Vol.3, Iss.11: It's Twin Time!
A video breakdown of a new Suns set play, plus a deep dive into the twins of Phoenix.
Time To Level Up…..
As the Suns look to improve for their title run down the stretch, so do I! Substack recently added TFPP to a beta test for videos to be included in the Newsletter. That means this Issue has a full film breakdown above, looking at the new 'Twin Time' play Phoenix are running. And below, the usual format with loads of words & GIFs dedicated to the 'Twins' in Arizona. Old readers - if you are reading this inside your email inbox, it’s best to switch to a web browser. New readers - you are probably already there, but if you want email reminders going forward then click below.
What Time Is It…..
Let’s get this out of the way early - the Phoenix Suns did not have the type of trade deadline I was hoping for.
I wrote at length in the 'Kenny Hustle' Issue & the 'Trade Deadline Special' about the urgency I felt to push all the chips in for the current campaign. James Jones chose instead to improve on the margins by adding Aaron Holiday & reuniting Torrey Craig with the fellas.
It’s a route that leaves one simple question - Why?
Why is it that Jones & the rest of the Suns brain trust are confident they already have what they need in Phoenix to go all the way? Why have they seemingly repeated their trade deadline strategy from just one season prior & expect the result to be different this time? Why didn’t they look to add another key piece to the rotation?
These Suns wings have developed a special bond off the court & an undoubted chemistry on it, resulting in the brotherly 'Twins' nickname. More recently during two overlapping 10 game stints, the duo have flashed enough potential to make you wonder if they were currently taking a mini in-season leap together.
For Mikal, it was the double digit games directly before the trade deadline where he seemingly took on a larger offensive role.
First 44 Games:
12.0 PPG / 4.0 RPG / 1.9 APG / 1.3 FTA / 50.5 FG% / 37.7 3P% / 85.5 FT%
Next 10 Games:
17.9 PPG / 5.4 RPG / 3.2 APG / 2.5 FTA / 58.2 FG% / 34.1 3P% / 92.0 FT%
With Cam, the opportunity instead presented itself with more minutes as a starter when Jae Crowder missed with two different injuries.
Reserve 43 Games:
10.7 PPG / 3.9 RPG / 1.3 APG / 1.4 FTA / 43.5 FG% / 41.0 3P% / 85.0 FT%
Starter 10 Games:
16.9 PPG / 5.5 RPG / 1.2 APG / 1.4 FTA / 54.5 FG% / 50.0 3P% / 85.7 FT%
Is this the answer to the why question? It’s hard to question when the Suns recent play has them atop the league traditional standings but also leading the league the nerd way too. Phoenix are currently #1 in the NBA in Net Rating (+8.2), on the back of a #2 offense (113.6) & #4 defense (105.4). Maybe GM Jones is simply placing his faith in the two brothers from another mother.
Apparently it was Deandre Ayton who first coined the moniker aimed at Mikal & Cam. A somewhat coincidental & fitting occurrence because it was Ayton who recently stepped up to join Chris Paul & Devin Booker, as the Suns third offensive force. With a hook shot so lethal that I dedicated an entire Newsletter to it. Now Ayton & Phoenix’s two All-Stars are in need of Bridges & Johnson to join them, in order to not repeat the same fate as last season.
So, just what have the Suns 'Twins' shown in these two 10 game samples to warrant putting our faith in them to go one step further this post-season?
Let’s take a look…..
Elbowing Into Sets
Looking purely at usage numbers, you won’t see a clear reason as to why either Bridges or Johnson have experienced a leap in offensive production recently. Mikal’s usage has only crept up 1% (14% to 15%) over the last 10 games, while Cam’s understandably dips by the same amount (16.2% to 15.2%) when placed with the starters. Instead, the evidence comes in the form of how the Suns are using them both.
Most notably, Phoenix continues to let Bridges & Johnson get reps in primary actions such as 'Elbow' that are normally reserved for Booker. Let’s start with Johnson. As Cam becomes more comfortable, he’s learning the appropriate reads. Watch below as he senses the defender is too close, so screens for Paul instead. But when he feels separation, Johnson is able to walk right into a smooth jumper.
Bridges is benefiting from the repeat efforts too. Like Johnson, Mikal can feel when he has lost his defender & sneak his way to the cup. But he’s also learning to read when the coverage changes & pivot his way to a similar result. The physical tools coupled with this increased awareness is a big reason why Bridges shoots 82.3% inside the restricted area this season.
Back to Cam & the same 'Elbow' set now. The Suns do a great job of utilising the 41.3% efficiency Johnson shoots with above the break on 3s. If Paul chooses not to pass to Cam on the initial cut, we see JaVale McGee set the screen & Johnson take his cue to roll around to the top of the key.
Becoming Release Valves
Understandably, so many of the Suns plays initially center around the 'Big 3' of Paul-Booker-Ayton, but we often saw the offense get bogged down in last years Playoffs when the trio were either hampered through injury or good defense. It’s in those moments, where Phoenix need Bridges & Johnson to step up to the plate. Open lanes present themselves when defenders stay at home.
Take the below clip as an example. Regular readers will recognise this ‘Snap’ variation known as ‘Ireland’ in TFPP circles. It was actually first highlighted during last years post-season but Bridges was only taking the initial 3 if it was open. This time his defender is hot on his trail but all the other defenders are sticking to their man too. Why shouldn’t Bridges have the confidence to attack those seams? On top of his ridiculous efficiency at the rim, Mikal is also shooting 53.2% elsewhere in the paint.
Johnson’s release valve ability comes much more in the form of the ridiculous shooting he possesses from basically anywhere behind the arc. Extended ball pressure was another Playoffs hallmark of the defense played on CP3. As a counter being developed this season, Phoenix have been sending Cam up high to set the ball screen before slipping. Either Paul gets free or you choose to leave Johnson wide open from one of his many favourite spots.
Now let’s see how the defense becoming more aware of these skills, can act as a release valve without either guy ever touching the ball. Below you see Johnson setting a similar off-ball screen for Booker, while Bridges is again closely checked in the corner. Phoenix get a wide open dunk & it’s not just because both guys feature more heavily on the scouting report. Monty & the Suns always seem to be aware of placing either guy in their favourite spots on offense too. Johnson prefers the left corner (47.1%) to the right (45.6%), while Bridges likes the right (41.1%) over the left (34.5%).
Passing The Test
A huge aspect of increasing offensive output & thus garnering further attention from the opposition, is then having the ability to make the right reads. Thankfully, both Bridges & Johnson are adept at throwing the extra pass when the defense collapses in their direction. Even if statistically, it only current bears out in one of their stats.
That one is Bridges. In his recent run of hot form, Mikal is averaging 1.3 more assists per game & surprisingly even less turnovers. And a huge benefactor of that is his partner in crime. Johnson ranks #2 in terms of total assists (23) Bridges dishes out & shoots 50% from 3 on those passes. Below you can see why slipping the screen is a huge weapon that places Mikal in the NBA’s 93rd percentile as a roll man in the P&R.
That same technique is on display again here. But if Johnson is #2 for Mikal assists, then who is #1? I’ll give you a clue - the answer isn’t in the below clip. Normally it is Ayton setting the pin in screen for Johnson in the corner. That misdirection creates even larger open lanes for Mikal to work in & is why he’s found DA 25 times this season. Top of Bridges’ list despite missing a number of games.
But while Johnson hasn’t seen the same leap in play-making stats, the flashes are undeniable. Where Bridges creates gravity by slipping screens as a roller, Johnson will slip to pop out for 3 or just run the lane in transition to get to his lethal spots. Watch below as two Spurs defenders close out on Cam & finds rifles a pass to the open man.
Coming Up Clutch
I’m sure you’ve seen the news - Phoenix are the best ‘Clutch’ team in the NBA. With 5 minutes remaining & the score within 5 points, the Suns have outscored their opponents by 86 points on the way to a 22-3 record. Paul leads the league (+92), followed by Bridges (+79), Crowder (+68) & Booker (+67) who round out the top 4. Ayton ranks 8th (+47), while Johnson comes in at 17th (+36).
But don’t get it twisted, it’s simply minutes played that holds Cam back here. Johnson (30) has played exactly half the minutes of Crowder (60) in clutch situations this season. And here’s the only reference I’ll make all Newsletter to the ‘who should start between the two?’ conundrum. I’d stick with Jae but as is being outlined all Issue, there is definitely an argument that Johnson not only needs more minutes in general but also an increased role in certain closing situations. Need a 3? Cam is shooting 42.9% in the clutch. It’s easy to see why 98% of his shots are classed as ‘open’ to ‘wide open’, when Booker creates looks like this one below. A 'Pin-In' screen with a 'Lift'.
Despite Bridges’ steady 3-point numbers, it’s still not a shot he loves to take when the pressure is on. In fact, Mikal hasn’t made a single 3 in clutch situations this season. Thankfully though, the defense still respects it. The defense blitzes Paul with a double, he finds Wainright in the middle of the floor & Ish locates Bridges in the corner. Close out too hard though & Mikal will fly right on by.
Our final clip of the Issue, so we are going to end with a test. If you watched the video at the top of the Newsletter (Did you watch it? You should watch it), then this play should look familiar. Before you see the result of the play, try guess what Mikal is going to do. I’ll give you a clue - Bridges shoots 57.1% in the clutch this season.
"I think we can take it to another level, to be honest with you."
That’s what Monty Williams warned after the Suns latest win over the Magic. And maybe he’s right.
The recent addition of the 'Twin Time' Set is proof that Coach Monty continues to ensure his offense is evolving. While Williams & Jones both clearly value the concept of continuity, the Suns Head Coach refuses to let his system become stale. There is a synergy at play off the court within that relationship. James is tasked with building the team in his view but as for seeing it through, that one is on Monty.
Similarly, Bridges & Johnson continue to grow together too. On the court, the partnership between the 'Twins' seems to share a kindred likeness to that of the GM & Coach. A journey of growth. An understanding of one another. A common goal.
The Phoenix Front Office have already invested a lot in Bridges & Johnson. In the beginning, both became Suns after draft day trades giving up further assets. Over the course, other wings have been traded away to open up playing time for the pair. And now after the deadline, the 'Twins' are linked again with the responsibility of taking on a greater offensive burden.
Last time out, I speculated Ayton might be on the verge of a breakout. Oh & by the way, the Suns Center has hit 17 of 19 hook shots since. If that continues & the 'Twins' can extend their own recent run of form, Phoenix might already have what it takes behind the elite level stars in Booker & Paul.
When the season draws to a close, the why question will meet its eventual fate. For Jones & Co though, the answer might have been as simple as pondering yet another why. Why spend even further when your original investment is just about to boom with a huge return? For us Suns fans, god I hope they are right!
And if you want to watch all of the above clips (both from the video & GIFs) again uninterrupted, you can click the YouTube link below.
I’ve hit you with enough content in this Issue, so I’ll spare you any extra OT reading. But I do want something from you - feedback! Feel free to drop it in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter. Here’s some items I am looking for:
Thoughts on the new video addition & old GIFs format.
Topics you’d like to see covered for the rest of the season.
Questions you might have for the next podcast with Max.