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The latest Phoenix Suns preseason game didn’t feature a fully healthy roster yet again, but for the third straight time, coach Frank Vogel was given lot to think about in terms of his rotation.
Preseason is all about exploring different lineup combinations as guys fight for playing time, and that’s especially true for a roster that’s basically brand-new outside of four or five players.
Despite Bradley Beal sitting out with lower back tightness, Grayson Allen and Josh Okogie resting and Drew Eubanks missing the game due to a left ankle sprain, the Suns showed a lot of encouraging signs in Thursday’s 122-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The big storyline was Deandre Ayton and Jusuf Nurkic facing their former teams for the first time, but in addition to that big man matchup, there were a few useful observations to take away from the third Suns preseason game.
1. Jusuf Nurkic Proves why Suns wanted him
The full merit and impact of a trade can’t be determined by twenty-some minutes of preseason action. But Nurkic’s best performance so far with the Suns sure came at an admittedly convenient moment, against his former team and the guy Phoenix traded for him.
More importantly, there were more glimpses of why the Suns valued Nurk and his specific skill-set, especially in regards to his fit with the Big 3.
In 21 minutes in the first half, Nurkic racked up 17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block, shooting 6-for-8 overall, 1-for-1 from deep and 4-for-5 from the free-throw line. Ayton, meanwhile, put up 7 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block on 3-of-6 shooting in 23 minutes.
Head-to-head comparisons are meaningless in this context, but it was pretty glaring watching Nurkic make the exact types of plays Ayton struggled with for years. Nurk’s comfort with playmaking and handling the ball was on full display alongside Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon, and even in a preseason game, his 5 assists were a benchmark Ayton rarely hit in a Suns uniform.
Hitting Durant in full stride on this type of fast break was the flashy example:
But in truth, a comparatively subtle feed to Durant for 3 was more instructive as to the value Nurk provides. When Booker got double-teamed on Nurkic’s screen, he quickly fed the big fella with a pocket pass.
Now watch as Nurkic goes through his progressions without skipping a beat, faking a pass to the cutting Nassir Little to draw in the help defender before kicking it out to a wide-open KD:
Nurkic’s playmaking in the short roll (and in general) is something we’ve covered in-depth already, but it bears repeating: The offense won’t grind to a halt when he touches the ball, which makes him a notable upgrade from Ayton in that regard.
Nurk’s physicality and willingness to attack the basket was also noteworthy. He caught the ball in the short roll a few times and either finished strong, got to the free-throw line, or both. He even hit ’em with the (reserved) “too small” gesture!
Defensively, the Suns got better as the night wore on. After getting torched for 40 first-quarter points, they limited Portland to just 15 in the second quarter.
In Phoenix’s first preseason game, Nurkic almost played exclusively in drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. But over the last two games, Vogel has experimented more with playing Nurkic at the level of the screen and pre-rotating the other three defenders to A) give Nurk time to recover to the rolling big and B) generate steals in the confusion.
Phoenix has the length and defensive personnel to try things like this, and while those early rotations weren’t always crisp, they’ll be a work in progress for the time being. Given the defensive expectations for Nurkic, nailing that type of chemistry and getting everyone on a string together will be important.
It certainly wasn’t perfect, and he did get burned a few times, but Nurkic also showed glimpses of activity out on the perimeter against screens, and he got a pair of steals and a block with his verticality and active hands.
2. Jordan Goodwin impresses in Suns preseason debut
Speaking of defense, Phoenix finally got a better look at Jordan Goodwin, who missed the first two Suns preseason games with right hamstring tightness. Before the team’s second preseason game, it sounded like there was no clear timetable for him to return, but fortunately, Goodwin was able to fully practice on Wednesday. His body responded well enough to then make his debut Thursday.
Saben Lee got the start, but Goodwin looked great in the type of bench role he’ll likely occupy. The 24-year-old combo guard put up 9 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block in 15 minutes off the bench, shooting 4-of-6 overall and 1-of-2 from deep.
“Size and physicality,” Vogel said when asked to describe Goodwin. “I think on that side of the ball — he’s got a good floor game offensively in terms of knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass and create, but his size defensively is something definitely that we value.”
Goodwin’s active hands in stripping the ball, his strength and defensive tenacity on the perimeter, his bully ball drives to the rim and this beautiful feed to Udoka Azubuike hinted at a more polished two-way game than he’s been given credit for:
That backcourt rotation is crowded, and someone’s minutes may need to be squeezed between Goodwin, Josh Okogie, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon. It seems like the fifth starting role is Okogie’s job to lose, and both Allen and Gordon have been terrific. Narrowing down the rotation will not be easy.
“Very difficult decisions, and what I like to call good problems for the coach, because all the guys that are here, I believe in,” Vogel said. “And not all of them are gonna be in the rotation, but if one of them falls out for some reason, has an injury or has to miss some time, I really believe in each guy on our team. So I love our depth. It’ll be disappointing for whoever’s not ultimately in the rotation to start, but those guys will stay ready, and I promise you, over an 82-game season, we are going to need every one of them.”
Whether it’s right away or later in the season, there’s a place for another defensive ball hawk like Goodwin, especially with the facilitating and ball-handling he brings on the other end. Surround a guy like that with shooters, and the Suns’ second unit will be far more dangerous than last year, especially when staggered with the Big 3.
3. Suns’ high-powered offense will be scary
Not to recycle observations from the first Suns preseason outing, but…MAN is this offense going to be hard to stop.
We could start with Devin Booker, who’s loudly picked up right where he left off from his scorching-hot playoff run. Book has put up 30 points in 36 minutes of preseason action, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from long range.
The man had a crossover and pull-up 3 so unkind that Bradley Beal was tossing his beanie to the ground in exasperation on the bench:
We could talk about Kevin Durant, who quietly put up 16 points and 6 assists, or how the Suns offense scored 76 points in the first half despite not playing Beal, Allen or Okogie, on a night where KD only shot 6-for-15.
And we could also talk about Eric Gordon, who was truly an unfair signing on a veteran minimum contract. Gordon finished with a team-high 20 points in 18 first-half minutes, shooting 8-for-10 from the floor and 3-for-5 from downtown.
As a defense, what the hell are you supposed to do when Booker catches the defense in rotation and swings it to Durant, who finds Gordon in the corner? Most likely, frantically close out and hope he misses, since the defense did its job in forcing the ball out of Booker and KD’s hands.
Except Gordon has no problem driving, and instead of forcing a stop or a missed 3, the Blazers defense had to watch him coolly finish this pretty up-and-under:
Or how about this one? Booker having the ball in the midrange automatically puts the defense in danger, which is why the Blazers shade over a second defender. Scoot Henderson isn’t in terrible position, but the rookie doesn’t fully comprehend Gordon’s range yet.
Gordon is perfectly comfortable launching five feet from behind the line, so even though the Suns’ spacing isn’t the best, forcing the ball out of Booker’s hands winds up costing Portland a triple:
And then there’s this nasty crossover, which turned Matisse Thybulle, one of the NBA’s best defenders, into a Life Alert commercial. It should be illegal for a 34-year-old to do this, and yet!
Granted, this is only preseason. And much like the last time we saw Booker and Durant play, it was against a team expected to be one of the worst (and youngest) teams in the league.
But after giving up a 40-point first quarter on Thursday, the Suns kicked their defense into high gear and turned the game into a blowout with a 25-5 run to close the half. Those stretches of unstoppable offense are going to frustrate opposing defenses to no end, and it’s truly scary to imagine what Phoenix is capable of once everyone’s healthy and actually getting more reps together.
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