Durant’s absence puts Suns in familiar position, creates new opportunities

Mar 10, 2023, 6:49 PM
Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the first half of the NBA game at F...
Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It’s not like the Phoenix Suns haven’t been here before.

Kevin Durant’s left ankle sprain and three-week timeline get added to a list of Suns injuries this year that we’ve needed to flip over and use the other side for because we ran out of room on it.

All six of the mainstays in the starting lineup have had injuries at one point prevent the projected five from getting on the court together.

Phoenix has only had 10 of its 66 games with that. Going a step further, looking at the starters when four of the expected five were in, it’s only another 16 games. So that’s 40 of the Suns’ games when they’ve had at least two missing starters.

And yet, here they are, 37-29.

Anyone suggesting a steep drop-off in the standings is coming without Durant hasn’t been paying enough attention.

“It’s not something you want to deal with,” Williams said Friday, noting the Sacramento Kings as an example of not having to much because of their great health. “When you’ve had it happen a number of times, it does give you some experience. At the end of the day, you want to have your team whole when you’re on the floor. Right now, we have a pretty important guy who’s out and we have important guys who can step up and take advantage of that.

“It’s not something that you wish you were used to but it’s just the way that it is. We’ll adapt. We’ve been really good at that all year long, just adapting to guys being out. Book was out, Chris was out, we’ve had a number of guys who have been out for extended periods.”

Durant’s insertion had the rotation arrive at a line-in-the-sand moment, forcing Williams and his staff to pick a few guys from a group full of contributions through all the injuries.

Josh Okogie made that cut and will remain a starter. But the benefit of this time for guys like Torrey Craig, Terrence Ross and Ish Wainright is they will get some more legitimate minutes. And guys like Darius Bazley and T.J. Warren could get playing time after that didn’t look as likely a few days ago.

All of them, like Okogie successfully did two months ago, can make a case for a playoff role.

“We don’t want to throw guys out there just to throw them out there and mess around with the game but I think these are opportunities for guys for sure to get extended minutes, some guys to get some minutes and at the end of the day we want to win games and be productive,” Williams said. “When stuff like this comes up, the professionalism that guys have to have in situations like this is paramount. Being ready, staying ready mentally and physically is a skill in this league and we’re counting on that with guys we have who have been waiting for a chance to play.”

Craig will be huge. Even though he’s never been an everyday starter for Phoenix, he’s got 60 games to his name across three seasons thanks to scenarios like this one. He’s been in the program long enough to really know the system, the perfect type of short-term piece to replace Durant in the lineup.

“Just from the standpoint of bouncing back and forth to starter to rotation to low-minute, situational — he’s been able to adjust to every situation and it’s certainly something we value,” Williams said of Craig.

In terms of the valuable on-court reps Durant will miss out on, though, I was curious how much changed for the extra wrinkles Phoenix was planning on figuring out with Durant across that time. The Suns, of course, will not run the same stuff they would have with Durant given how one-of-one his size and talent are.

Is it going back to the drawing board for that part of the system? A reset of sorts?

“I don’t think you have to go back,” Williams said Friday. “I think you may just hold on to what you have until he comes back, and I didn’t want to add much more anyway. I think we have maybe enough to go forward and then I’ve always felt you have to allow great players to go out there and play and maybe you can learn some things. When he was on the floor, he did a few things organically that we felt like, ‘OK we need to add that’ and we were able to do it on the fly because we have pretty smart guys who typically have the ball between Kevin, Chris and Book.

“So it was easy to implement. I’m all about the spacing around those guys to partner with the wrinkles that you add. We were able to look at a couple of new things, and then watching him, he shows you a few things on his own and you can’t help but add it to the mix.”

With all this said, the Suns are two games into their 18-game gauntlet, with the 16 left yielding the third-toughest strength of schedule remaining.

Simplifying that a bit, eight of those games are against teams holding a top-six spot in their respective conference.

And three of ’em are Western Conference foes that Phoenix could use the extra game advantage against in either direction of the standings.

Two are the next pair of matchups, Saturday’s hosting of the 39-26 Kings and a Monday trip to San Francisco against the 34-33 Golden State Warriors.

Phoenix is three back in the loss column of Sacramento (and Memphis) and 2.5 games overall, a deficit it could make up by two with a trip to northern California later this month serving as the finale of the in-season series.

Its first two showdowns went in favor of Phoenix, meaning one more Suns win gives them the tiebreaker in the not completely out-of-the-question conclusion that ends with them and the Kings tied.

Devin Booker and Chris Paul have enjoyed this matchup.

Booker is shooting 30-of-48 (62.5%) with 76 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and eight steals in 70 minutes across the two games. Paul missed the first and then bested the awesome De’Aaron Fox with 17 points, five rebounds, 19 assists and two steals in a February win.

The biggest individual matchup is the big men, Deandre Ayton and All-NBA candidate Domantas Sabonis. Entering this year across seven matchups, Sabonis typically got the better of Ayton by getting him into foul trouble. Sabonis had averaged 20.1 points and 14 rebounds to Ayton’s 14.7 points and 10.9 rebounds, with both of them holding similar field goal percentages.

Ayton has fared much better this season.

In the most recent victory, Sacramento’s pick your poison was allowing Ayton room in the short roll, and he roasted them with 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks on 13-of-17 shooting.

While Sabonis got to 24 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and two steals, Ayton severely outplayed him, a callback to Ayton’s tremendous 2021 postseason when matchups with Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic didn’t faze him.

Keep an eye on the Kings’ initial ball screen coverage to open the game. Paul certainly will be, and if he sees the same sort of looks, he will feed Ayton all-you-can-eat style.

Durant’s absence leaves an offensive void that has to be picked up. Expect Paul and Ayton to take the lead on that but now the offensive skills from players like Ross, Warren and Cam Payne are more important again. This should be a nice chance for all three to find a rhythm.

“My thinking is these obstacles create opportunities,” Williams said. “Maybe we learn something about another guy that we wouldn’t have learned had this not happened.”

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