Suns continue their specialty 'matador' defense

Published Nov. 24, 2010 11:12 p.m. EST

By Randy Hill
November 24, 2010

Box score

PHOENIX -- When the Phoenix Suns trotted onto the hardwood for Wednesday's Thanksgiving Eve date with the Chicago Bulls, they were accompanied by a snappy tune that included a brutally ironic lyric:
"Get ready for the bull fight ... just call me the matador."
Matador, huh? Well, with the Suns checking in as the worst (per possession) team in the NBA at stopping the opposition from scoring, matador defense is what we've come to expect.
So, ole, baby.
Well, not immediately. Actually, things looked peculiar for a while. Seemingly blessed with taking on a team working its second shift in as many nights (the Bulls fell to the Lakers in L.A. on Tuesday), the shut-down Suns held Chicago to 26 percent shooting during the first quarter of a 123-115 double-overtime loss at U.S. Airways Center.
"We gotta play the whole 48 minutes," Suns coach Alvin Gentry, referring to his team's play at both ends, said. "We just kept doin' silly things that kept them in the game."
Yeah, there's cause for alarm all over the place. Most of the bench (especially Goran Dragic) irregulars gave the 7-8 Suns very little, inspiring Gentry to hit three starters with 45-plus minutes. The offense (43 percent from the floor) was spotty, despite a tight-fisted 12 turnovers. All of these things conspired to doom a Suns team that can't seem to find any reasonable method for shutting down the other team.
It also should be noted that the Bulls hit town without an able-bodied power forward to call their own. Not having big-ticket Carlos Boozer (he's yet to play this season) and Taj Gibson (ankle) made things tricky for the Bulls on both ends of the floor.
And before we examine another three-quarters-plus of poor Suns defense, we'll use the Bulls (now 8-5) as an example of how seemingly wise defensive schemes usually aren't enough to overcome certain personnel issues.
OK, after a near cage match co-starring team president John Paxson and Coach Vinny Del Negro created a bench vacancy last summer, Chicago hired Tom Thibodeau away from the Boston Celtics. Working as an assistant under Doc Rivers, Thibodeau's widely perceived defensive genius caused him to be regarded as the Dick LeBeau of the NBA.
Unfortunately, his first Bulls team has yet to demonstrate killer execution of his pack-line, squeeze-one-side-of-the-court style. They are a bit more stingy than the final Del Negro squad, but not close to what they could be, considering their length and athleticism. Aside from hard-working center Joaquim Noah and Ronnie Brewer, few Bulls really show up for duty with a real passion for defense.
Anyway, along with the handicaps of weary legs and no power forward, the slow start in grasping Thibodeau's schemes was evident against Phoenix, which butters its bread by playing pick and roll; the Bulls aren't exactly efficient at screen-roll defense yet.
Noah, generally regarded as an above-average defender, was flat lousy at taking the proper screen-roll defensive angle on Nash, who (without much pressure from this soft double-team) was able to find Channing Frye on pick-and-pop action or Hakim Warrick slipping to the rim. Without a second big defender stepping up to take on Warrick, the first-year Sun went for 23 points ... all in the first half.
Despite giving up 33 points in the second quarter (Chicago made 68 percent of its shots), the Suns were up by a dozen at intermission. That's when some really big thinking took place.
Scrubbing their usual screen-roll defensive tactics in the second half, Thibodeau and the Bulls began switching the ball screen. The Suns (even after Warrick rejoined the party) sort of pre-countered by going side pick-and-roll with Nash and Grant Hill. Although Hill (27 points in almost 47 minutes) did have some success posting Derrick Rose after the switch, Nash (5 of 15) didn't have the customary post-switch center to abuse on the perimeter.
As the Suns' offensive efficiency dipped (they shot 64 percent in that first quarter, 43 for the game), their defense returned to normal.
The general plan was to have Nash as far away from Rose as possible. This put Hill on Rose and Nash ended up chasing Kyle Korver when the gun-slingin' sub entered the game. With Hill instructed to slide under ball screens for Rose, Chicago's star had enough room to pour in 35 points. Rose needed 33 field-goal attempts to get there, but his ability to get that mid-range jumper any time he wanted helped Chicago whittle down its deficit.
With Nash attempting to dodge a gauntlet of screens, Korver was able to quick-draw his way to 24.
Watching the Suns blow a 23-point, first-quarter lead reminds us of what they could be up against all year. When the offense fails to operate at a high level of efficiency, being weak guarding primary ballhandlers and post players makes it a real challenge to be even decent at team defense. Sure, center Robin Lopez is out, but if the 7-footer doesn't return with considerably more defensive bounce than he had before his knee injury, he may not not help much.
Hey, perhaps the Suns can be the first team to commit to playing zone defense for the majority of an NBA game. Wouldn't that work? Well, since the ability to play an effective zone often is impossible for teams that lack a solid man-to-man base, this would be as tricky as a budding pianist taking on Chopin before he or she even masters "Chopsticks."
Until his players look in the mirror and decide enough is enough when the other team has the ball, Gentry's best game plan may require the Suns to make 22 3-pointers every night.