Hamstring injuries freakin' suck.
Not only are they painful and annoying to deal with, they have
the ability to linger. You never quite know when you're in the
clear. As Charles Barkley alluded to following the New Orleans
Pelicans' 125-114 Game 2 victory, you can be 100% one day and back
on the shelf the next.
This is the plight of Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. After
cooking in the first half to the tune of 31 points, he tweaked his
hamstring in the third quarter and didn't return. As of this
writing, there's no timetable for Booker's return. That obviously
puts Booker's Game 3 status in flux, but, again, hamstring injuries
are tricky. Even when he's back, a close eye on his health will be
Following Booker's injury, more of the offense naturally shifted
to Chris Paul. The burden was clear in the fourth quarter, where
Paul played all 12 minutes and received 25 ball-screens in the
process, via Second Spectrum. It was only the seventh time this
season that Paul received more than 20 in a fourth quarter; the
only game where Paul received more screens (26 against the San
Antonio Spurs on December 6) was one without Booker.
To that point, the Suns got pretty busy in that quarter. Trips
featuring a Paul ball screen generated nearly 1.27 points per
possession (PPP); for reference, the Utah Jazz led the NBA in
offensive rating at 1.16 PPP.
The Suns were even better against the New Orleans Pelicans on
Tuesday night, with Paul-led ball screens generating nearly 1.5
PPP. To do that is insane; to do that without Booker as a release
valve or bail-out option is even more ridiculous.
Without Booker, the Suns needed a lift. A literal one. They
often set up pick-and-rolls with ghost screens before Paul and his
center — JaVale McGee to begin the quarter, then Deandre Ayton
later — did their dance.
While the pick-and-roll would occur, a shooter would lift up the
floor to put a Pelicans helper in a tough spot. Tagging the big on
the roll would leave the shooter open; hugging the shooter would
give the big a lane to the rim.
The Suns opened the fourth quarter with a pick-and-lift combo.
Landry Shamet ghosted a screen to end up on the left wing, then
Paul and McGee flowed into a pick-and-roll. That placed Jose
Alvarado into a pick-your-poison situation.
With Herb Jones getting caught up on the screen for Paul, Larry
Nance Jr. steps up to take away a pull-up middy. Since Nance Jr.
stepped up to Paul, Alvarado dropped down to account for McGee's
roll. If you're counting at home, that's three Pelicans accounting
for two Suns. There's a guy missing.
Ah. There he is.
The beauty of the Suns' offense is that there are layers and
variations to everything they do. They can get more creative, like
here when they threw in an exit screen for Shamet while having Cam
Johnson (right corner) lift during Ayton's roll.
Poor Alvarado, man.
They can also simplify it — go basic spread pick-and-roll with a
lone shooter on a side. Watch Johnson, first and foremost, while
also noting that the Pelicans went from drop coverage to a more
aggressive scheme with Jonas Valanciunas.
That's the good stuff. It's imperative that the Suns manipulate
helpers to create advantages, because their best advantage-creator
is on the mend right now.
However, this is a two-way street. Much like the Suns were — and
will need to be — able to generate goodness with their lifts, they
also have to be much better about defending them. The Pelicans had
some fun in Game 2.
My favorite stretch came midway-ish through the third quarter.
The Pelicans set up a similar exit-screen strategy on one side,
while Trey Murphy ghosted a screen and relocated to the right wing.
That left the right corner open, giving Nance Jr. an unhealthy
amount of space to run into for this lob.
A little bit later, the Pelicans set up the same thing. With the
Suns keying in on the Nance Jr. lob, Murphy executed a lift of his
own and got three points out of it.
I love a good half-court counter.
This series was always going to come down to a blend of
half-court execution and #ethical shot-making. The Suns had Booker
as a headliner, Paul as a guy who can do it in spurts (hello, Game
1) and a ridiculously deep playbook. The Pelicans have Brandon
Ingram, CJ McCollum and some nifty half-court tricks in their own
If Booker is out of the equation, the Suns will have to lean
more on the half-court execution. Their off-ball movement may be
the lift they need.