In the buildup to a close NBA Coach of the Year race between Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks and Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns, a narrative arose that seemed to favor Thibodeau -- who eventually won: The Knicks were a Thibodeau team, the Suns a Chris Paul team.
That felt unfair to New York's players and Phoenix's coaches. It was impossible to watch Phoenix's evisceration of the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals on Monday and not appreciate the job Williams and his staff (and his players) have done crafting perhaps the league's most sophisticated pick-and-roll attack. It was painstaking work, requiring high-level synchronicity and total buy-in into some non-glamour aspects of NBA offense.
At the start of the season, you could see the Suns searching to maximize Paul and Devin Booker. The two star guards bring overlapping skill sets. Both love running the pick-and-roll, and snaking their way into long 2s. Both are skilled passers and 3-point shooters, so finding basic synergy wasn't that difficult.
But early attempts to go beyond the basic were stilted and uneven. The Suns' offense took on a your turn, my turn vibe. Through 20 games, opponents outscored the Suns by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Paul and Booker on the floor, per NBA.com. The Suns were bad on both ends. They thrived when each star went solo.
They were 11-9, but would not get anywhere interesting until they developed a cohesive ecosystem. Williams kept grinding, playing the stars together so much that in some games they spent few or even zero minutes apart. Short-term logic suggested rigid staggering, but Williams was playing the long game.
It began to click midseason, and then cascaded into an overpowering wave of pick-and-roll destruction as everyone found their sweet spots. After Feb. 15, Phoenix demolished opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with Booker and Paul sharing the floor.
Every trick was on display in Phoenix's rollicking Game 1 win over a Nuggets team that was in theory well-prepared for the Suns' offense after facing a pick-and-roll attack aimed at Nikola Jokic in their first-round win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Denver should have been ready.