EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ star power overmatches Kings with Kevin Durant in the house
PHOENIX — Even if you were oblivious to the context, you would have been able to sense the different energy in Footprint Center on Tuesday night. You would have seen it in the Phoenix Suns players, too.
Kevin Durant was in the building. He had been getting in work with the team at their practice facility the previous two days, his unofficial welcome to the Suns after being traded on Thursday.
Those who have been around Durant previously have stated how his presence is a tone-setter, and that was clear in a 120-109 win over the Sacramento Kings.
The elite talent for Phoenix showed up to make a tremendous first impression on Durant.
“It’s pretty cool to have a guy on your team that pretty much everybody on the team looks up to,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Durant. “Basically have two of ’em with Chris and KD. It creates something, and I can’t even explain it.”
Devin Booker was the best two-guard in the world again. Chris Paul dished out 19 assists. Deandre Ayton’s touch from 15 feet and in was sublime.
This completely overpowered Sacramento, which got a really good game from All-Star De’Aaron Fox (a game-high 35 points).
Fox was +3 on the night, thanks to some rotation choices that put him in against the Suns’ second unit. That was the only reason this was a game at all.
Booker was +22 and Ayton checked in at +21. Domantas Sabonis, the Kings’ other All-Star, was -19 and got outplayed heavily by Ayton despite still ending up with 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
It is unwise to rely entirely on plus/minus to tell the tale of a game or how a player performed. It painted a fairly accurate picture on Tuesday, though.
The Kings (32-25) could never make a big enough run when Booker and Ayton were resting. They led by two through a quarter and got up six later in the second but then chased the Suns (32-27) the rest of the way.
Sacramento was choosing to play off Phoenix’s two other starters, Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, and having Sabonis “show” on ball screens to pressure either Booker or Paul off the ball.
This just allows the screening Ayton to get the ball in the pocket, and when he’s knocking down shots like he has lately, it will be a clinical evening for the Suns.
Chris Paul and the Suns again just playing off the Kings coverage. Sabonis at the level, one dribble pocket pass. Help is in, skip, drive, finish from Ayton. pic.twitter.com/3n9Fl4bd7n
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 15, 2023
“We knew it was going to be a big short roll game tonight. … Me, I try to make sure I didn’t roll too deep,” Ayton said. “Made sure that Chris and Book could see me coming out of their blitz and making sure they have a clean outlet and just trying my best to put pressure on the rim.”
“He’s starting to understand how strong he is,” Williams added on Ayton. “There were a number of times when he got the ball some would say too high on the pocket and he took a dribble or two and hit Sabonis in the chest. … I thought he made quick decisions but he also made the right reads in swinging the ball to the back side.”
This was a huge part of Paul’s assist-loaded evening, and ditto for Ayton’s 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks on 13-of-17 shooting. Paul assisted nine of those 13 field goals.
It’s the third time in the last five games Ayton’s recorded more than 25 points on 75% shooting or better.
“He’s making it tough on ’em,” Booker said of Ayton. “They wanna be up and show those blitzes or halfway blitzes and he’s getting a hit on our man and he’s finding the open space and you know how he is in that midrange to little paint areas — automatic. We try to play to everybody’s strengths and that’s one of his, so when he has space in that pocket, it’s money.”
Paul’s 19 assists are the second most by a player this season and ties his best mark as a Sun. He added 17 points.
Booker, who had a team-high 32 points (13-for-20), has often said defending the Suns is about picking your poison.
This is about to be some lethal poison distributed to opposing defenses.
As a basketball nerd, it’s impossible to watch Phoenix play and not picture how Durant would look inside of what the Suns do. With his prowess for ball-handling, shot-making and screening, he can be deployed anywhere. That versatility can instantly make an opposing defense off-center.
In this set below, he could be Ayton, Booker or Paul.
It’s true. This offense was made for KD. https://t.co/HPQP1IJSeJ pic.twitter.com/60QjmPEaYa
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) February 15, 2023
Phoenix shot 56.8% and produced 33 assists.
Josh Okogie was awesome again with 19 points (8-of-13), six rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes.
This is the second straight start for Okogie, a player on the shortlist of potential fifth starters in a fully healthy version of Phoenix’s roster. Okogie’s defense is always going to be a positive, so if he’s able to find a way to impact the game elsewhere, he’s a difference maker.
He’s been doing that in his last three contests, and perhaps more importantly, he’s knocking down open shots. Entering the season, of the 220 players to attempt at least 500 3s since Okogie entered the league in the 2018-19 season, Okogie ranked last in 3-point percentage at 27.5%, per Stathead.
Okogie in his last 30 games is shooting 39.5%, which are all the games since he began the year making just one of his first 18 attempts.
Add on the freak athlete plays you get like offensive rebounds and that’s enough. But the bonus has been his drives as of late, where Okogie’s 0.5 decision-making to set up his teammates has been great. If you go back and watch that hypothetical KD possession, it’s Okogie bringing the ball up, which shows the trust that he’s established with Williams.
“We’re just trying to figure out ways to use what he brings to the table,” Williams said of Okogie. “The defense has been spectacular. The offensive rebounding, timely offensive boards and then having enough versatility to get the ball down the floor so that Chris and Book don’t always have to do it something we’ve been trying to work on all year long.”
Okogie still hesitates occasionally when he has the space to shoot and good defenses heavily sag off him but what Okogie provides in point-of-attack defense really helps ease the burden the defense automatically has now without Mikal Bridges.
Williams said he will have an open mind with Okogie, noting he might start him or Craig depending on the matchup while also pointing out it’s just been a few games and they don’t want to get too happy on the farm.
While Durant, Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness) are out, we got out first peek at Williams’ rotations with a new roster. Damion Lee (23 minutes) and Ish Wainright (20) got the majority of the bench run while T.J. Warren (7) will need some additional practice time before seeing a more expanded role. Darius Bazley did not get a look.
The Suns have now won 11 of their last 14 games and are a game back of Sacramento in third place for the West. It’s only now 3.5 games for second too.