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For the second time, it feels like the Phoenix Suns season is finally ready to begin. And unlike last time, hopefully the feeling lasts longer than two games.
Quality of opponent cannot be ignored when discussing the Suns’ 133-119 win over the Charlotte Hornets Friday night. Phoenix’s defense giving up 23 3-pointers to a suddenly white-hot Hornets offense is another unavoidable topic of conversation.
But building cohesion arguably takes more time on the defensive end than the offensive end, and the good news is that the Suns showed more than a few signs of how dangerous this group can be on offense in their first game with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon all available.
So yes, the defense needs work still, and yes, the Hornets are a seven-win team. But the Suns could be playing the Washington Generals for all we care; what matters right now is this group getting reps together with their top six players. To that end, here are 10 encouraging indicators from Friday’s return of the Big 3.
1. Opening things up for Jusuf Nurkic
Remember when we tried to tell people to be patient with Nurk and his poor finishing? It wasn’t blind optimism; it was simply because his skill-set is optimized when he shares the court with Booker, Durant and Beal.
And wouldn’t you know it, Nurk had one of his better games of the season against Charlotte with those 3 available! He finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks on a supremely efficient 10-of-13 shooting. In his first stint alone, Nurkic feasted on the interior with some of the deepest paint touches he’d seen all season, racking up 12 quick points on 5-of-7 shooting in 8 minutes.
“He makes our life easy,” Beal said. “As guards, we just come off [his screens] and we got open looks, or he just rolls right to the basket, he has layups all game.”
Nurk had more dunks on Friday than he’s had in some time, and it was a direct product of the Hornets defense scrambling on the perimeter to cover Booker, Beal, KD and Allen/Gordon all at once. Just look how the ball zips around until it finds Nurkic for the poster dunk:
Coach Frank Vogel said Phoenix has continued to work on their spacing and playing “extra-pass basketball” to keep everyone involved. The Suns have elite talent, but now that (almost) everyone’s out there, it’s about becoming a cohesive team.
“If we have a team that is selfless the way our three stars played tonight — and not just Brad, but Kevin and Book and Brad having 25 assists, with the way those guys score the basketball, we got a chance to be special this year,” Vogel said.
The triple threat of being able to initiate offense with Booker, Beal or Durant is tough enough, but how about when Grayson Allen — a secondary ball-handler who had to step up as a driver and playmaker over these first few months — can run a pick-and-roll where the ball swings like this?
The answer: Defenses will be flummoxed trying to cover all those 3-point shooters, and Nurk is going to get some easy ones:
2. You just can’t leave Grayson Allen
Speaking of Allen, while his contributions as a driver and facilitator shouldn’t go unnoticed, at the end of the day, the Suns love him most for his deadeye shooting. Allen has nailed 45.7 percent of his 3s, the fourth-best figure in the entire league among all qualified players attempting at least 5.0 triples per game.
With Big 3 all capable of initiating offense, Allen arguably becomes even more dangerous in his role as a backside 3-point threat.
“When Book and K and I have the ball, you gotta expect pull-ups, layups, dump-offs, corner kick-outs,” Beal said. They can’t guard everything, so the spacing was great.”
In the first highlight, Allen pushes the tempo as he often does. After Nurk’s dribble handoff to Book, Cody Martin makes the mistake of helping too far off Allen, leading to Book’s simple drive-and-kick to Allen for 3. In the second highlight, Booker draws two defenders in the Spain pick-and-roll, Nurkic’s gravity lures the other one in, and Allen is wide open for the 3 above the break:
“I think the sky’s the limit for what we can be if we have not only those three guys in the lineup, but also Grayson and Eric,” Vogel said. “Those guys are elite backside shooters and attackers off the bounce. So we have an opportunity with those five guys in the lineup to really generate high, high offensive outputs.”
3. You can’t guard Grayson Allen too closely either
Speaking of attacking off the bounce, as much as defenses will regret leaving a near-46 percent 3-point shooter like Allen open, they’ll also struggle whenever they close out on him too hard.
The reason? Allen’s pretty darn good at attacking hasty closeouts.
“You can’t be timid if you’re out there on the court with us, ’cause that’s what teams are gonna play into,” Booker explained. “Grayson’s one of those guys that is elite at his role, and he does it all out there….He’s a guy you can hit in transition and he’s either gonna get a foul, a layup or find an open man on the backside. So he’s been unbelievable.”
Just watch what happens when Nick Smith Jr. makes the mistake of playing too close up on Allen in transition to take away his 3-ball. Allen blows right by him with a slight stutter step and finds KD for 3 with one of the prettiest assists of the night:
Pushing the tempo, knocking down 3s and making plays against teams’ worst defenders? Allen checks all the boxes, especially now that the Big 3 are healthy.
4. Eric Gordon was right
Allen isn’t the only one who will thrive with the Suns whole again, but there were reasons to question whether Eric Gordon would be right there with him. Gordon’s been the streakier of the two guards, and his widely criticized comments about wanting to be more involved drew unwanted attention at one of the Suns’ darkest moments of the season.
But the thing is, he was right! A shooter like Gordon — who’s making 41.3 percent of his 6.8 3s per game — should be getting more than the two shots he got against the Sacramento Kings. The Suns were in an offensive rut where the ball wasn’t moving and the team wasn’t taking enough 3s.
But Beal’s return amplified Phoenix’s ball movement, and Gordon managed to sustain his recent momentum despite going back to the bench. After putting up 14 points against the Dallas Mavericks and pouring in 27 against the Houston Rockets, EG followed up with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting from deep against Charlotte. Keeping that same mindset isn’t easy, and Vogel actually talked with Gordon about it.
“It can feel differently for certain guys,” Vogel said. “But when he was checking into the scorer’s table, I grabbed him and said, ‘Hey, don’t change your mindset at all. You made seven 3s last game as a starter, stay every bit as aggressive as you were last game.’ And he did a great job with that.”
The result was a 14 made 3-pointers over the last two games, a Suns franchise record over any two-game span. The biggest difference, as Gordon had mentioned, was that ball was flying around the court. And when that happens, it’ll eventually find one of the Suns’ best shooters:
“It’s a lot of threats out there, a lot of guys who are very versatile,” Beal said. “We could shoot the ball really well. EG and Grayson have been shooting the leather off of it, so you’ve gotta respect everybody on the floor.”
In both these examples, Book getting downhill draws the attention of Charlotte’s entire defense, and he gets the hockey assist when the next guy makes the extra pass to Gordon for wide-open 3s.
“I think there’s gonna be schemes that are gonna be centered around trying to limit us three,” Booker said. “And those guys should have easy ones. And then especially early in the game, if you punish them like that, then as the game goes on, I think it’ll open up opportunities for us to get off, or if they want to die by giving up easy, wide-open layups, then that’ll be the case.”
5. Giving Bradley Beal space to drive
Vogel has talked about a multiple ball-handler attack, but Beal’s absence had robbed the Suns of being able to see it. Beal admitted he was a bit too passive in his return from a nasty ankle sprain, but the biggest challenge was overcoming the mental hurdle of trusting his body and his abilities again.
“I think it’s more of a mental thing, me just putting it behind me and just saying, ‘I’m okay. My body’s good. Your ankle’s good. You’re fine. Go hoop,'” Beal explained.
It’ll take time to get Beal past his “minutes progression plan,” get his wind back and shake off the rust. But the good news is the Suns can still generate easy looks for him as an initiator, just based on all the weapons around him.
Take this Spain pick-and-roll. Beal controls the ball, Udoka Azubuike sets the first screen and Booker sets the second screen. Azubuike and Booker both make good contact, and while Booker’s man (Cody Martin) communicates that the screens are coming and someone needs to stop the ball, he stays glued to Book to prevent him from flaring out for 3.
The result? Ish Smith can’t get back to Beal, P.J. Washington fails to cut the ball-handler off, and Beal zips right to the rack for a layup:
6. More Bradley Beal as initiator
Beal only finished with 6 points on 3-of-8 shooting, but he was still effective as a distributor, notching 7 assists in his 30 minutes.
“I loved his floor game tonight,” Vogel said. “He did not force, and a lot of times when you’re coming back and trying to get your rhythm and timing and get your legs under you, guys can have a tendency to do that, but he didn’t do that. He really played extra-pass basketball, just let the game come to him.”
This pick-and-roll is a perfect example, and a prime exhibit of why the Suns are so dangerous. How does one help contain the two-man game of Beal and Nurkic when Booker, Durant and Allen are all spacing on the weak side?
Just look at all that room to operate!
“Felt how it looked, man,” Booker said of the spacing. “It’s a game-changer being at full strength, and the offense was moving, the ball was hopping around, and we were getting the best available shot every time down. Guys giving up good shots and passing it into great ones, and great players doing that.”
7. Off-ball Book
“Point Book” has been mischaracterized as one of the Suns’ greatest flaws, but the truth is, Booker’s leap as a playmaker has been sublime. It’s also by necessity, since Beal’s been sidelined, Jordan Goodwin has disappointed and Allen and Gordon are more secondary creators.
However, it’s also true the Suns should use Booker off-ball more often to capitalize on his strengths as a scorer. Lately, his balance between scorer and facilitator wasn’t as seamless, and the offense suffered for it. Vogel tried to correct that by using Durant and now Beal as initiators more frequently, allowing Booker — a guy who led the league in points per touch for three straight years — to do what he does best:
Durant initiates on the first set, and when Booker’s man shoots under the screen to stop a potential curl, Book darts back into a re-screen and gets an easy midrange look. Beal initiates on the second play, drawing in the defense before kicking back out to Allen, who makes the easy pass to Booker so he can attack Terry Rozier’s closeout.
According to Booker, those examples of making the right play are the central philosophy of their offense.
“It’s how the game’s supposed to be played, and that’s what we wanna do,” he said. “We always said, especially us three, not only are we scorers, and Brad and KD have both averaged 30 in their career through seasons, but they’ve always made the right play too….So it’s a selfless play, and we have a selfless team, starting at the top.”
8. One pass away Book
Speaking of allowing off-ball Book to cook, did we mention how unfair it is to have Booker one pass away from Kevin-Freaking-Durant? Especially the version of Durant that’s tallied 27 assists to just 4 turnovers over the last two games?
“I think he’s responded about as well as you could possibly imagine,” Vogel said of Durant’s insane assist-to-turnover ratio turnaround.
After committing 18 turnovers in his three prior games, KD has made an effort to take better care of the ball while also facilitating at a much higher level. He tied his career high against Houston with 16 assists while notching his 18th career triple-double, and he followed that up with 11 dimes against Charlotte.
Durant only scored 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, but that absurd balance between ultra-efficiency on a limited number of attempts while also spreading the love offensively is the exact type of team win that can save his Herculean strength for the playoffs.
Putting Booker one pass away from those KD double-teams in the post sure helps!
Booker hadn’t hit 30 points in his last six games coming into Friday’s matchup, but he finished his night with 35 points and 7 assists on 10-of-18 shooting.
Superior defenses will cover plays like this better than Charlotte, but Durant’s playmaking out of those doubles remains a noteworthy weapon for Booker and the rest of the Suns.
“He’s been doing it at a high level,” Booker said. “It just shows the capability of how great he is and how he’s just a player. He’s never put himself in a box as a scorer or any position. He’s just a basketball player at the highest level. So he just takes what the defense gives him, and he’s getting us all easy looks.”
9. Keep shooting pull-up 3s, Book
Having floor-spacers and gravity hubs like Durant, Beal, Allen and Gordon also makes it a lot easier for Booker to feel comfortable getting to his pull-up 3s again.
Over the last six games, Book had shot 20.6 percent from deep. But Vogel has been begging Book to take more pull-up 3s, especially since he had been shooting a career-high figure on those shots until the recent slump.
Consider Friday’s 5-of-7 shooting from downtown a reminder that more spacing and more offensive variety gives Booker extra confidence to let it rip off the dribble:
Booker is hard enough to guard as it is. But putting Gordon in the strong-side corner, screening with Nurkic, and having KD and Beal on the weak side? Defenses almost have to concede this shot, and it’s one that will make him and the Suns truly unstoppable.
10. Suns using the Big 3 as screeners is unfair
Also in the category of “unstoppable?” Trying to guard actions where Durant or Booker sets the screen. Good luck trying to defend a Beal-Durant pick-and-pop, or even a Gordon-Booker pick-and-roll while KD, Beal and Allen space the floor in a small-ball closing lineup:
Again, it was only the Hornets, but plays like these will force even the league’s best defenses to make split-second decisions and difficult rotations. And considering this was only the Suns’ first game with their top six guys available, the offensive chemistry should only improve from here.
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