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Phoenix Suns basketball is officially back, and the team kicked off their first bit of action in 150 days with a 130-126 win over the Detroit Pistons in overtime. This Suns preseason opener was more exciting than in years past, however, due to the hype surrounding this team’s Big 3 and totally revamped bench.
Everything in preseason has to be taken with a grain of salt until the games really matter, but there were plenty of things worth noting from Sunday’s matinee matchup. From Phoenix’s superstar trio to their new starting center to a couple of impressive bench performances, here are just a couple of observations from the Suns preseason debut.
1. The Suns’ offense will be unstoppable
At training camp on Friday, coach Frank Vogel reiterated what he’s been saying all summer: He wants the Suns to play faster this year. It’s something Phoenix can do without Chris Paul, but it also creates opportunities to make life easier on the team’s new Big 3, who will see their fair share of traps in the half-court.
“We want to make it difficult for them to be double-teamed, and we want to make sure that we’re spaced appropriately when they are,” Vogel said. “We do want to play with pace. We haven’t really achieved the pace that I want so far early in camp, our guys’ legs are heavy and whatnot. But we do want to play with an up-tempo mindset to get those guys in the open floor, and then in the half-court, we want to get them moving, and not just stationary, waiting for double-teams.”
The message was apparently received loud and clear, because it was on full display during the starters’ minutes for this Suns preseason debut. Josh Okogie got the nod as the fifth starter (which shouldn’t have surprised anyone), and that continuity with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant certainly helped. In the first quarter alone, Phoenix dropped 46 points on 85 percent shooting, with 11 assists on 17 made baskets:
Off misses, steals and even made baskets, the Suns were trying to push the tempo. Whether they were on the ball or flying around off it, the Big 3 helped lead the charge, forcing the issue and catching the Pistons in unfavorable cross-matches.
For all the concerns about whether there’d be enough touches to go around, the Suns’ offense featured a pretty balanced scoring attack between its three stars. Booker finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in 15 minutes, Durant had 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting in 13 minutes, and Bradley Beal chipped in 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on 3-of-5 shooting in 14 minutes.
Having three options who can attack mismatches on switches is going to put opponents in a world of hurt, especially with the way Jusuf Nurkic forces those switches with his sturdy screens.
The interchangeability of this roster and Vogel’s willingness to entrust other players with initiating the break will only add to the offense’s unpredictability.
“We’re gonna have multiple ball-handlers on our break,” Vogel said. “All of our players, 1-4, are being trained how to advance and quarterback the action, because a guy like Josh Okogie or Grayson Allen or Keita Bates-Diop, if they get the ball in the open court and they’re bringing it, we want them to be trained to target the lethal scorers, right? If he’s high, we’re in this action; if he’s in the corner, we’re in that action. So there will be a multiple ball-handler attack.”
A young, rebuilding team like Detroit is unlikely to field a formidable defense this year, but the Suns have only had a week together since Nurkic, Grayson Allen and Nassir Little joined the mix. So yes, Phoenix’s 164.3 offensive rating in the first quarter was a pretty encouraging sign as to how unstoppable this offense is capable of becoming.
2. Suns preseason debut a mixed bag for Jusuf Nurkic
Jusuf Nurkic finished his Suns preseason debut with 5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 turnovers in 15 minutes — hinting at a few notable pros and cons.
On the plus side, the Suns offense was humming when he shared the court with the starters. Almost anyone can look good playing next to Phoenix’s superstar trio, but Nurkic was actively contributing to the team’s pace, running around and setting good screens to create openings for ball-handlers.
Nurkic will open up Phoenix’s pace and playbook in a way Deandre Ayton simply didn’t, and the first half was a promising sign in that respect.
Being willing to put his shoulder in someone’s chest and finish strong around the basket didn’t hurt either:
However, as solid as Nurkic was on the offensive end, the defensive side of the floor left a lot to be desired. This isn’t anything new or unexpected; it was the primary reason for concern when the Suns traded Ayton in the first place. It remains an area for concern that will become more prevalent come playoff time.
Two quarters in a preseason game isn’t the end-all, be-all on either side of the spectrum, but it was clear how Nurkic’s flat-footedness could become a problem in pick-and-roll coverages.
Expecting him to keep up with someone like Cade Cunningham on the break is unfair, but it speaks to how often he’ll be targeted and attacked off the bounce whenever opponents can line up that mismatch:
Nurkic had a problem staying on the court against a younger, faster, physical Pistons squad, picking up three fouls in the first seven minutes of action. He then picked up his fourth foul in the second quarter, and it became clear the Pistons were angling their pick-and-roll attack at him directly.
The 29-year-old has only been in Phoenix for a week, so there’s hope Vogel will be able to build a respectable defense around his slower-footed anchor. There’s only so much strategizing Vogel can do in that respect, but it’s worth noting that Nurkic wasn’t as much of a glaring issue when he shared the court with Phoenix’s starters.
The length, talent and intelligence of that group could help compensate for some of Nurkic’s flaws on that end, and it wasn’t all bad. There were a few possessions where Nurk was locked in and held up his end of the bargain:
This is the No. 1 problem area to keep an eye on as the season unfolds, but there’s hope the passing ability Nurkic brings offensively will outweigh his shortcomings on the other end.
3. The bench is in a good place with Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe
We’re not going to jump the gun on any overreactions from one preseason game, but since we’ve been saying it all summer, let’s reiterate: The Suns bench will be better than people think.
Or, at the very least, they should have eight trustworthy players in their rotation when the playoffs roll around. Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe are already making their cases in that respect.
Aside from Vogel name-dropping Gordon as a locker room leader for this group, rumblings out of the first week of training camp indicate Allen and Watanabe have impressed so far in practice. Those three wasted little time in showcasing what they can bring to the table.
Gordon joined Allen as the Suns’ first subs off the bench midway through the first quarter, and although he only shot 2-for-6 from the field, all of his misses came from the area of the floor where he’ll help Phoenix the most — 3-point range. His efficiency from beyond the arc will be significantly better than his 0-for-4 outing on Sunday, but his willingness to attack the rim was even more encouraging.
For a Suns team that’s ranked near the bottom of the league in shots at the rim over the last few seasons, Gordon’s ability to put his head down and get to the basket is extremely helpful. Although he’s lost a step at age 34, he’s still strong enough to play bully ball and force the issue. Gordon went 2-for-2 inside the arc and got to the free-throw line four times in his 13 minutes, finishing with 8 points and 3 assists.
As for Allen, how about 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting in just 20 minutes for the birthday boy?
Allen thrived as a spot-up shooter, knocking down 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, but he also impressed as a shot creator and playmaker. With the way he was able to probe Detroit’s defense in pick-and-roll and work his way into easier shots with some nifty footwork, Allen’s performance called to mind how Frank Vogel described him at Media Day.
“A lot of ‘irritant’ type of players in the NBA aren’t as skilled as Grayson Allen is,” Vogel explained. “That’s what I love about what he brings to the table. He brings that scrappy mindset, but he’s an elite 3-point shooter, he’s an elite playmaker, he can attack the basket. He’s got a great IQ for making the extra pass. So you have a rare combination of a really scrappy player that’s highly skilled.”
The Suns were hurting for some extra playmaking with the all-bench lineups later in the game, which is why the hamstring tightness that sidelined Jordan Goodwin was such a bummer. But with the way Allen was contributing off the bench, either playing alongside the Big 3 or leading the charge for the second unit, the Suns have to feel good about his inclusion in last week’s trade.
“The ball is moving well, they’re driving and kicking really well,” Allen said of the Suns’ offense during training camp. “So when the ball is flowing like that, it’s kind of easy for me to fill in, drive and kick with them, get open shots. That’s been pretty seamless so far.”
Allen isn’t the only guy who’s fit in seamlessly, of course. Yuta Watanabe, who first checked in for Durant about eight minutes into the game, had an impressive outing despite only shooting 2-for-6 from downtown.
His first 3 was cash, and it was pretty evident how many open corner 3s he’s going to get playing with this group.
Watanabe wanted to sign with the Suns specifically so he could rejoin Kevin Durant, and KD had nothing but good things to say about their chemistry this week in training camp.
“Such a bright basketball player that it just feels like he’s always in the right spot,” Durant said. “Plays extremely hard on the defensive side of the ball as well. And then on top of that, his jump shot is getting better and better each year. So we hope for big things for him this season, and I love that everybody has been enjoying the way he’s been playing in practice thus far.”
It’s not just Durant who already has good chemistry with Watanabe, however. Vogel mentioned Booker as someone who’s found him whenever the defense overcommits.
“You definitely see it out there, and he’s got chemistry with Book as well,” Vogel said. “Book knows to find him. Every time he’s got the ball, he’s got an antenna where Yuta is, so if there’s any kind of overhelp, we’re looking for him.”
Watanabe finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, and perhaps scariest of all, he was getting midrange looks off the bounce too:
If this is the Yuta Watanabe Phoenix gets, the Suns are going to be unstoppable on offense.
The Pistons may have outscored the third string by 20 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime, but between Gordon, Allen and Watanabe, the Suns’ bench is already off to a promising start.
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