Even when you’re the guy designated to smother some of the league’s top offensive hotshots?
“He gets on me,” Tucker said. “I mess up, I’m in the wrong spot sometimes … but I love it. It keeps me in check.”
Keeping offenses in check is the first stage in the Suns’ quest to reset a typical Phoenix tempo and generate enough superstar-free offense to compete with the league’s powerhouses.
The Suns currently sit in first place for fast-break points per game (23.2), which is a salty 10 more than they managed last season. And even though Coach Jeff Hornacek wants the pace pushed in the less-frequent aftermath of an opponents’ bucket, that fast-break number is goosed to current levels by forcing tougher shots and turnovers before finishing with a defensive rebound.
Although the Suns aren’t great in these areas yet, they are better (with the exception of forcing turnovers) than in recent memory. Through seven games, Phoenix is eighth in blocked shots, 16th in turnovers forced (they were 7th last season … gambling and losing?) and a heady sixth in opposition field-goal percentage.
And by the way, their ranking of eighth in 3-point percentage defense puts the Suns 22 spots ahead of where the finished last season.
With Longabardi’s interpretation of a defensive philosophy originally known as Pack-line (now-retired college coach Dick Bennett is credited with its popularity), the lane area is sacrosanct.
That’s not exactly a shockingly creative theory, of course. Accomplishing this wall-building requires awareness and accountability in the task of helping or cheating over early into help areas.
“That’s what he’s been emphasizing since training camp … early help, getting over early,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said of Longabardi. “He’s very smart.”
And when the no-fly-zone is breeched, it also helps to have a big, bouncy and wise dude on the back line of the Pack-line. That dude is newcomer Miles Plumlee, who currently is tied for fifth place in the league for blocks per game (2.3).
“Even when he doesn’t get ’em, they’re big for us because he alters shots and he’s very smart about not following through — he’s not trying to bat ’em into the stands,” Hornacek said.
“He’s just getting his hands on the ball. That’s huge for us, for him to protect the rim like that.”
It’s also pretty important for players involved in that five-against-the-ball approach to understand how to help the helper who helped the helper who … well, just being committed to stopping a team instead of a particular player (unless you’re on the ball) makes this thing work.
So far, the Suns are displaying keen awareness.
“For the most part, they’re good at it,” Hornacek said. “We do it every day in practice, we really focus on that.”
When asked for his interpretation of the difference in defensive focus from last season to this season, Tucker didn’t hesitate.
“Black and white,” he said.
Perhaps he meant night and day.
Or P.J. might have been referring to how this focus has translated to the black and white of a statistical sheet … or the division standings.
“For a young team just getting together,” Hornacek said, “they’re doing the right things.”