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Ugly win over Bulls in Bradley Beal's return hints at Suns' sky-high potential

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 9, 2023
Bradley Beal returned for the Phoenix Suns against the Chicago Bulls, and his presence was immediately felt, even in an ugly win

Bradley Beal made his long-awaited Phoenix Suns debut Wednesday night, and it probably wasn’t as pretty as anyone envisioned.

Even as the final game of a three-game road trip, the Suns’ 116-115 overtime win over the Chicago Bulls was ugly. Phoenix jumped out to an early 22-4 lead, but the score was somehow tied by halftime. The recurring turnover issue became a problem once again, as the Bulls turned 21 Suns turnovers into 30 points.

However, despite Bradley Beal being limited to 24 minutes as he works his way back into shape, despite Eric Gordon’s 1-for-9 shooting night, and despite barely sqeaking by a Bulls squad that’s likely lottery-bound this season, there were more than a few flashes of what the Suns could look like once they’re finally whole.

“Bradley Beal’s one of the best players in the NBA, so he immediately gives that group a lift,” coach Frank Vogel told PHNX Sports‘ Stephen Pridgeon-Garner. “I just liked the way that he played. Grayson [Allen] played really well, [Jusuf Nurkic] was sharing the basketball when they were delivering the ball to him in the pocket, Keita Bates-Diop was a really good matchup for us with DeMar DeRozan because of his length, and Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant.”

Bradley Beal makes immediate impact

Vogel was right to name multiple contributors from Wednesday night’s win, because on his own, Beal was still clearly working through some rust and getting his wind back. The Suns star finished with 13 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds in his debut, shooting just 3-for-12 from the floor.

However, he also shot 3-for-6 from downtown, and it was obvious how dangerous he’ll be as a spot-up threat when defenses make the mistake of leaving him.

In the first clip, just watch how wide open he is when Chicago’s weak-side defenders fixate on Kevin Durant operating on the other side of the court (kudos to Bates-Diop for the sneaky corner pin). In the second clip, it’s almost unfair having to choose between contesting Beal and Grayson Allen on the 3-point line:

Beal also provided an immediate boost in the playmaking department. His 4 assists to 2 turnovers might not sound like much, but his ability to navigate tight spaces with the ball or squeeze pocket passes to his rolling big men should really help a Suns team that’s been missing its two primary ball-handlers.

Beal’s influence extended to the rest of the roster in less obvious ways. There’s been plenty of concern over Jusuf Nurkic’s 50 percent shooting at the rim to start the season, but Wednesday night, he had his best game in a Suns uniform, finishing with 20 points, 17 rebounds and 8 assists on 8-of-16 shooting.

Having that type of performance while also having two of the Big 3 available is not a coincidence. Just look at how much more space he has to operate on his rolls to the basket when he’s flanked by Kevin Durant and KBD in the corner, along with Allen on the perimeter and Beal hitting him on the timely pass!

When Nikola Vucevic pays too much attention to Beal for just a split-second, Beal makes the defense pay by moving the ball where it needs to go:

Even when Beal’s not directly involved, his gravity makes an impact. In the Chicago set below, Beal sets a screen for KD, who then positions himself for a dribble handoff from Nurkic. With Durant’s defender caught on the screen, Nurkic’s man is forced to step up. That leaves Beal’s defender in a bind with two guys on the ball, Nurk rolling, and Beal glued to the 3-point line.

The threat of Bradley Beal’s 3-point shot pulls his defender too far away from Nurk’s rolling lane to do anything as Durant feeds him for an easy dunk. These are the types of split-second decisions defenders will routinely have to make once the Suns are healthy:

Better defenses will be prepared to rotate and make Phoenix’s offense work, but it’s in these instances where Nurkic’s value as a passer becomes clear.

Just watch as he finds KBD in the corner for 3 on the short roll in the first clip, or how he threads the needle from the top of the key in the second clip, hitting Durant on a backdoor cut after Beal draws the defense’s attention with his own back cut:

And this team doesn’t even have Devin Booker yet!

“I’m really looking forward to when we’re gonna be full-strength for a certain stretch, see how we look like, the turnovers part, having Brad like that who can handle the ball and stuff,” Nurkic said. “So we should be better with that, but definitely, it’s an easier life for me [when they’re healthy].”

Nurkic isn’t the only one. Grayson Allen, who dropped a season-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including a career-high eight 3-pointers, benefitted from the extra spacing all night. The Bulls aren’t exactly world-beaters, but this was a prime example of how wide-freaking-open Allen will be whenever he shares the court with any two members of the Big 3:

“You gotta respect everybody on the floor,” Beal explained after the game. “I try to be a three-level scorer, and I think it makes the floor that much more spaced and gives guys like K — and when Book gets back — more space to create and operate. You gotta really respect everybody out there on the floor, ’cause when Grayson’s out there, you got EG out there, guys who can really shoot and put it on the floor, you gotta pick your poison.”

“Picking your poison” has been a common theme with the Big 3’s scoring and playmaking, combined with Nurkic’s basketball I.Q., but the big question has always been which guy should be the fifth starter. The answer may change throughout the season, as Vogel has promised to experiment with different lineups, but Bates-Diop is making a strong case for himself come playoff time.

His 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks against Chicago may not leap off the stat sheet, but his length on defense causes major problems for opponents. He gave DeRozan fits all night, making a pair of key blocks in the fourth quarter, and he embraces those challenges on the defensive end.

Offensively, the fit wasn’t perfect by any means. On two separate plays where the Bulls trapped Durant on the wing, the Suns swung it around the perimeter until it found Bates-Diop in the corner. The first time, he missed the corner 3. The second time, he smartly attacked the baseline for a layup, but it was waved off due to an offensive foul on Nurkic.

The second instance wasn’t his fault, but both times the Bulls got what they wanted out of doubling Durant in the final two minutes of regulation:

With that being said, Bates-Diop has largely cashed in on his opportunities. He won’t get a ton of shots, but the biggest advantage he has over Josh Okogie as the fifth starter/closer — aside from sheer size — is his ability to capitalize on those looks. Defenses will force guys like Okogie and KBD to beat them, and so far, Okogie hasn’t been able to prove he can make opponents pay for it.

It’s a small sample size, but to start the season, Bates-Diop is 5-for-11 from 3-point range. Coming off a season where he shot a career-high 39.4 percent from deep, sustaining that type of efficiency is his best path to winning the job for the long haul. When the Suns were on the ropes, trailing by 4 points with about a minute left in overtime, KBD’s clutch corner 3 gave them life again:

But even when he’s not drilling big-time shots in crunch-time, he can replicate some of what Okogie does from an effort standpoint too. Bates-Diop is one of those guys who just contributes to winning. Although he underwhelmed in the preseason, it’s easy to envision him fitting alongside the starting group, with a fully healthy Devin Booker, after making hustle plays that could break opponents’ backs:

Good luck defending all of that!

It will take time for the Suns to be whole again. Bradley Beal returning to action was the first step. Now he’ll have to get back in game shape. Then Booker will have to return and do the same thing. Then Vogel will have to iron out his rotation, and those guys will need to build chemistry together over time.

But now that Phoenix is back to .500 and the sky isn’t falling for another few days, it’s easy to look at a narrow, ugly win like the Bulls game and envision this group’s potential.

“Just think about that: We don’t have Booker yet, a guy who scored 32,” Nurkic summed up. “It’s disappointing to me we’re not healthy, but at the same time, I know how much we can be better when you have a star like that coming in probably the next few games.”

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