Defense at the Heart of Suns' Early Success

by Matt Petersen

Talk about misleading.

Jeff Hornacek spoke so often about revving up the Suns offense, he had every interested pair of eyes set on the side of the court.

Only now, after a 5-2 start to the season, is it easy to see that the first-year head coach’s biggest influence has been on the other end.

Yes, Phoenix still runs. They’re the best fast break team in the league, in fact, averaging 23.7 points per game in transition.

That stat is appealing, as are the seemingly endless series of highlights provided by Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and Eric Bledsoe.

What it is not, however, is the team’s identity.

That could be found late in the fourth quarter against New Orleans on Friday night. Clinging to a one-point lead with 5:38 to go, Phoenix made its move – by denying the Pelicans their move to take control.

The Suns held New Orleans to 5-for-13 shooting over the following five minutes. They blocked five shots and forced two turnovers, including one shot clock violation in that span. Six-foot-one Eric Bledsoe rejected six-foot-10 Anthony Davis at the rim.

By the time it was all over, the Suns had held their fifth opponent in seven games to under 100 points. Their team total of 11 blocks and 10 steals marked the second time this season they reached double figures in each of those categories.

Back to that league-leading fast break stat for a second. Here was Hornacek’s take on why that is happening:

“The combination of our defense playing well, forcing teams to miss shots and we’re just going,” Hornacek said.

For this year’s team, running does not produce running. Defense does.

Hornacek deserves kudos for applying that lesson, but he needed qualified teacher’s assistants and willing students for it to take hold. The former came in the form of former NBA grinders Mark West and Kenny Gattison, as well as former Celtics assistant Mike Longabardi. The latter, a group of young players, all of whom had a reason and room to grow.

The combination plays itself out in countless moments. Longabardi is given generous time and reign for specific, defensive-oriented portions of practice. West and Gattison are seemingly always passing along tips of the trade to the Suns’ current big men. On Friday, Hornacek was visibly displeased after Phoenix gave up a second-chance basket, even it gave New Orleans just 69 points a minute into the fourth quarter.

The players have been refreshingly receptive to the new defensive standard. Newcomers Miles Plumlee (2.3 blocks per game) and Eric Bledsoe (1.9 steals per game) have spearheaded the movement on the interior and perimeter, respectively.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Plumlee learned big man defensive fundamentals in Indiana from Roy Hibbert. Bledsoe combined his athleticism and own nose for the ball with tricks picked up from Chris Paul in Los Angeles.

Their effort has been contagious. Bledsoe’s steals numbers rank first on the team. The next two highest marks: Markieff Morris (1.7 spg) and Marcus Morris (1.4 spg).

As a team, Phoenix ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in blocks, steals and opponent shooting percentage.

More than the numbers, however, is the attitude that produces them. After logging his third consecutive game of at least 23 points and helping the helping rescue the Suns offense on Friday night, Markieff Morris had this to say afterward.

“You don’t want your scoring to dictate how your defense is playing. To me, it’s opposite. When you’re struggling offensively, that’s when you should be saying, ‘okay, it might not be my night offensively, but I can get after somebody and stop someone on the other end.”

— Jeff Hornacek

“It wasn’t about making shots,” he said. “We knew that was going to come. It was about getting stops first. That leads to our fast break points.”

Those tempted to think Morris is merely mimicking his coach should know Hornacek had said the following of Morris just moments earlier.

“Defensively, I think he’s been much better than he has been in the past,” Hornacek said.

The rookie head coach immediately tacked on another defense-first thought, this one related to the team’s poor offensive start on Friday night.

“You don’t want your scoring to dictate how your defense is playing,” Hornacek said. “To me, it’s opposite. When you’re struggling offensively, that’s when you should be saying, ‘okay, it might not be my night offensively, but I can get after somebody and stop someone on the other end.’”

Phoenix has grasped that concept. Despite their fast break prowess, the team ranks in the middle of the pack (13th) in points per game and three-point percentage (14th).

Their record, however, is first in the Pacific Division. It’s a combination of numbers and rankings that, going by precedent, just doesn’t happen in Phoenix.

Yet like the Suns’ offensive mentality and stats, precedent has taken a back seat.

To defense.