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Can the Suns keep up their defensive success with Devin Booker’s return?

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov signals instructions during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The Phoenix Suns survived Devin Booker’s latest injury setback, going 2-1 heading into a four-game road trip. Their leader’s expected return Tuesday against the Indiana Pacers leads to questions about the team’s balancing act.

Is it a defensive team or an offensive team? Can it be both at once?

Without Booker, the answer was clear in the recent three-game stretch.

Coach Igor Kokoskov used his wing depth to cause disruptions, deflections and bad decisions by opponents. Small sample size or not, the Suns were a bottom-five offensive team and top-two on defense in their last three games compared to the rest of the league.

Now, the challenge is keeping that up to some degree with Booker, who is not known for his defense, on the court.

“One piece, one player on the court changes the dynamic on the court,” Kokoskov said while joining Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “When he’s on the court, he demands the ball because he’s capable of scoring and he’s a willing passer. Things (are) changing on the court, but we shouldn’t change the style of basketball that we want to play. Play unselfishly, play connected as a group.

“When somebody like Book is on the court, that type of player, he demands certain things. It’s a two-way street.”

With Booker, who is averaging 24.8 points and 6.9 assists per game, the Suns lose some of that defensive kick but receive an obvious bump on offense.

In general, they have been playing better over the past month. Phoenix has gone 6-9 since Dec. 13, and three of those wins came without Booker. Over that span, the strides on both ends of the court have shown.

The Suns are the 16th-best offensive team and 21st-best defensive squad since then.

Over the course of the entire year, the on-off numbers reflect the drastic impact Booker has on both ends.

He has the worst defensive rating (114.6) of players who have played at least 10 games with the Suns while on the court but by far the best offensive rating (109.1). But that’s only good for a -5.5 net rating, which is bested by a few role players like Kelly Oubre, Mikal Bridges, Richaun Holmes and Elie Okobo.

When Booker is off the court, the Suns’ defense has a defensive rating of 106.6, only worse than when the since-traded Trevor Ariza wasn’t on the court (103.4). But offensively, Phoenix’s offensive rating without Booker is an abysmal 97.6, worst on the team.

Pairing Booker with another offense-first player like T.J. Warren is among the many things that can push his ratings in one direction or another. In other words, the drastic differences comparing his on-offs and offensive vs. defensive ratings need more context.

By the eye test, Booker’s effort on the defensive end has shown marked improvement this season. Maybe he’ll never be an above-average defender considering the weight he carries on the offensive end.

But it’s true: Kokoskov’s challenge is helping the Suns’ last three games — all strong defensive performances — to blend into Booker’s return, be it with rotations, substitution patterns and more of that culture building that helped Phoenix turn a small corner a month ago.

Doug & Wolf

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