EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ new dimensions flash in Kevin Durant’s debut, win over Hornets

Mar 1, 2023, 8:49 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2023, 7:48 am

Kelly Oubre Jr. #12 of the Charlotte Hornets guards Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns in the thi...

Kelly Oubre Jr. #12 of the Charlotte Hornets guards Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns in the third quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on March 01, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina.(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

It was only Kevin Durant’s first game with the Phoenix and he was on a minutes restriction, but the tantalizing upside came oozing out of Wednesday’s 105-91 Suns win over the Charlotte Hornets.

In what is going to be a multi-step process and with Wednesday serving as nothing more than a sneak peek against a bad 20-44 Hornets team, the potential flashed. And not in the way we would talk about Dragan Bender or Josh Jackson flashing five years ago.

Durant contributed 23 points, six rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 27 minutes and was a +13 while shooting 10-for-15.

Offensively, one of the new dimensions is pretty simple.

The best scorer of all time can get to his shot whenever he wants and leaves the defense hopeless.

Durant got to his pull-up jumper a few different times in the first half.

Phoenix fed Durant in the post a handful of times, which drew double-teams from the Hornets to try and avoid said hopelessness. Durant made the right play out of those situations.

Over the coming weeks, we will see the Suns layer on some Durant decoys into their intricate offense. Here is one example, Durant screening for Chris Paul in the empty pick-and-rolls we previewed to trigger a Durant post-up, only for the set to actually be for Devin Booker, who explodes into an open 3 on the other wing.

The set starts with Booker running down the floor and getting a screen from Durant, so Booker was actually the first decoy, an example of how complicated the Suns can make this.

The possibilities are just as intriguing on defense, which will be a surprise for many, but maybe they are less surprised after watching Durant operate on Wednesday.

Durant brought up during his introductory press conference how he loves for his defense to feed into his offense. You won’t find a better example of this than that.

Durant switches onto Charlotte center Mark Williams, allowing for center Deandre Ayton’s expertise with perimeter defense to get a crack while Durant easily handles an attempted finish around the rim. That’s a possession previously where someone like Cam Johnson would be switched onto a center and would be in a tough spot. Durant allows the defense in that type of scenario to maintain its structural integrity.

His length creates options.

The Suns experimented through some of the first half with a far more aggressive defensive scheme. A lot of that is because of how freaking large Durant is, and when guys like Torrey Craig and T.J. Warren are playing small forward, that’s a huge lineup.

Check out here how Durant slightly helping clogs up an entire Hornets possession.

Phoenix occasionally had their big “show,” meaning the Suns’ center came up to the level of a ball screen to cut off the driving lane for the ball-handler. This is not something head coach Monty Williams and his staff have done much with Ayton in the past, but you know what helps with that?

Another seven-footer to protect the paint.

Suns players responded to the game plan by playing terrific defense to be ahead of Charlotte by as many as 19 points in the first half.

The Hornets trickled back into the game, though, trailing by just six through three quarters.

Enter Durant.

After a choppy few minutes for Phoenix’s reserves, he self-stabilized the offense with nine points across 2:46 to keep the Suns up 11.

Watch for the way he zooms out of his first step on the first and last buckets of these clips.

Knee looks good to me!

And that was while Booker rested. Imagine that?

For the 12:15 of game time that Durant was on the floor without Booker, the newcomer was 7-of-9 for 16 points and the Suns were +12. They’ve never comes close to that level of security when the face of the franchise sits.

Not bad relief for Booker, the guy that ended up with 37 points, six rebounds, seven assists and one turnover on 15-of-26 from the field.

It was a return to form for the First Team All-NBA guard who had been averaging just 23.3 points per game across the six-game stretch since his first game back from injury, a stretch that lacked that high-end ability we’ve come to know.

And that’s what the presence of Durant can do. He’s handled the heaviest loads of pressure across his career, and that frees up his teammates. As a superstar, all the praise and criticism always comes his way first. That will not change in Phoenix.

All everyone has been talking about is Durant and when he was going to debut. He did, and during it, you were primarily focusing on just him, weren’t you?

Durant simplifies Ayton’s role a lot as well and the big man was rock solid in Charlotte with 16 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and a block with sound defensive play throughout.

Josh Okogie got the nod as the fifth starter. He was part of that defensive havoc and has two steals and a block to go with four points.

Durant’s minutes restriction and the absence of Terrence Ross (right toe soreness) denied us a chance at complete clarity for what the post-Durant Suns rotation looks like.

Durant played roughly the first six minutes of each quarter and then sat the rest of the way except for the last three of the game. It was 15 minutes off the bench each for Craig, Jock Landale, Damion Lee and Cam Payne. While Ish Wainright was the second wing off the bench, Williams did turn to Warren for the first time in three games. Warren scored two points in 13 minutes.

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