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Moving in for the Killbox

The Suns’ young guns are executing the Chris Paul blueprint to perfection against the Bucks, including using his favorite spot on the court to poke holes in their vaunted defense

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Former Suns assistant Cody Toppert spent the summer of 2017 in Houston, helping run drills for James Harden and Chris Paul. When he wasn’t taking blows from the recently paired All-Stars on the court, he took copious notes from the sidelines, detailing Paul’s ability to crisscross wherever he wanted on the pick-and-roll, to draw fouls seemingly on command.

He watched Paul accelerate and decelerate, cajole his way to the right and left elbows, to what Kobe Bryant called “killboxes”—because “when I get here,” Toppert says, “you’re dead.” Then, Paul would unfurl perfect midrange jumpers, the signature move of a career that’s spanned five teams over 16 years.

“There’s nothing random about his game,” Toppert says.

Toppert was gone before the Rockets’ season started, tapped to coach the Northern Arizona Suns, Phoenix’s G League affiliate. A year later, he moved to the Suns proper, tasked with advancing the development of a hungry third-year star named Devin Booker.

Toppert had the blueprint, and Booker dove in. Booker mastered Paul’s patented rip-through and learned to save it for when the team was in the bonus so he could get to the free throw line. He learned to trap opponents behind him with his butt in the pick-and-roll, giving him time to assess. And while Paul scaled back his midrange game on the analytics-minded Rockets, Booker learned to snake the pick-and-roll and attack those killboxes, working on elbow jumpers and faders with a foot in the paint.

In Sprawlball, Kirk Goldsberry had a different name for killboxes: Area 31, because between 2013-14 and 2015-16, players only made 31 percent of their shots there. It was with this math in mind that Mike Budenholzer refashioned the Bucks’ defense when he took over in 2018. Milwaukee limited opponents to historically low rates by letting them take their best shots from the court’s worst spots—preventing layups at all costs, then 3s, then anything in between.

Through two games of the NBA Finals, that math hasn’t held up. In Game 1, the Suns got it going from everywhere, including the free throw line. In Game 2, the Bucks responded by sagging into the paint more. That strategy worked like gangbusters in the first quarter, as the Bucks outscored the Suns 20-0 in the paint. But the Suns won the gamble, shooting a scorching 20-for-40 from the 3-point line and supplementing their lack of layups with looks from the killboxes:

Mikal Bridges’s game is built on inversions. He entered Villanova as a scorer and left a super role player, the perfect 3-and-D specialist to foil Booker’s and Paul’s midrange hunting. The Bucks, well aware of his particular set of skills, had no interest in giving him his third triple of the game. So when he caught the ball in the left corner in the second quarter of Game 2, P.J. Tucker beelined to him.

But Bridges wasn’t even thinking about shooting. He attacked Tucker’s closeout, forcing Bryn Forbes to meet him at the baseline. Almost all options were exhausted; Budenholzer’s scheme was executed as intended. That’s when Bridges planted 8 feet from the rim, jumped backward, twisted in the air to square his body, and nailed a jumper in the killbox.

Next, he slipped a screen and found open space on the baseline, nailing a 17-footer. He opened the second half attacking another closeout, dribbling toward the paint and fading to his left, over Brook Lopez’s extended arms.

With every shot, Bridges wasn’t just adding to his 27-point playoff career high; he was unlocking the power of the midrange game—the freedom it bestows on players willing to master its lost art, the way it turns the court into a more versatile playground. Every time Bridges attacked a closeout, he carved his own path closer to the rim. He could fade to the right elbow or the left, or fake the short jumper and go up and under like he did on Khris Middleton later in the game.

The longer Phoenix’s run has gone on, the more fuel has been given to the notion that Paul picked these young underachievers up by their bootstraps and told them about the good news. Suns fans know Booker was snaking the pick-and-roll long before Paul arrived, but when the team is sporting a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio through two Finals games and beating the Bucks with Paul’s patented shots, it’s hard not to wonder if they’ve picked up his traits by osmosis.

With six of their 11 Game 2 turnovers somehow coming from Paul himself, these days Paul’s teammates are even out-Pauling him: Cam Johnson, in the second quarter, argued with a referee and had a call overturned; Bridges pulled up on a dime from 10 feet; Booker ripped through on unassuming souls. The team leads the NBA in free throw percentage and hardly ever misses a rotation on defense. Booker and Paul are two walking timeouts, saving Monty Williams a few extra whistles a game by fueling well-timed runs. Together, the starters are five connected pieces who never lose sight of time and score, who eke out every edge, hustling hucksters who leave nothing to chance.

Bridges’s progression culminated in the game’s signature play: a 10-pass frenzy—including four jump passes—that started when Paul leapt into the air with nowhere to go and found Booker cutting. Within 17 seconds, the Suns threw nine more passes, worked the ball around the perimeter twice until, finally, Bridges readied a shot in the paint over Jrue Holiday’s outstretched arms—and then, at the last second, flung the ball to Deandre Ayton, who finished the lob and got the and-1.

Bridges and Booker reflected on the play after the game, agreeing it was the most pumped they’d ever been in a basketball game. They were bathing in their own manifestation of basketball nirvana, a high they’ve been chasing since training camp. The singular satisfaction of this kind of collective synchronicity is impossible to describe, a kind of oneness that can only be felt. So it makes sense that after the game, Booker and Bridges took to the postgame podium together, where Booker sang his teammate’s praises. “People still try to label him as a 3-and-D guy, and that’s not even close to the case.

“I think he stole the going-left fade from me a little bit,” Booker continued. “I think he took that out of my book.” He laughed, perhaps not remembering where he got it from.