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Sunday’s 130-126 win over the Dallas Mavericks provided the Phoenix Suns with their biggest test yet since acquiring Kevin Durant. And while three games is a small sample size, KD is already proving to be a seamless fit.
As one of the most adaptable NBA superstars of all time, it was bound to happen at some point. But the immediacy of this transition process is downright frightening, and it hints at what this Suns squad might be able to do once everyone gets more acclimated.
Kevin Durant in his first 3 games with the Suns:
29-42 FG (69%)
7-13 3P (53.8%) pic.twitter.com/ydYkyTd6M3
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 5, 2023
In their first 49 minutes together, the Suns’ new starting lineup of Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Josh Okogie and Deandre Ayton is a +38 total, shooting 49-for-87 from the field (56.3 percent) and 16-for-34 from beyond the arc (47.1 percent).
According to NBA.com, their 129.4 offensive rating, 92.2 defensive rating and +37.3 Net Rating would lead the league in each category by a substantial margin. Among all five-man lineups in the entire NBA that have logged at least 49 minutes together, the Suns’ new starting five ranks 15th in O-rating, ninth in D-rating and fourth in Net Rating.
Granted, 49 minutes is a minuscule hurdle to clear, but that’s what’s so scary: This group has a chance to maintain otherworldly levels of efficiency as they continue to build chemistry, at which point they’ll leave some of these other fluky, seldom-used lineups behind in their volume of minutes together.
Playing against the 22nd-ranked defense of the Charlotte Hornets and the 24th-ranked defense of the Dallas Mavericks certainly helps, but the seventh-ranked Chicago Bulls weren’t spared from this scorching-hot offense either. There simply aren’t many teams that will be able to stop Phoenix, and three games in, it’s worth looking at how KD makes the Suns offense so unfair (aside from the obvious of “he’s a really good scorer”).
To that end, let’s examine five examples that illustrate how Durant has immediately fit in, how the Suns are playing off him so well, and how KD is already finding ways to inject what he does best into one of the league’s best offensive systems.
1. Off-ball spacing opens up the interior
Kevin Durant is shooting 7-for-13 from 3-point range (53.8 percent) as a Sun, and before that, he had knocked down 37.6 percent of his triples with the Brooklyn Nets. For his career, he’s made 38.4 percent of his triples.
Suffice it to say, you can’t give a guy with a 7-foot frame and a 7-foot-5 wingspan any space, because he’s more than capable of elevating over most challenges and drilling it anyway.
The Suns are certainly using that to their advantage, running sets with greater ease thanks to the driving lanes that Durant’s gravity opens up. On the PHNX Suns pod last week, we broke down one such example from the Charlotte game.
On this play, KD spaces the floor on the left wing, which opens up a Booker drive as he curls around staggered screens. Since Durant has been hitting 40 percent of his looks from that spot this season, Booker gets into the lane with zero weak-side help from KD’s man, Gordon Hayward. The result is Booker baiting the low man into biting on a fake shot attempt, at which point he finds Ayton for a dump-off pass and an easy bucket at the rim.
The Suns need to do a better job of keeping DA more engaged with touches throughout the game, but it’s hard to fault the process too much; their best two players are scoring at unbelievably efficient, high-volume levels, and defenses are always going to try to take away Ayton’s rolls since his looks at the basket represent the most efficient shot on the floor.
With that being said, when defenses cling to KD on the perimeter, some of the Suns’ sets usually open things up for the big fella. Take this example from the Mavs game on their first play of the game, where Booker comes off an elbow screen from DA. Paul feeds Booker the ball in his sweet spot, attracting a double from Dallas.
As Ayton rolls, Josh Green is practically glued to Durant in the weak-side corner. That should be his help in tagging the roller, but because he’s so preoccupied with giving KD zero breathing room, he’s late, and DA gets a completely uncontested dunk:
On this play, Josh Okogie sets a fake screen on the ball-handler, CP3, which momentarily distracts Kyrie Irving before Paul comes off another screen in the opposite direction from Ayton. Durant flanks Paul to his left on the wing, and again, Green is terrified of giving him any space.
So instead of seeing another help defender as he drives to the middle of the floor, all Chris Paul has to worry about is Dwight Powell in the drop. Ayton rolls past Irving, and even as the Mavs execute a successful scram switch to put someone taller on DA, Luka Doncic is no match for him once Ayton seals and rises up for the jump hook:
It doesn’t appear like much in real time, but that defender has to stay plastered on Durant, which opens up driving lanes for CP3 and Booker coming off those screens.
Even when the defense successfully takes away Ayton on the roll, that usually means Booker or Paul can get to their favorite spots in the midrange, since KD’s off-ball gravity takes away some of the help defense they’re used to seeing there:
2. Kevin Durant double drags are unfair
The Suns are already using Durant to great effect in double drag screens, where the ball-handler comes off two staggered screens set at more of a horizontal angle than the usual vertical one. That creates an advantage of not allowing the screener’s man to see the pick coming and call it out ahead of time, with one screener rolling and another popping out to the 3-point line.
Suffice it to say that Phoenix now has an unfair advantage in double drag sets with an elite roll man like DA and an elite shooter with tons of gravity like KD.
The poor Bulls found this out the hard way on Friday. On all three of these plays, Chicago does a decent job containing the initial actions. Paul comes off the staggered screens heading to his right, with his defender (Patrick Beverley or Zach LaVine) immediately switching onto Durant to cover a pop-out 3. Durant’s man (Patrick Williams) chases CP3 to prevent an easy pull-up, and Ayton’s man (Nikola Vucevic) drops, straddling the line between showing against Paul’s pull-up middy while also leaving space to switch back onto DA as he rolls.
So what does the Point God do? He pinpoints the Bulls’ weak-side help defender over-committing to tagging the roll, and as soon as he sees that guy put one or two feet in the paint, he zips a one-handed pass off the dribble to the corner.
DeMar DeRozan, Coby White and Zach LaVine all make the same mistake on nearly identical possessions, and Paul picks them apart each time, leading to open 3s for Booker and Okogie:
The commentator is correct in his impulse to never leave Devin Booker; through three games alongside Durant, Booker is averaging 36.0 points per game on .560/.500/.778 shooting splits. But on a play like that, what else can you do? Not many defenses have the personnel to avoid conceding something on plays like this.
Booker is still making tough shots too, but with all the attention KD commands, he’s more than doubled the amount of catch-and-shoot 3s and wide-open 3s he’s taken on a per-game basis compared to the rest of this season.
The connection of this superstar duo will be worth a deeper dive in the near future, but for now, these double drag sets provide a good indicator of how unfair this offense is to defend now.
3. Getting off double-teams early
While Booker has shown immense growth in his ability to counter double-teams, Durant is on a whole different playing field. Not only has he been seeing doubles for a much longer period of time in his Hall-of-Fame career, but he’s also got the size and length to make quick reads out of those traps as soon as he feels them coming.
It may not sound like much, but the fact that the NBA’s 13th all-time leading scorer is so willing to get off the ball early when he’s blitzed is no small thing. It takes an immense amount of trust for a scorer of his caliber to allow his teammates to play in those 4-on-3 advantages, and that’s especially true when he’s only been playing with this new group for a week.
In any case, Durant loves to size up the defense, taking his time as he probes for weakness. Opponents will often crack underneath the weight of that tension, sending a double thinking that they have to blitz him now or else they’ll never get a golden opportunity like it again.
It’s all calculated plotting on Durant’s part. Here, he sees it coming from a mile away and fires a pass to the trapper’s man on the perimeter. Cam Payne then makes the selfless play, turning down a good shot for a great one and zipping the ball past a rotating defender to the corner, where Damion Lee buries the 3:
Durant is also pretty good about forcing the issue, using his gravity to attract defenders like a magnet before making the right read to an open teammate.
Sometimes he’ll get the direct assist, like this plain-as-day drive-and-kick out to Lee in the corner:
Other times, it’ll be more subtle, like when he backed down Beverley near the 3-point line, drew the attention of Williams, and immediately threw a bounce pass to CP3 at the top of the key. That got the Bulls’ defense in rotation, at which point Ayton and Okogie set sneaky back screens for Booker in the corner.
The result? Another wide-open triple for Book, and the type of Durant hockey assist that will become common, especially if the Suns continue to run clever little actions like this on the second side:
4. Kevin Durant, post hub
Traditional post-ups can feel more old-school in a pace-and-space league, but they still serve a purpose if A) You have a player with adequate ball-handling, post foot work and size to take advantage of mismatches on the block, or B) The player in question attracts extra attention and knows how to pass out of doubles.
As we’ve already covered, Durant qualifies for both sets of criteria. Don’t send a double when he catches the ball on the extended block, and he’s in the 99th percentile in points per possession on post-up plays, per The BBall Index.
Send a double, and he’ll sense it early, immediately countering with a pass back out to his nearest outlet. The Suns’ smart perimeter players know how to hunt the open look from there:
Again we see Booker and Okogie benefitting from the types of wide-open looks they’ll enjoy for the rest of the season. Book can obviously knock them down, and Okogie will need to prove he can too in order to keep playoff defenses from giving him the Tony Allen treatment. Against the Bulls, he did exactly that (5-for-10). Against the Hornets and Mavs…not so much (0-for-10).
Either way, the Suns have other shooters they can turn to in those spots if Okogie regresses, like Terrence Ross, Damion Lee or Sunday’s bench hero, Ish Wainright. And if they cleverly lift Booker up from the corner with a second-side screen like the one in the third play from the above clip, it might not matter anyway.
Combine Durant’s post hub utility and his penchant for getting off the ball fast in the face of double-teams, not to mention his innate gravity, and it’s not surprising to see the Suns shoot 58.9 percent from the floor and 49.1 percent from 3 whenever he’s on the floor.
5. KD. GETS. BUCKETS.
I know, I know: I said we’d stay away from “he’s a really good scorer” territory. But Durant’s malleability to get buckets within the Suns’ elbow sets and take over possessions with isolation scoring deserves its own recognition.
Phoenix was dangerous over the last few weeks with Mikal Bridges getting to the “Mikal-bow.” As good as he was (and continues to be in Brooklyn), Durant is perhaps the greatest midrange scorer of all time for a reason. These types of looks from the elbows are just downright mean:
Durant has always had a good feel for when his team was going through a lull and needed an injection of scoring. It’s no surprise he’s carried that trait with him to Phoenix, but how quickly he’s been able to implement it is fairly stunning.
Against Charlotte, when the Hornets cut the Suns’ lead to six with 10:44 to go in the fourth quarter, Durant scored the next nine points for Phoenix, pushing their advantage back into double figures. Against Chicago, when the Bulls turned an 11-point deficit at the end of the first quarter into a four-point halftime lead, KD set the tone for the second half, scoring seven of the Suns’ first nine points to start the third period.
And Sunday in Dallas, Durant scored 21 of his game-high 37 points in the second half, including 10 straight in the third quarter after the Mavs opened up an eight-point lead; a 3-pointer to put Phoenix up by one with 3:04 left in the game; a jumper to put the Suns up by two with 12 seconds remaining; and the free throws to ice the game with three seconds left.
We can break down X’s and O’s all day long, but at a certain point, there’s just no way to describe individual greatness other than acknowledge it with the awe and respect it deserves:
“I’ll ask him like, ‘Hey, where do you like the ball?’ or whatever, and Kev’s like, ‘Anywhere,’” coach Monty Williams said. “We’re just trying to figure out efficient ways to help him integrate without changing too much of what we do.”
Kevin Durant a perfect fit for the Suns’ system, as both he and Williams understand his gravitational pull and playmaking abilities that will make defenses pay for giving him extra attention.
But when the offense breaks down, the Suns have another bona fide bucket-getter who can engineer high-quality looks at any time…and is already feeling comfortable in doing so.
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