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Suns lose in Big 3's debut, but the flashes of brilliance matter far more

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 14, 2023
The Phoenix Suns lost in their debut with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, but the flashes of brilliance from the Big 3 matter more

Yes, the Phoenix Suns lost in the Big 3’s first game together. The long-awaited debut of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal didn’t stop this team from losing its fifth contest in the last seven. They lost 116-112 to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson in the Twins’ emotional return to Phoenix, the sky is falling, the end is near, yada yada yada.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of our system, how about some context? The Suns may be 24 games into the season, but this was only their first game with the Big 3. Even then, they still weren’t completely healthy, since they felt the absences of two of their best floor-spacers in Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon, as well as their best perimeter defender in Josh Okogie. Beal playing on a minutes restriction didn’t help either.

“Not good enough to win the game, but we’re gonna stay positive,” coach Frank Vogel said after the loss. “The first game with those three guys out there together, a lot of figuring it out. Guys figuring out when to be aggressive, when not to be aggressive, dealing with a minutes restriction, all those types of things.”

But even if that’s not enough to sway the false perception that this team is doomed, the flashes they showed when Booker, Durant and Beal shared the court were tantalizing, and far more instructive as to what the future might hold once this group gets an actual chance to jell.

“We have high hopes for what this group can do together, and we need every game and every minute that we can get to help build that cohesion,” Vogel said. “It’s gonna be a continuity disadvantage with some of the teams that have been together, so whether that’s five games, 10 games, 20 games, 40 games — as many as we can get is gonna help us build the machine to help us roll through the playoffs like we hope to.”

The machine is mostly spare parts right now, but let’s take a look at how they showed signs of assembling in the Big 3’s first game.

Suns Big 3 shows promise together in debut

For starters, Booker, KD and Beal scored or assisted on a staggering 97 of the Suns’ 112 points against Brooklyn. That’s not bad considering Beal only scored 14 points while playing on a minutes restriction!

“I thought Brad got going early in the game, but the restriction has us getting him out sooner than we typically would,” Vogel elaborated. “So I think it would have been nice to run him in a little longer since he made his first three shots. Second stint didn’t really have the same rhythm that he started with, but that’s stuff that will come.”

Despite Beal’s stints being more limited, the results were promising when those three shared the court. According to NBA.com, the Big 3 were a +12 in 19.3 minutes together, shooting 18-for-36 overall (50 percent) and 4-for-11 from deep (36.4 percent). They also racked up 15 assists to just 4 turnovers.

“We showed some spurts,” Durant said. “We gotta give the Nets credit, they played like three or four different defenses tonight to try to throw us off. But I think we fought through it and figured some stuff out. We’re only gonna get better.”

Unfortunately, even at full strength the Big 3 can’t play all 48 minutes. Figuring out how stagger the three superstars to ensure one of them is on the court at all times is crucial. In the first go-around, the non-Big 3 lineups struggled.

In those 28.7 minutes without all three on the court, Phoenix was a -16, shooting 22-for-48 overall (45.8 percent) and 5-for-17 from 3 (29.4 percent) while amassing 13 assists to 8 turnovers. The biggest problem was a familiar one: The Suns are still getting creamed whenever Booker sits.

In Book’s 40 minutes against Brooklyn, the Suns were a +16. Unfortunately, they were a staggering -20 in the 8 minutes where he sat. This was nothing new, as Phoenix has lost the non-Booker minutes in horrendous fashion all season.

In his 527 total minutes of action, the Suns are a +119. In the 640 minutes where he’s rested or been sidelined, they’re a -73. Those would be best and worst marks on the team, respectively, if not for Jusuf Nurkic having played nine more games than Book.

Because of his scoring and lead playmaking, Booker is the straw that stirs the Suns’ drink. Having Beal back will hopefully alleviate some of the ball-handling burden, but Phoenix clearly wasn’t going to figure it out overnight.

“Whoever knows basketball, it’s gonna take some time, man,” Jusuf Nurkic said. “We’re not gonna be out there just perfect. It’s never like that, but I’m so happy that we have them back together. We have still some people unfortunately out that we would love to have out there, but just need the reps at this point.”

To Nurk’s point, how about a look at a few reps that showed promise?

Suns Big 3 flashes potential

Whenever Booker has shared the floor with Durant or Beal, he’s typically been the lead ball-handler. Because of the threat he provides as a driver, pull-up shooter, midrange maestro and passer, he’s seen the brunt of the junk defenses opponents are throwing at Phoenix.

“People read y’all articles and listen to how much hype is around our team, so they’re coming in prepared, trying to figure out ways to stop us,” Durant explained. “They know it’s tough to guard us traditionally, so they want to throw something up to muck the game up a bit.”

Teams can get away with that approach when there’s only one or two superstars out there, but with all three on the court at the same time? It’s a dicey proposition.

Take this first example, where the Nets tried to double-team Booker 90 feet from the basket. He gets off the ball quickly, hitting Beal on the opposite side. Beal pushes the tempo with a kick-ahead pass to Nurkic, who gives it right back on a shovel pass handoff.

Beal drives, probes the defense, and finds Nassir Little near the top of the key. Brooklyn’s defense is scrambling to recover from its initial trap, and by that point, Booker has drifted over to the wing for an open 3:

“He’s really done a great job making the right play when teams either bring double-teams or bring earlier helps,” Vogel said. “He makes good reads in both of those situations, and those other two guys being out there will just enhance that.”

Another example came early in the first quarter, when the Nets doubled Booker with Durant’s man while KD was one pass away. Book quickly kicked it to Durant, who swung it to Beal in the corner.

A recovering Cam Johnson did his best to contain, but he had little chance against Beal attacking his closeout, resulting in an easy pull-up jumper. This is a pristine example of the situations Beal can feast on all year against scrambling defenses:

Of course, neglecting to double-team Booker when Durant and Beal are on the floor presents its own set of problems. Take the high pick-and-roll with Nurkic below. Nic Claxton tries to anticipate where Booker will dribble around the screen, but Book rejects it, darting back to his right to blow by Claxton and Bridges.

There should be strong-side help, but the gravity of Beal and Durant pulls their defenders too far away to make a difference.

“There’s just so much space, so much opportunity out there,” Booker said. “And I think this is step one for us all getting out there and we learn from this and we keep moving forward.”

It’ll be pretty easy to move forward if this is the space he’s seeing. This is one of the biggest driving lanes Booker’s had all season, and it’s no coincidence how it opened up:

“I just think he’s gonna benefit from more space out there,” Vogel said of Booker. “You’ve got more guys you have to pay attention to and stay close to, and hopefully he can use that space to be that assassin scorer that he is.”

Booker isn’t the only offensive hub who will draw double-teams. The Suns have gotten better about attacking rotations when Durant is doubled on his post-ups, and having a guy like Beal one pass away is going to make that 10 times easier.

Booker doesn’t even attack the rotating defense particularly well after catching the swing pass, but it’s a bucket, because he’s Devin-Freaking-Booker:

This time, with Booker one pass away and Beal becoming the recipient, Durant gets rid of the ball as soon as the double shades over, finding Booker at the top of the key.

On the weak side, Beal lifts up from the corner while Nassir Little sets a backside screen on Beal’s defender to free him up. Booker swings the ball and the result is the type of wide-open, catch-and-shoot 3 Beal rarely got over the last few years with the Washington Wizards.

Durant’s ability to pick and choose his spots also gets a lot easier with two other sources of gravity opening up the floor!

On this play, Beal throws a cross-court pass to Nurkic while Durant backdoors in the middle of the court to counter his defender’s ball denial. Nurk showcases his passing ability, hitting KD on the cut. There’s no weak-side helper coming over to stop Durant’s progress or steal the pass because Beal and Booker are posted up at the 3-point line.

You can’t help off those guys, and the result is a walk-up middy for Durant:

Even on something as simple as this, Beal’s magnetism is felt. Durant drives to the basket with Beal in the strong-side corner, but Beal’s man can only show as KD dribbles past. Otherwise, he risks surrendering a kick-out pass for a corner 3.

The result is an easy bucket for KD, and it’s the type of semi-transition opportunity Phoenix needs to create more of.

Areas for improvement with the Suns Big 3

Wednesday’s game was hardly perfect. The Suns lost the game, and they also really missed Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon, shooting a meager 9-for-28 from beyond the arc.

Even the process with the Big 3 lineups needs fine-tuning. As Vogel mentioned, the Suns devolved into too many isolations down the stretch.

“I don’t think we handled their switching well enough throughout the game,” Vogel said. “We got a little too iso-heavy and weren’t effective in the isos when we can be. You can play heavy iso basketball, but you gotta be effective in it, and I don’t think we quite were. So we can be better, and we will.”

And while Booker finished his night with 34 points, he didn’t attempt a single shot in the first quarter, defaulting to table-setting mode instead.

“Just reading the game,” Booker explained. “Obviously I knew after the first quarter I didn’t have a shot attempt, but we were getting good looks and we have players on the court that can score the ball at a very high level.”

Booker has always fallen back on “making the right play” and “taking what the defense gives” as his thought process on offense. He never enters games thinking “tonight is a scoring night” or “tonight is a night for overpassing.” But even as he added 12 assists to his 34 points, Wednesday night made it clear it’ll take some time to find the right balance between Point Book and Scoring Book.

“We’ll figure it out — myself included — how to use those guys, how to push certain buttons,” Vogel said. “I don’t mind him being a facilitator with trying to get Brad going early knowing Brad’s coming out, and I think Book has a great pulse on when to turn it up and be aggressive to score. The key is all three guys gotta be aggressive to read — not to score or to pass, but just to be aggressive to read.”

How long will it take to come together? That’s impossible to say. Durant said basketball is an unpredictable sport, and even with the Big 3 healthy, three of their vital role players are now injured.

However, Booker believes this team needs to learn from wins and losses alike, building that chemistry and trust together “in the trenches.” They have time to figure it out, but that eagerness for the Big 3 to finally play together now comes with a sense of urgency.

“I’m not the guy to be like, ‘Let’s push it off and we’ll figure it out once it gets closer to playoffs,'” Booker said. “Each game is a new test that, later down the line, you might see in one of those crucial moments. So locking into it and trying not to make the same mistakes over again.”

In the meantime, all the Suns can do is encounter as many of those experiences as possible and learn from them all.

“Just reps,” Durant summed up. “More games, more possessions together.”

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