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How Kevin Durant's arrival will help Chris Paul pick Suns opponents apart

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 3, 2023

In the fourth quarter of the Phoenix Suns’ 128-118 win on Sunday, Chris Paul realized the Oklahoma City Thunder had committed a cardinal sin — twice! — on the defensive end.

They had left Kevin Durant unattended in the corner.

Both times, Paul threaded the needle to a guy who’s made nearly 43 percent of his corner 3s throughout his Hall-of-Fame career. And both times, Durant made them pay, helping the Suns maintain their distance from a desperate OKC squad.

“That’s just good basketball,” Kevin Durant told AZ Central’s Duane Rankin after the game. “I was expecting us to play good ball, making the extra pass. Sometimes I’m not expecting my defender to leave me like that, but CP can make any pass on the floor, and he was able to find me there.”

Sunday marked the first three corner 3-point attempts of Durant’s Suns tenure, but there’s a reason for that: Teams typically don’t give KD enough space to breathe on the perimeter, let fire off uncontested shots.

That same tenet helps explain how Mikal Bridges attempted nearly as many corner 3s over the last two years in Phoenix as Durant has over his entire 15-year career. KD has undeniable gravity as a scorer, and that magnetic pull makes everyone’s lives around him easier.

Late in last week’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the threat of Durant in the weak-side corner — even in a home debut where he shot 5-for-18 — opened up the Spain pick-and-roll. With KD’s defender unable to help in the lane, Paul found Deandre Ayton for a game-sealing alley-oop:

“We were just running our middle-third pick-and-roll action,” Suns coach Monty Williams explained. “You call it Spain, I don’t know why, ’cause it was created in America. But that action for us is an action that takes advantage of all those guys’ skill-set.”

After the game, Chris Paul prophetically mentioned that the Suns have a number of options they can cycle through on a night-to-night basis.

“At the end of the game, it was me and DA in pick-and-roll,” he said. “It might be KD and Book [next time]. But I think with our team, we got so many guys that’s willing and able to do whatever.”

Fast-forward to Sunday, and the Thunder had just gotten burned two times in a row on that action by helping too far off Durant. So what did the Point God do? He ran it again, only this time, he found DA on the roll, capitalizing on Durant’s defender sticking closer on him in the corner.

It isn’t the first time Paul has located open teammates as a result of KD’s gravity, and it certainly won’t be the last. Just watch how Durant’s defenders refuse to help off him in these examples, opening up rolls, seals, back cuts or pop-outs for midrange jumpers and 3s that CP3 is always ready for:

“Some teams guard it differently,” Williams said. “Some people switch it, some teams will blitz Chris. He just really good at reading every coverage, and so I think that helps.”

The last highlight in the clip above is a perfect example of CP3’s elite basketball I.Q. and his ability to make those reads on the fly. In that middle-third pick-and-roll, Bismack Biyombo sets a ball-screen for Paul, who engages DeAndre Jordan off the dribble. Devin Booker pops up to the top of the key, taking his defender with him.

With Durant in the strong-side corner and Paul dribbling in that vicinity, Aaron Gordon can’t help off KD. Gordon staying in the corner gives Paul plenty of space to keep driving past Jordan, forcing Reggie Jackson to sag off his man in the weak-side corner and tag the rolling Biyombo. Paul recognizes this, and immediately threads the needle to Jackson’s man, Josh Okogie, in the corner for 3.

The Suns are aware of how they can use Durant’s gravity to their advantage, and with playmakers like Paul, Booker and Cam Payne capable of making those reads, it’s an environment they want to expand.

“It just depends on what the defense wants to do,” Williams explained. “If they leave [Durant], you’re leaving one of the best shooters in the league. If they don’t, then maybe it creates opportunities for the guys in the pick-and-roll. So I wouldn’t call him a decoy, we’re just kind of using him in that situation. If they leave him, Chris will find him, Book will find him, Cam will, but I think it’s just one of those things that we want to try to grow and exploit.”

There’s no question Durant’s presence opens up opportunities for Devin Booker to attack, but lost in all the excitement of one of the NBA’s highest-scoring duos is what it will do for a 37-year-old surgeon like Chris Paul.

Since the start of March, Paul has tallied 153 assists to just 26 turnovers, giving him a 5.9 assist-to-turnover ratio that would lead the entire league. In six games alongside Durant, CP3 has recorded 55 assists and 13 turnovers. The result has been a worse assist-to-turnover ratio (4.2), but it’s a welcome byproduct of simply being required to do less.

“I know it frees up Chris a lot,” Booker said. “It’s gonna be hard for guys to be picking him up 94 feet every time. So it relieves pressure for everybody.”

All season, the Suns have emphasized other guys like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson initiating offense to keep Paul fresh. The Twins are gone, but between Booker, KD, Payne and even guys like Okogie or Landry Shamet, the Suns have different outlets to provide relief there.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, who knows Paul well from their time together on the LA Clippers, understands how beneficial something like that can be.

“At this point in his career, it’s probably good for him,” Rivers said. “He’s still as smart as they come with the ball, and that’s where he makes his hay. But bringing the ball up the floor every possession all year is taxing. It’s exhausting and people are pressuring him, so putting him off the ball is probably a pretty smart thing at times.”

Of course, Doc isn’t the only coach who’s noticed how Paul can pick and choose his spots now:

If anything, the biggest adjustment has been on Paul to learn new tricks in his 18th NBA season. But as much as spending more time off-ball has forced him to adapt, he’s embraced that role.

“I think Chris has had to adjust more than anybody, having to get off the ball a ton more this year, playing with Cam and Mikal with the ball, Book with the ball, now Kevin’s got the ball,” Williams said. “I think when it’s all said and done this year, it’s gonna pay off for us. I wouldn’t evaluate him with a grade or anything like that, I just love the way he sacrifices for the team.”

Paul has been open about this season being an adjustment process, but he’s also enjoyed coming off screens with a live dribble to either get to his spots or find open teammates when the help defense arrives.

“Offensively, I come off a ball screen, you can’t stunt off,” Paul explained. “You help off, it’s KD, Book.”

Let’s forget about makes and misses for a minute, and instead, focus on process over results. Watch how all the defensive attention on Durant (and Booker) opens up space for Paul to operate off the bounce, giving him high-percentage shots:

When was the last time this older version of Chris Paul had driving lanes like these? In the last clip, CP3 even dribbles right into Durant’s defender before knocking down a tough middy! It’s almost like he’s flaunting his newfound breathing room.

The biggest key to all of this, however, is Paul’s ability to knock down open 3s as a catch-and-shoot weapon. It’s been the biggest part of his adjustment process, and it will represent one of the biggest X-factors come playoff time for Phoenix.

“Yeah, I done practiced it a lot,” Paul said. “A majority of my career, I haven’t been in that situation to be off the ball, so it’s something that is dope to be able to do. I’ve always said I wanted to enjoy that part where you get to catch and shoot it, so it’s happening.”

It certainly is. This season, Paul has drilled a career-high 49.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com. He’s also made a whopping 44.6 percent of his “wide open” 3s, where the nearest defender is six-plus feet away.

“I don’t know, they’re just going in,” he said. “I don’t take too much stake in that, to tell you the truth. If you can shoot, you can shoot. The percentages are what they are. I literally just play.”

It’s taken a while for Paul to accept this new part of his basketball identity at this later stage of his career. Earlier in the season, he routinely turned down catch-and-shoot 3s, trying to make plays for his teammates instead. Eventually, all the Suns’ prodding and encouragement soaked in.

Paul will still turn down the occasional 3 he should take, but because heaving from 3-point range is an elongated chore now for the 37-year-old, he’ll only shoot if he’s open. According to NBA.com, a whopping 211 of his 243 attempts from beyond the arc have either been “open” or “wide open.”

Slowly but surely, his shot profile is becoming the exact type of thing he used to tease Jason Kidd about.

“I used to mess with J-Kidd all the time about that’s how he spent his last two, three years,” Paul joked. “You look at the box score, J-Kidd would have 14 shot attempts, all 3s. You know what I mean? But who knows if that’s gonna be the situation. I think whatever the game calls for, I’ll be ready for. When you play with this much talent, everybody sort of has to adjust here and there, and I think we got a group of guys that are willing and able.”

That’s especially important with the wide-open, blatantly disrespectful 3-point looks he’ll see playing next to KD and Booker. In six games, we’ve already seen plenty of those opportunities. Again, focusing on process over results, these are the types of shots that can make or break a playoff series, depending on how they fall:

Since the start of March, Paul has only made 31.5 percent of his 3s. The good news is he’s still cashed in on 40.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks, upping his volume from 1.4 per game on the season to 1.7 per game over the last four weeks.

In six games alongside Durant, Paul has gone 9-for-31 from deep (29 percent). He’s made 36.8 percent of his “wide open” looks, but only 30.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Six games is a small sample size, but the Suns were wise to persistently encourage him to take those shots.

“Even before we were teammates, I’m like, ‘Why doesn’t he shoot more 3s?'” Booker said. “But he realized that now, he’s letting it go….Open shots are gonna come. We play — to me — a beautiful style of basketball where we tend to get open shots on possessions and open corner 3s, open wing 3s. And we’re just gonna keep trying to just knock those down.”

It’s an X-factor that could make Phoenix’s offense unstoppable come playoff time…or the very thing that proves to be a weak point if they stop falling.

Fortunately, Paul and the Suns have shown every sign of keeping the bigger picture in mind, for a moment just like this. From his off-ball adjustment process to being cautious with bringing him back from injury earlier in the season, everyone’s on the same page about keeping CP3 healthy enough to capitalize on the most talent he’s ever had around him.

“He’s just a master at understanding the situation,” Williams said. “And when he’s fresh, he looks like a guy that can attack the basket and knock down 3s.”

Whether it’s in the midrange, as a catch-and-shoot 3-point threat or as the Hall-of-Fame playmaker he is, Paul is in an ideal position. By letting others do the heavy lifting, he may be able to finally get the one thing still missing from his resume.

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