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For 47 minutes and 58.8 seconds on Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns led the San Antonio Spurs. The Halloween matchup became a living embodiment of “trick-or-treat” in the last 1.2 seconds, but it was also a perfect representation of the lessons this shorthanded Suns team is learning as it plays through Kevin Durant.
The absences of Devin Booker (left ankle sprain) and Bradley Beal (low back spasms) didn’t provide an excuse for Phoenix’s 115-114 loss to the rebuilding Spurs; it was a game they should’ve won 99 times out of 100 after leading by 20 points in the third quarter, or even holding onto a 5-point advantage with 1:03 to play.
Instead, the Suns were left with the type of loss that burns, not only because they should have won, but because they showed growth in playing around the last healthy member of their Big 3.
“Disappointing to lose the game after, quite frankly, we played a brilliant, brilliant basketball game,” coach Frank Vogel said. “The offensive sharing and trust was really good throughout.
“We let our foot off the gas a little bit in the third quarter….But I like how we played overall, and it’s a good early-season lesson for us.”
One such early-season lesson? Durant needs to improve his ball security.
Vogel claims Durant was fouled on the game-deciding turnover against San Antonio, and the slow-motion replay seems to reinforce that opinion. But KD admitted after the game he needed to hold onto the ball, and that’s been a common theme this season:
Beyond Durant cutting down on his 4.3 turnovers per game, or the Suns making more than 30 percent of their fourth-quarter shots like they have in their two losses, it’s worth examining where the Suns have improved their spacing around KD…and where they can still improve when it comes to playing through their 35-year-old superstar.
Kevin Durant and the Suns have a turnover problem
Over the last three games without Booker and Beal, the results have been a mixed bag. They could easily be 4-0, but instead, dropped two winnable games thanks to lackluster fourth quarters that reminded everyone this new roster is still building its chemistry.
The first loss came on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers, and it showcased what a luxury it’ll be to have three healthy stars again. Despite a 39-point performance from Durant, the Suns managed just 11 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-20 shooting with 9 turnovers. The performance prompted some blunt words from Vogel about what they needed to correct.
“Everything from an execution standpoint offensively,” he said. “Our spacing was poor, our decision-making was poor. Mainly those two things.”
Missed shots can’t be helped, but the offense went stagnant down the stretch, and the Suns could trace the root of that problem back to their spacing. The Lakers frequently overloaded the floor toward Durant, without the threat of a nearby shooter or weak-side cutter to keep help defenders honest.
That led to a number of turnovers off miscommunications, where guys cut when they should’ve spaced or spaced when they should’ve cut:
“During the game, we had guys that were trying to make the right cut and move off the ball, but sometimes on the weakside, it’d be me and [Josh Okogie] cut at the same time,” Grayson Allen said. “When you do that, we’re both trying to make the right play, but it just kind of destroys your spacing out there.”
Durant doesn’t necessarily equate a high number of turnovers with a team lacking chemistry. His former Golden State Warriors teams had “amazing chemistry,” despite struggling with turnovers as well. The key is striking the balance between cleaning those up and staying aggressive.
“When you want to make the right play, sometimes you overthink it a bit,” Durant explained. “You maybe could have shot it, and you try to pass it and you don’t quite thread the needle on the pass. But it’s all good intentions of trying to get your teammates involved. Sometimes you might have high turnovers when you approach the game that way, but I would rather us try to make plays for one another than to be selfish.”
Improving the spacing around Kevin Durant
For a lot of the Suns’ role players, this stretch has been their first time playing with Booker and Durant, then their first time playing without Booker but Durant — all while being their first, second, third and fourth time playing with Durant at all.
As long as Booker and Beal remain out, all the bench guys have an opportunity to learn how to play with KD better.
“There’s always a silver lining, and when you have so many new players in a new system with a new coaching staff, all those guys getting extended minutes will strengthen our group when those guys come back,” Vogel said. “So there is that benefit.”
Learning sometimes requires failure. That was on full display against the Lakers, as Durant tried to get to his spots without much gravity nearby. Just watch as, for some reason, an elite corner 3-point shooter like Allen crashes alongside Okogie. Then watch Eric Gordon drift to half-court, or Jordan Goodwin cutting too late after clogging the top of the key:
Despite all that, the Suns have been excellent whenever Durant’s been on the court. In his 143 minutes so far, Phoenix is a +51 overall — the best mark on the team by far, with Okogie being the next-closest at +27.
In the 49 minutes Durant has rested, the Suns are a -31 — once again the best mark on the team by a mile with Okogie following up at -7.
Having a healthy Booker and/or Beal will alleviate that problem, since Vogel can stagger his superstars to ensure the Suns’ Net Rating doesn’t drop from +20.9 with Durant to a calamitous -32.1 whenever he sits.
The Lakers started their fourth quarter with an 8-0 run while Durant rested, trimming Phoenix’s 12-point lead down to 4. San Antonio did something similar, openeing the fourth with an 11-3 run to cut the Suns’ 13-point lead down to 5. For all the focus on potential missed foul calls, it shouldn’t have gotten to that point at all.
“We could have done 100 different things to not be in that position in the last few seconds of the game, so can’t kind of put it on the last few plays there,” Allen said. “We gotta be better the start of the fourth quarter and closing that game out.”
Vogel deflected some of the blame from that non-Durant group, pointing out that the Spurs got rolling in the third quarter. He’s right, but the Suns have had a difficult time walking the line between allowing Durant to do what he does best and relying on him too heavily to do what he does best.
That’s mostly because A) The non-Durant minutes have been rough, and B) It can be difficult to restrain a guy capable of making these insane bailout shots, regardless of spacing:
“There’s gonna be times that he sometimes needs to force, ’cause sometimes we need a score, and he’s a guy who can score,” Yuta Watanabe said. “Even a double-team or a triple-team, he can score on people. So if we takes bad shots or anything, we’re not gonna be panicked, or we’re not gonna be mad.”
Against the Lakers and Spurs, though, the wear-down effect of all that usage became clear down the stretch. Durant couldn’t hit the shots he needed to, and he ultimately settled for pull-up jumpers before the defense could throw a double-team at him:
Durant took 28 shots against the Lakers, and he admitted he was forcing some of them late in the game.
“Taking 20-plus shots is really not my game, unless I really have to,” he explained.
The Suns’ ideal offense starts with getting a stop and pushing in transition. It allows them to play at their preferred pace, attack cross-matches against an unset defense, and negate their lack of a “true point guard,” which has only become an issue with Booker and Beal sidelined.
But when the Spurs and Lakers shot the lights out, the Suns faced a half-court defense. Phoenix’s fourth quarter against San Antonio wasn’t as horrendous as the LA game, mostly because they generated better looks and simply missed, but they still only scored 19 points against the Spurs. Their reliance on Durant grew in that situation once again, and the ball/player movement dropped off.
“Very stagnant, and we just can’t play that way,” Eric Gordon said. “When we’re moving the ball and playing downhill, we’re a really tough team to stop. And we just didn’t do that.”
There’s no way around a brutal, last-second loss that Phoenix should have avoided. But for seven out of the last eight quarters, they’ve looked like a team that’s implemented the lessons learned in LA.
The Suns put a major emphasis on spacing, making the extra pass and reading the defense in the 48 hours after that Lakers loss. In practice, they examined different post double-teams and examples where defenses “flooded” one side of the court, drilling the various cuts or movements along the 3-point line they could use to counter those looks. Then they showcased all of it in a blowout win over the Utah Jazz.
“We worked really hard on that the last few days,” Vogel said afterward. “Obviously we feel like that was probably the biggest thing that cost us the game in LA, and our guys did a good job honoring their spacing. There’s a lot of ways to make your teammates better, and our way to make your teammates better is to pass the ball to them. But by spacing the floor off the ball, you make the player with the basketball smarter and more efficient.”
Gordon had his first efficient night of the season, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Ditto for Allen, who chipped in 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. But it was Durant’s 7 assists that led the way, helping his teammates get rolling earlier in the game.
“Just watching the tape, he really generated a lot of offense with the pass early in the game last night,” Vogel said. “I think that helps the other guys see the ball go in the basket, and it helps them get in a good rhythm.”
Durant notched another 7 assists against the Spurs, giving him 14 over the last two games compared to just 5 in his first two. The contrast between the first two games and the last two games is stark for Gordon and Allen — the two guys who have had to step up as starters for Booker and Beal:
- Eric Gordon first 2 games: 12.5 PPG, 10-32 FG, 4-17 3P
- Eric Gordon last 2 games: 20.5 PPG, 17-28 FG, 7-16 3P
- Grayson Allen first 2 games: 3.0 PPG, 2-12 FG, 2-9 3P
- Grayson Allen last two games: 18.0 PPG, 11-19 FG, 8-14 3P
The biggest difference has been the spacing, with shooters like Allen, Gordon or Watanabe stationed one pass away from KD:
“We know they’re gonna double-team him, so we worked on the spacing after the LA game, and K did a great job passing the ball, finding open guys,” Watanabe said. “So that’s what really is making us great right now — a player like Kev willing to pass the ball.”
The Suns are have found more success with posting Durant up in the last two games. When he draws the double-team, he’s finding a shooter in the immediate vicinity, one pass away. It’s a spot veterans like Allen, Gordon and Watanabe are used to by now.
“That was the spot I loved the last two years in Milwaukee too,” Allen said. “It was the same with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], throw it to him and play the game of chicken. If my guy helps, I’m ready. So I like being in that spot and just kind of sliding back and forth hoping to get an open look.”
Proper spacing opened up Durant’s playmaking, which in turn opened up his scoring opportunities. Instead of being pigeonholed into being the savior on offense, he’s been more selective about creating his own scoring opportunities, focusing on quality rather than the more energy-draining quantity.
“Early in the game, guys got it going,” Durant said after the Jazz win. “I was able to pick and choose my spots a little better, which opened it up for me, and my teammates opened the game up for me being able to get downhill.”
Durant chipped in 26 points on 8-of-11 shooting in just 29 minutes against Utah. After leaning on him too much against the Lakers, the Suns will be aiming for that type of production as a best-case scenario with Booker and Beal out.
“Perfect balance,” Vogel described it. “Every post double-team that he gets, we should shoot wide-open 3s or get dunks on the backside, and we did a much better job with that. But he did a phenomenal job early in the game facilitating for his teammates. And then everybody else gets involved and makes a couple of shots and they’re a little charged up more on the defensive end, and he doesn’t have to do so much.”
Durant added another 26 points on 12-of-19 shooting against the Spurs, and while the balance wasn’t as perfect, note the spacing! The timely cutting! The pindowns, screens and off-ball cuts designed to get Durant the ball at one of his favorite spots near the elbow!
Unfortunately, that improved balance didn’t secure the win against San Antonio. The Suns couldn’t sustain a 20-point, third-quarter lead, forcing Durant to play 37 minutes in a game where they still couldn’t close.
But much like the Lakers game, this latest defeat will give the Suns plenty of examples on film of where they can improve.
“I know people watching us want it to be perfect at all times with the roster we have and just the excitement around the team, but it’s also still an adjustment period of trying to figure things out, different schemes,” Durant said. “There’s gonna be nights that are better than other nights.”
That’s especially true the longer that Booker and Beal remain sidelined, and it’s the reason why Vogel referred to the brutal Spurs loss as a “big growth game.”
“It’s a marathon, and you get frustrated if you don’t win a game like that, but overall, we did a lot of really positive things,” Vogel said. “I’m encouraged with the steps that we’ve taken over the last couple of games.”
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