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The Phoenix Suns are already 10 games into the regular season, but their season truly begins in earnest Wednesday night. That’s because, according to the team’s injury report, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are both listed as probable against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Outside of a pair of preseason games, it’ll mark the first time that Booker, Beal and Kevin Durant take the floor together.
Booker’s return — and the Big 3’s long-awaited debut — couldn’t come at a better time.
“In all ways, in all games, it would be better with Devin Booker out there,” coach Frank Vogel summed up.
Here in Chicken Little Central, Arizona, a 4-6 record has been a disappointment for a team with legitimate title expectations. That’s especially true considering the Suns have dropped four winnable games thanks to some untimely fourth-quarter collapses.
Between the late-game meltdowns and adjusting to different roles, the Suns are rapidly discovering they’ll be getting opponents’ A-game every night.
“I think it’s just challenging each other,” Beal said. “We’re a target. Every single night, this is how it’s gonna be. Nobody’s down here. We’re pissed off about not winning, but it’s good energy and motivation moving forward.”
Suns dealt with early frustration
The Suns are plenty motivated to right the ship, but missing two of their three best players hasn’t helped. Booker has only played in two games so far this season thanks to a left ankle sprain and then a right calf sprain, the latter of which has held him out since Nov. 2. Beal, meanwhile, missed the first seven games of the season due to low back spasms, and even in the three games he’s played, he hasn’t looked quite like himself yet.
Without their primary facilitator and another star-level talent for most of the season, the losses have piled up. Some level of frustration — even for a 18-year veteran like Durant — is warranted.
“It’s frustrating losing games,” he said. “You hate to lose, but been through it before. You understand what needs to be done. You can be mad all you want, but you gotta come to a solution at some point. So yeah, it’s tough losing games, but I like just the fabric of the guys in the locker room that we’ll figure it out.”
Those guys in the locker room don’t just include the Big 3. Players like Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon, Jordan Goodwin and Jusuf Nurkic have been asked to do more from a playmaking, ball-handling and shooting standpoint than they will once Booker and Beal are fully healthy.
That’s led to some stagnant offense late in games, as Phoenix leans a little too heavily on KD isos to carry the offense. Nurkic outright said the Suns’ offense is “designed to move the ball more than just isos,” while Drew Eubanks admitted that guys were “maybe” deferring to Durant and Beal too much down the stretch. Even the stars themselves recognize it.
“I gotta be a lot better, I think we all do,” Beal said. “But I think being more aggressive, especially offensively, everybody, I think a lot of times we get too slowed down and run through me, run through K, and that’s great, but we gotta give him better opportunities, put some advantages. And we need everybody to be aggressive, ’cause that’s when we’re at our best.”
That can be difficult for guys like Allen and Gordon, who have had to serve as primary initiators on offense instead of floor-spacers, secondary playmakers and occasional drivers. It can be similarly challenging for guys like Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, who have been in and out of the starting lineup.
“I think it’s mostly just a chemistry thing,” Bates-Diop said. “Just not having a lot of time spent together, and now comes game nine, 10 coming up. We just got Brad back for the second game, Book’s been out. Kev’s been consistent, but lineups — I wasn’t playing, but now I’m playing. So it’s a lot of, not roster turnover, but just fourth-quarter turnover.”
Nurkic, for example, admitted it’s been an adjustment thinking about when he needs to shoot the ball. His focus has been getting other guys shots, and that will be the case when he’s sharing the court with more talent than he’s ever played with.
“Some nights, my role change because somebody hurt, and you’re being asked to do something more on offense,” Nurkic said. “But I don’t think it’s an issue, like some people don’t know what their role is. We’re all here for the Big 3, and that’s how our life is.”
That’s how life will (hopefully) be moving forward, but even if everyone had been perfectly healthy to start the season, the Suns have a new coaching staff and 11 new players on their roster, from all different corners of the league. It takes time to get a group full of new faces on the same page.
“It’s like when you build a house and you’re frustrated with how long it’s taken and obviously there’s deadlines or whatever, and you keep saying, ‘Hey, when it’s done, it’s gonna be great,'” Vogel said. “That’s how I feel about it. I’m focusing on the guys we have in uniform right now, knowing that it’s gonna be great when it gets there.”
Devin Booker completes the Suns
Despite Vogel’s lighthearted quote, the losses haven’t been fun to stomach for the Suns coach or his players. Nobody likes losing, especially in four separate games where Phoenix entered the fourth quarter with at least a 6-point lead.
But the Suns have maintained that once they’re whole, they’ll turn things around — for the organization and the worried fanbase.
“We’re gonna get right,” Vogel promised. “We believe in that, we got a hell of a player coming back soon, hopefully, and keep the big-picture mindset.”
The Suns have had more than enough to win some of these games, but with Booker returning Wednesday and Beal working off the rust, their “big-picture mindset” is close to finally paying off.
“It’s a day at a time, one step at a time,” Beal said. “It wasn’t easy for me going down at the beginning of the year and watching guys, just like I know the frustration is probably on Book’s mind and he’s ready to get back at any moment. And probably just our staff and our team, like, it’s a lot of in and out, figuring out rotations, guys in different roles. So it is an adjustment for us in the first few games, but I think once we’re at full-strength, I think we’ll have a great idea of who we can be.”
That idea starts to take shape, finally, against Minnesota, the NBA’s top-ranked defense. Durant has stated bluntly that Booker is what “makes this thing go,” and his presence as a scoring threat, shooter and lead playmaker will take a ton of pressure off Durant to carry such a heavy offensive burden.
Even when Durant tries to go iso, it’ll be a very different floor he’ll be looking at. Instead of facing constant double-teams and zone defenses shading over toward him, he’ll have a lot better options to work with.
“Just gonna keep the defense honest,” Durant explained. “I feel like right now, they feel like they could cheat a little bit and leave guys open and zone up, just play gimmicky a little bit. But when you got a guy like Devin out there, you gota be focused on him. You gotta be locked in on him, along with other guys on the floor. So it just gives us more firepower and just make our team complete.”
Ten games in, the Suns are finally complete. Now we can really start to see what they’re capable of.
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