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It wasn’t pretty, but the Phoenix Suns are 1-0 after a 108-104 win over the Golden State Warriors in Tuesday night’s season opener.
Not only were the Suns missing Bradley Beal due to low back tightness, but they also shot just 44.2 percent overall, getting lackluster shooting nights from Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon and Grayson Allen. It’ll be rare to see those three go a combined 11-for-44 again, including 3-of-16 from deep, but it turned Tuesday’s matchup into a rock fight.
Durant, of course, was dealing with an emotional reunion, playing in front of Warriors fans for the first time since 2019.
He got his long-awaited ovation and tribute video, but it felt like the occasion may have exacerbated those typical opening-night jitters.
Allen, meanwhile, struggled heavily in Beal’s place with the starters. The Suns can expect a lot more from him than that, but he’ll need to flush this rough performance first.
Fortunately for the Suns, Devin Booker was the best player on the floor in a game featuring Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Chris Paul. Finishing his night with 32 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds on 13-of-21 shooting, Book joined (and surpassed) some prestigious company.
He had a 21-4-4 stat line at halftime, and entered the break with more points than Curry, Thompson and Paul combined.
Despite Book’s scorched-earth first half, the Suns had to overcome some adversity to eke out the win. Golden State’s off night certainly helped, but Phoenix’s shooters missed shots too Their bench-heavy lineup went through a nine-and-a-half minute stretch in the first half where they scored 6 points on 1-of-12 shooting with 6 turnovers, and the Suns also got outscored 27-5 to start the third quarter.
Even so, they lived up to Frank Vogel’s “scrappy as hell” expectations, making just enough plays down the stretch to win on the road. Bearing that in mind, here are the five most encouraging plays from the Suns’ season opener.
1. Point Book picks apart Warriors down the stretch
With the game knotted at 93 midway through the fourth quarter, Devin Booker took over, scoring or assisting on the Suns’ final 15 points.
For all the outside concern over Phoenix’s lack of a traditional point guard, Book has been quietly showing what he can do as a scorer and playmaker since his torrid playoff run. And if Tuesday’s performance wasn’t enough, after the game, he said it loud and clear for the naysayers to hear:
“Point Book” wasn’t perfect by any means. He finished the night with 6 turnovers, and the Suns coughed it up 19 times as a team, leading to 22 Warriors points off turnovers. Booker admitted after the game he was gassed after not having played for a week, thanks to the sore left big toe that held him out of Phoenix’s final preseason game.
But in crunch-time, when the Suns needed someone to make plays, Booker made a few superb reads to seal the win. His last two assists in the final minute deserve a closer look.
Clinging to a 103-101 lead, the Suns targeted Steph Curry in the pick-and-roll once again. Vogel and Kevin Young got creative on this one, though, screening Booker’s man (Jonathan Kuminga) with Jusuf Nurkic while also having Eric Gordon screen Nurk’s defender (Kevon Looney).
That forced Curry (Gordon’s defender) to step up on Booker. As Kuminga raced back to help corral the ball-handler, Nurkic rolled hard into space while Gordon popped out to the 3-point line. Nurk’s gravity drew Looney to the paint, leaving Curry to frantically recover to Gordon as he lifted up for the open 3.
It seems like a simple play for Booker, but weaving his way into space before taking a dribble backward kept Curry and Kuminga drawn to him like magnets. In turn, it opened up just enough space for Gordon to hit a big shot:
The Warriors answered with a 3 of their own, so on the next possession, the Suns needed a bucket to ice the game. Booker went into a pick-and-roll with Nurkic, and his man (Gary Payton II this time) was forced to go under the screen. Looney had to step up to take away Book’s pull-up 3, and as he rose up, Payton was still recovering to the ball.
Booker understood he had drawn two to the ball, and with Chris Paul worried about Gordon in the weakside corner, there was less help for the rolling Nurkic to worry about. Book hung in the air, fired the pass to his diving big man, and watched him finish the layup past Thompson:
On the surface, it seems like a simple pick-and-roll feed. But Booker’s ability to manipulate Payton on Nurkic’s screen, force Looney to take a step up, hang in the air to survey the help defense, and then make the right read is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
2. Josh Okogie makes the defense pay
We could talk about Josh Okogie putting up 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. We could mention how he validated his fit in the starting lineup, how he helped limit Curry (8-of-20), Thompson (6-of-18) and Paul (4-of-15) to bad shooting nights, or how four of his five rebounds came on the offensive end.
Grown-man plays like this made a huge difference on a night where most of the Suns’ best shooters struggled:
But the specific Okogie play we’re focusing on ties in with Booker’s masterful playmaking down the stretch. Remember that Nurkic pick-and-roll that sealed the win? The reason Paul was so hesitant to help off Gordon in the corner is just a few plays earlier, Booker had found Okogie in that very same corner.
And Okogie made the Dubs pay for it, drilling the exact type of look defenses will force him to make all season:
Kuminga went over the screen on this one, and as a result, trailed Booker on the drive. Looney was forced to step up again to mitigate the pull-up threat, but by then, Book was already rising up. Paul helped off Okogie in the corner to cover for Looney as Nurkic rolled into the paint, but Booker saw the extra help and hit the open man in the weakside corner. Paul knew what was coming on those plays, but Booker’s playmaking has evolved to the point that defenses have to give something up.
That something will usually be Okogie, who shot a career-high 33.5 percent from downtown last season. He’ll need to hit those corner 3s consistently in order to stay on the floor and punish defenses for leaving him open. Curry admitted after the game it’s the type of shot you have to live with as a defense, so even though it was just one shot in one game, Phoenix will become even more unfair if Okogie is even respectable on those looks.
3. Jusuf Nurkic short roll dimes
Okogie’s late corner 3 was huge, as were his offensive put-backs. But he also set himself up for some easy buckets with great timing on baseline cuts, and the Suns now have a center capable of making those dimes.
In his Suns debut, Nurkic put up 14 points, 14 rebounds and 3 assists. Two of those dimes were direct feeds to Okogie out of the short roll.
We’ve covered Nurk’s passing prowess before, but watching him collect pocket passes from Booker or Durant, size up the low man, and then make the right read felt like a breath of fresh air for the Suns’ offense:
There will still be concerns on the defensive end. The Dubs targeted him pretty frequently in pick-and-roll situations, letting their shooters pull up when he was in drop coverage and giving their ball-handlers — even a 38-year-old Chris Paul — free rein to blow by Nurk when he played up to the level.
But those deficiencies matter less if Nurkic is rebounding at a high level, attempting to protect the rim and helping the offense sing on the other end. Those short roll reads are going to make life easier for Okogie and everyone else all season long.
4. Eric Gordon’s veteran 4th quarter
It was a pretty miserable shooting night for the 34-year-old Eric Gordon. Through three quarters, he was 2-for-14 overall and 0-for-7 from deep. A lot of guys would be benched after a performance like that, and even if they stayed in the game, they’d probably be too discouraged to keep shooting.
Eric Gordon is not most guys, and in that fourth quarter, he put on his big-boy, 16-year-veteran pants to help Phoenix close it out.
The Suns trailed by eight points early in the final period before responding with a quick 8-0 run to tie the game. Over the next few minutes, Gordon made three key plays to help Phoenix stay afloat:
- Nailing his first 3 of the night to give the Suns the lead back
- Finding Drew Eubanks for a dunk on a beautiful midair pass in the pick-and-roll
- Stripping Andrew Wiggins and starting a fast break resulting in a Booker layup
Early in training camp, Vogel mentioned Gordon as someone who was standing out as a locker room leader. He’s been around the league long enough to understand how valuable his shooting is, and even on an off night, was able to shoot through it and ultimately help his team win.
That’s the type of veteran composure that will help him close out games for the Suns later in the year too.
5. Suns get Devin Booker a curl pull-up 3
Vogel spoke in preseason about wanting Booker to take more pull-up 3s this year, and that was on full display Tuesday night.
Booker attempted eight 3s and made three of them. The most entertaining one utilized his off-ball movement in a set that started with Booker on the block and Nurkic holding the ball at the top of the key.
Durant cut down from the opposite wing to set an elbow screen for Booker to curl around. That put Book’s man, Kuminga, in a tough spot right off the bat as he trailed the screen. Booker continued his curl around the 3-point arc, going into a handoff with Nurkic.
Once Nurk let go of the ball, he released into a second screen for Kuminga. Looney didn’t switch onto Booker, playing the middle ground between him and Nurkic on the roll. That split-second delay for Kuminga after flying around two screens set at tough angles gave Booker just enough space to feel comfortable taking one dribble and rising up for 3:
The scoring and playmaking is already difficult enough to handle. But if Booker is going to take and make more pull-up 3s on fun little sets like this, the NBA won’t be able to handle his fully-evolved form in Year 9.
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