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5 takeaways from the Suns' roller coaster 7-game road trip

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 4, 2024
Here's what we learned about Bradley Beal and the Phoenix Suns after their 7-game road trip

The Phoenix Suns have officially crossed the 50-game threshold after a grueling seven-game road trip that had them out on the road for two whole weeks.

They probably should’ve gone 5-2 on the trip, and possibly could’ve gone 6-1, but still wound up a respectable 4-3.

At this point in the season, there’s no question this is a superior team compared to last year — especially when one considers that the Suns’ Big 3 hasn’t even played 20 games together yet:

After such a roller coaster trip filled with exhilarating performances and fourth-quarter collapses, what did we learn? Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Suns’ seven-game road trip.

1. The Suns are starting to put things together

Did a 4-3 road trip convince anyone the Suns are title contenders? Of course not. They’re still weeks away from resembling a true championship squad, and there are several questions they’ll need to answer first in order to get there.

But we’ve been consistent on this for a while now: Until the Big 3 and the starting five get more reps together, it’s impossible to tell what this team’s identity is. The road trip gave Phoenix more opportunities to build their chemistry, and a 4-3 road trip over a taxing two weeks away from home shouldn’t distract from the Suns winning 15 of their last 21 games.

The lineup data reinforces how good this team — which, again, is winning at a 71 percent clip ever since that Christmas Day beatdown — is becoming.

For starters (pun intended), the Suns’ starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Grayson Allen, Kevin Durant and Jusuf Nurkic has now played 225 minutes together, and they’re a +65 in that span. They’ve got an 11-5 record over those 16 games, and their offense has been absolutely off the charts.

When the starting five takes the floor, the Suns have shot a blistering 57.4 percent overall and 46.1 percent from 3. They’ve assisted on nearly 66 percent of their made baskets, with a 3.28 assist-to-turnover ratio. Their defensive rating (116.1) isn’t exactly formidable, but they’re downright elite offensively: Among all 5-man lineups who have logged at least 200 minutes this season, the Net Rating for the Suns’ starters (+15.6) ranks third in the entire league, and their offensive rating (131.8) ranks second.

The Big 3 are slowly building cohesion too. In 393 minutes with Booker, Durant and Beal sharing the floor, the Suns have outscored opponents by 112 points. For reference, here’s how the Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving back in 2020-21 compared to the Suns’ current Big 3, according to

  • Suns Big 3 (2023-24): 19 games, 12-7 record, 54.9 FG%, 43.3 3P%, 66.3 AST%, 125.7 offensive rating, 112.3 defensive rating, +13.4 Net Rating
  • Nets Big 3 (2020-21): 8 games, 6-2 record, 51.9 FG%, 39.6 3P%, 65.6 AST%, 119.6 offensive rating, 112.5 defensive rating, +7.5 Net Rating

Fans’ patience with bad losses has understandably worn thin, but it’s worth remembering that the Suns’ starting lineup barely crossed the 200-minute threshold on this road trip. The Big 3 have played 19 games together — a benchmark they would’ve crossed back in late November had they been perfectly healthy.

Not to disregard injury concerns, but imagine if that had been the case. Would anyone have expected the Suns to look like title contenders back in November, just 19 games into the season? Of course not. But the early returns for this group have been encouraging, and they hint at a much higher ceiling once the rotations are more ironclad and they get a chance to build on their progress.

2. Signs of life from the Suns’ bench

This is still a top-heavy roster, and the bench remains a concern. It’s the reason the front office has numerous needs to consider and multiple trade options it might pursue (including a more unsavory choice).

But over the last few weeks, Frank Vogel’s gotten a better idea of who might fit within his playoff rotation and how they might be able to be effective in limited minutes.

It starts with Eric Gordon, the Suns’ primary sixth man and leading bench scorer when everyone’s healthy. After a rough couple of games where he battled through wrist soreness, Gordon sat out two games to heal properly. Ever since he returned for the last six games of the road trip, he’s looked more like the ideal version of EG for this bench unit.

Over that span, Gordon put up 12.7 points per game, shooting 53.8 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from long range. He’s still prone to his nightly 1-2 braindead turnovers, but as long as he’s knocking down deep 3s and getting into the lane on his bully-ball drives, the Suns will take the bench scoring and gravity he provides.

Drew Eubanks has turned things around lately. Dating back to the Suns’ back-to-back home set against the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, Eubanks has only missed two shots over his last nine games. He’s 24-for-26 from the floor over that stretch, with the Suns optimizing his rolling and slipping on screens.

Eubanks’ 6.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game over that stretch aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re solid impact numbers for a backup center in only 17.7 minutes a night.

Josh Okogie has also been impactful enough on offense to allow his defense to shine. He shot 13-for-25 overall on the road trip, including 5-for-9 from 3. The Suns can’t count on him as a 3-point shooter, but when Okogie is just passable on offense, his deflections, steals, hustle plays and offensive rebounds can really make a difference. Racking up 6 steals to just 3 turnovers on the road trip, while being a +21 in his 117 minutes, is more than enough to warrant playing time.

Keita Bates-Diop is looking more playable these days too. He shot 14-for-23 overall on the road trip, as well as 5-for-9 from 3. Phoenix was expecting this type of efficient, low-volume offense from KBD, and if he can continue knocking down 3s at a respectable clip while attacking closeouts whenever he’s run off the line, his length on the wing could be a godsend for a team that lacks defensive-minded wings.

And finally, we can’t forget to mention Bol Bol, who picked up right where he left off Sunday against the Washington Wizards. Despite missing three weeks due to a foot sprain, Bol chipped in 8 points and 7 rebounds on 4-of-7 shooting in just 15 minutes. Eubanks is the more reliable option for the playoff rotation, but if he proves unplayable or the Suns simply need a different look at the 4 or the 5, Bol is starting to make his case.

3. The 4th quarter is still a problem

Sometimes the numbers speak louder than words ever could. Here’s where the Suns rank among all 30 teams in the fourth quarter this season:

  • 24.5 PPG (30th)
  • 44.4 FG% (28th)
  • 31.6 3P% (30th)
  • 5.6 FTAs (30th)
  • 9.4 RPG (30th)
  • 5.2 APG (29th)
  • 4.2 TOs (30th)
  • 1.5 SPG (28th)
  • -3.5 point differential (30th)
  • 102.7 offensive rating (30th)
  • 118.9 defensive rating (25th)
  • -16.3 Net Rating (30th)

That is atrocious, and their league-worst marks in nearly every category point to this problem being more mental than anything else. The Suns are quite literally the worst fourth-quarter team since the NBA started tracking this sort of data back in 1996-97.

It’s baffling how a team with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal has been this bad in the most important quarter of games, and it’s the sole reason Phoenix is only eight games above .500 instead of 14 or 15.

At various points during the road trip, it felt like the Suns had made some progress in the fourth. But the numbers don’t back it up. Their league-wide ranks improved for that two-week stretch, but looking at the Suns’ raw averages, they were worse in several categories:

  • 22.7 PPG (29th)
  • 46.0 FG% (24th)
  • 30.9 3P% (23rd)
  • 2.4 FTAs (30th)
  • 9.3 RPG (24th)
  • 5.1 APG (21st)
  • 5.9 TOs (30th)
  • 1.6 SPG (23rd)
  • -7.1 point differential (30th)
  • 92.4 offensive rating (30th)
  • 122.9 defensive rating (26th)
  • -30.5 Net Rating (30th)

Granted, over a seven-game road trip, the numbers will look a lot more extreme due to the sample size. It’s worth noting that this road trip only accounted for 172 of the Suns’ 1,191 fourth-quarter possessions this season.

But it’s still a bit concerning the Suns lost six of the seven fourth quarters they played on the road trip, with the lone victory coming by one point(!) in Dallas.

The culprit continues to be the non-Booker minutes to start the fourth. Similar to his first half minutes, Book typically plays the entire third quarter, rests for 3-4 minutes to start the fourth, and then finishes out the game. But those 3-4 minutes of rest in the fourth have been downright catastrophic for Phoenix.

There’s no one reason why that’s the case. Those non-Booker lineups to begin the fourth almost always have Durant and Beal on the floor, which should be more than enough. But the Suns could really use a backup floor general to get Beal and Durant easier looks, because the offensive flow completely drops off a cliff whenever Booker — their real point guard, and a damn good one at that — sits.

The lineup data backs up how lost the Suns have been without Booker on the floor. In the fourth quarter, lineups with Durant and Beal but no Booker have been outscored by 54 points in just 64 minutes, and only three of those 22 configurations have yielded a positive point differential.

Overall, the Suns have been outscored by 66 points in 190 minutes this season with Durant and Beal on the floor but no Booker. For reference, here’s how the Suns have fared in fourth quarters with various members of the Big 3 on the court:

  • Durant and Beal but no Booker: -54 in 64 minutes
  • Booker and Durant but no Beal: -32 in 112 minutes
  • Booker and Beal but no Durant: -3 in 32 minutes
  • Booker, Beal and Durant: +4 in 91 minues

It’s clear the worst damage comes when Booker rests, and the Suns may need to look externally in order to solve that issue. As discussed on the Take That For Data pod over the weekend, there are myriad problems behind the fourth-quarter struggles, from turnovers to lack of ball movement to slower pace to missed shots to defensive lapses. Everything snowballs in the fourth, and it’s a mental hurdle this group needs to gradually overcome.

However, it’s worth noting how hard Phoenix has fought to guard itself against their very evident Achilles heel. Over the seven-game road trip, the Suns led six times heading into the fourth quarter. They led Mavericks by 22 points, the Pacers by 9, the Magic by 3, the Heat by 26, the Nets by 19 and the Wizards by 30. The only game where they trailed after three quarters was against the Atlanta Hawks, when a 5-point deficit entering the fourth resulted in a 9-point loss.

On the one hand, it’s disappointing the Suns only finished the trip 4-3 when they held fourth-quarter leads in six of the seven games. But on the other hand, they are mostly dominating opponents through three quarters, as you’d expect good teams to do. If they can just find a way to move past these spiraling fourth-quarter issues, Phoenix will quickly look the part of a championship contender.

4. Bradley Beal busts through shooting slump (and a busted nose)

Bradley Beal took a lot of flak for his recent shooting struggles. It comes with the territory as a third option who’s making $46.7 million this year, but it was still pretty strange, considering he suffered a nasal fracture in his second game of the trip, then got whacked in the face again in Atlanta.

When Beal first broke his nose against the Pacers, he was bleeding and had both his nostrils plugged in order to try and battle through it. He struggled the rest of the night.

The next game, he donned a makeshift, non-customized mask and struggled again. The next two games, he struggled to adjust to a different, customized mask designed specifically for his face. And then in Atlanta, he got raked across the nose and started bleeding again, which meant his nostrils were plugged again on top of wearing the mask.

It’s no wonder his numbers were terrible for a week or so. Over that five-game stretch, Beal put up 13.2 points and 6.2 assists per game, shooting 35.2 percent from the field and an abysmal 13.8 percent from deep. His team-worst -5.0 point differential spoke to how bad it looked when he missed 25 of his 29 3-pointers.

But a return to D.C. was just what the doctor ordered. Beal’s first-ever contest against the Wizards proved to be a get-right game, as he dropped a season-high 43 points and 6 assists on 16-of-21 shooting, including 4-of-5 from long range.

Beal won’t go for 40 most nights. He probably won’t go for 30 most nights either, and there will be some nights where he doesn’t even get to 20.

But that’s because he’s sharing the floor with Kevin-Freaking-Durant and Devin-Freaking-Booker. Prior to breaking his nose, he was looking ideally suited for the third member of this Big 3, averaging 18.1 points and 4.2 assists a night on 51.3 percent shooting, including 39.2 percent from deep.

The shooting slump was bad, but up until that stretch, Beal had been punishing opponents for leaving him open as a spot-up shooter. His rim pressure adds a much-needed dynamic to Phoenix’s midrange-heavy shot profile, and his ability to cook one-on-one against mismatches makes the Suns’ offense truly impossible to stop. As we’ve seen from this trio trading 40-point performances lately, it could be anybody’s night with this Big 3. When he’s playing with aggression, Beal makes the Suns downright unfair.

5. Suns are finally pushing the pace

The Suns spent a lot of time coming into the season talking about how they wanted to play faster. Moving on from Chris Paul, and lacking a “traditional point guard,” it made sense that Phoenix wanted to play more up-tempo and put their Big 3 in better positions to attack in transition.

The Suns have been a stellar half-court offense when fully healthy, but over the road trip, they showed signs of actually playing at a faster pace.

Before the trip, the Suns played at an average pace of 98.37, which ranked 25th in the league. Over the last seven games, they played at a pace of 101.07, which ranked ninth in the NBA over that span.

They’re still 20th in pace overall this season, but against Washington, the Suns played their fastest game of the season (107.5). Now they need to continue pushing the tempo — and consistently get up more 3s as a team that is 19-11 when they attempt 30+ 3-pointers but is 10-10 when they don’t.

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