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That’s why you trade for Kevin Durant.
You’d hear it whenever Durant hit a big shot late, swatted a shot at the rim, threw down a monster dunk or hit a ridiculously tough jumper. It’s a phrase that’s been heard around the Valley since Durant joined the Phoenix Suns, but Game 2 of their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets served as a reminder that it hasn’t been used as frequently as expected.
That’s not to imply the Suns were wrong to trade for Kevin Durant; that part is a no-brainer. But in Monday’s 97-87 rock fight that left the Suns on the wrong side of a 2-0 playoff matchup in the Rocky Mountains, Kevin Durant had a rockier night than anyone, when there was a golden opportunity to have an entire fanbase singing the refrain again:
That’s why you trade for Kevin Durant.
Unfortunately, with Phoenix in dire need of offensive production against the top seed in the Western Conference, Durant managed just 24 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 10-of-27 shooting, including a dismal 2-for-12 from 3-point range.
“They were good looks, just didn’t go down,” Durant said, echoing the theme of the night. “I couldn’t knock ‘em down. Felt like they were good leaving my hands, but it is what it is.”
Aaron Gordon deserves a ton of credit for his tremendous defense on Durant throughout the game, but with all due respect to Aaron Gordon, this is Kevin-Freaking-Durant we’re talking about. As in, “this is why you trade for Kevin Durant,” Kevin Durant.
That unassailable trump card version, that ultimate weapon who can’t be stopped and can take over a playoff series as the best player on the floor, hasn’t had his moment in the sun yet.
Leading up to Game 1, Durant was asked whether the Suns had seen the best of him yet. He was coming off a series where he averaged 28.4 points and 6.2 assists per game on 51.8 percent shooting, but somehow, it still felt like Phoenix could do a better job of keeping him involved and fully harnessing his all-time scoring ability.
Durant, however, was confused by the questioning,
“I feel like I’ve been involved and impacted the game since I’ve been here,” he countered. “I might not score every time down or create something every time down, but I think I’ve been impactful. Some of my best games of my career have been a quiet 25-30 point night. I think I’ve been great in those games.
“Who knows what you might see? I think that’s the beauty of my game, that I can adapt to play any style or any way and contribute to a team winning without having to make every possession about myself. So we’ll see what happens though.”
Then he chuckled.
“But hopefully I can go out and get you one of those nights.”
For now, Suns fans will have to keep waiting.
The timing for a rare off night couldn’t have been worse, since it was compounded by everyone else’s struggles aside from Devin Booker (35 points, 14-of-29 shooting, 4-of-8 from deep) and, to a lesser extent, Deandre Ayton (14 points, 7-of-10 shooting). Outside of KD, Book and DA, the rest of the Suns managed just 14 points on 7-of-29 shooting, including 0-for-11 from deep.
As a team, the Suns shot 40 percent from the field, 19.4 percent from downtown and only got to the free-throw line five times. According to NBA.com, they were a dreadful 3-for-20 on shots classified as “open” or “wide open.” And to add insult to injury, in 19 career playoff games where Durant has taken at least 27 shots, he’s only shot 37 percent or worse four times. Game 2 was such a night, and it doomed Booker to reassume the role he’d been carrying for years before Chris Paul arrived.
This, of course, came after a Game 1 performance where Durant did have it flowing offensively, but offset his 29 points and 14 rebounds on 12-of-19 shooting with 7 turnovers.
“He just missed a ton of shots, but we got a lot of the shots we wanted,” coach Monty Williams said. “He and Book took most of the shots, we just didn’t shoot a great percentage tonight. And that kind of stuff happens. They only scored 97 points. Our defense was much better tonight, we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole.”
The fact that Game 2 was extremely winnable makes such a letdown even tougher to swallow. Phoenix’s process was there on Monday in a way that was absent from their Game 1 blowout loss, making plenty of adjustments for Game 2.
They attacked the pick-and-roll with intention and crisp ball movement. They won the possession game, taking 19 more shots than Denver. They let it fly from deep, hoisting 31 3-pointers after only taking 23 in Game 1. And their defense, which saw Jamal Murray go off for 34 points on Saturday, held the Nuggets’ walking heat check in check, limiting him to just 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
“As a team, we felt like we played a little soft [in Game 1],” Okogie said. “We definitely brought the physicality to the game today, and a lot of guys were off. Everybody was kind of off today except our guys and the big guy over there. But I feel like we just gotta keep bringing that, just so they know that every time they’re gonna play against us, it’ll be a hard-fought battle.”
Game 2 was far more competitive and certainly a hard-fought battle, but also an opportunity squandered for Phoenix. The Suns generated 31 triples, took 19 more shots than their opponent, held Murray to 3-of-15 shooting…and still lost because they only managed 87 points. That would be incredibly demoralizing even without being down 0-2 in the series.
“There are no more victories around this time,” Durant said. “We gotta watch film, see how we can get better for Game 3, protect our home floor.”
After such a disappointing loss, hopefully Booker’s postgame message to the Suns about accepting this challenge rings true.
“That’s the first thing I said when I got in the locker room: You just have to love this shit,” Booker said. “Embrace it. There’s not many people that get the chance to do what we’re doing, playing the highest level of basketball. So compete at the highest level, don’t forget to have fun with it. Let’s get after it every time we get a chance.”
The second unit in particular needs to let that notion sink in. Because regardless of one’s feelings about Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren not getting any burn, it was hard to ignore some painful misses by the bench on makable shots:
Cam Payne finally got some run, but he went 1-for-7 and was a -16 in 17 minutes. Jock Landale provided great energy and hustle plays for a few O-boards, but he didn’t take a single shot against Denver’s small-ball bench lineup. Torrey Craig missed both his 3s and was a -10. And Damion Lee — who provided gravity as a 3-point threat, got his hands on a few tap-outs for offensive rebounds and played in 0.5 — went 0-for-5.
“We need D-Lee to make a few shots, but his spacing is important to us,” Williams said. “We gotta look at that group and see if there’s somebody else that could help.”
All in all, the Suns bench scored a grand total of 4 points among 6 players who logged a combined 71 minutes. Even so, Williams felt the second unit did a better job in the second quarter, where it all fell apart for Phoenix in Game 1.
“I thought Cam came in, he and Jock, they put a lot of pressure on the rim, especially Jock,” Williams said. “And that group was pretty good. I mean, neither team scored much in the first half. We didn’t score much in the second half either, but I thought that group was decent.”
However, “decent” in a low-scoring game still isn’t good enough, and it’s clear the bench production just isn’t cutting it right now. The Suns have the lowest-scoring second unit among all playoff teams, and with Booker and Durant carrying an immense burden, they’ll be needed to perform well at home as the series shifts back to Phoenix.
That’s especially true after Chris Paul left Game 2 in the third quarter with left groin tightness, which leaves his status uncertain for Game 3 at a bare minimum.
“Yeah, it just looked like he was boxing out, and he just came up where he couldn’t push off of it or anything,” Williams said. “So we’re not quite sure what it is right now, but it seems to be something in the groin area. We’ll find out more tomorrow.”
Williams wasn’t sure whether an MRI would be required, but Phoenix’s task of climbing back in this series may have just gotten a lot tougher.
“All we can do is hope he has a speedy recovery,” Booker said. “We’re gonna be behind him, we’re gonna hold it down while he’s out — or if he’s out — and just take it from there.”
Like Durant’s abysmal shooting night, Paul’s Game 2 injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Point God had just knocked down a pair of jumpers and was attacking Denver’s drop coverage with confidence. The ball was moving, and it felt like Phoenix was on the verge of opening up a run to seize control of an ugly game, building an eight-point lead.
But then Paul went down, Durant kept missing, Booker got tired from having to score and playmake, and the Suns’ offense got stagnant.
“We just stopped moving it,” Williams said. “In the first half, and even in the third quarter, we’d run a pick-and-roll, kick it to the backside, and we just played. After Chris went down, it kind of went away a little bit.”
Over the next 17 minutes, the Suns’ eight-point lead turned into a 10-point loss, with Denver closing the game on a 46-28 run.
“Whenever you lose your floor general, it’s definitely a big loss,” Okogie said. “But it’s a next man up league, and I feel like we have more than enough to be able to sustain our runs without Chris.”
If they do, they have yet to show it in these playoffs. With Paul out and Payne being so unreliable, Williams once again had to entrust the offense to his best remaining point guard: Devin Booker. The Suns head coach admitted fatigue from playing dual roles and defending probably got to Book down the stretch.
“I think it’s a lot,” Williams said. “He was probably more tired than he would admit, but with Chris off the floor, it puts a lot of pressure on him. So I gotta figure that out.”
The easiest fix? Kevin Durant going back to looking like the best basketball player in the world again. Whether it was turnovers in Game 1 or a horrendous shooting night in Game 2, KD has yet to submit a signature playoff performance during his Suns tenure.
It feels ridiculous to criticize a guy who’s putting up 27.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game on .504/.359/.961 shooting splits in his first playoff run with the team, but down 0-2, with Paul most likely sidelined by injury and Booker carrying an unsustainable burden, the Suns are approaching the danger zone.
They need to see the finest example yet of why they traded for Kevin Durant.
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