EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

What to watch in Kevin Durant’s return, closing stretch of the season

Mar 29, 2023, 7:42 AM

Phoenix Suns Forward Kevin Durant (35) and Phoenix Suns Guard Devin Booker (1) looks on during a NB...

Phoenix Suns Forward Kevin Durant (35) and Phoenix Suns Guard Devin Booker (1) looks on during a NBA game between the Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls on March 3, 2023 at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Wednesday is expected to bring the home debut of Kevin Durant and the resumption of the Phoenix Suns’ incorporation process that only got a three-game trial run before Durant twisted his left ankle in pregame warmups and missed the next 10 outings.

The matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves marks game No. 76 of the year, one of seven remaining with Durant to figure things out.

Here are the areas to monitor, beginning with how he immediately helps Phoenix and then moving into what will and needs to change around him.

Immediate relief

Do you remember the video game RollerCoaster Tycoon? And how you could make your own thrill ride, mixing in ridiculous inclines and steep drops that you weren’t sure would function until you tested it? Well, if you do, that has been the Suns’ 2022-23 season. If you don’t, this paints the picture well enough:

Across three segments of the season, in order, Phoenix went 16-7, 6-17 and then 15-5 before Durant’s ankle twist. Since then, it is 4-6, and we’ll see how the rest of this segment turns out.

The point is less about that and more about this group’s rocky (for obvious reasons) journey. Durant should provide some stability before the real fun starts.

There is a simplicity to his scoring production and what it brings. In the 10 games, a Phoenix player not named Devin Booker cracked 25-plus points just twice — Deandre Ayton’s 27 in a loss to the Golden State Warriors and Terrence Ross’ 30 against the Sacramento Kings in another defeat.

Durant’s a walking 25-point-per-night player and he knows when to get that rolling. In Durant’s Suns debut, he scored 16 of his 23 points across the 12 minutes Booker sat.

And there’s so much he can do for an offense when he’s not scoring.

I fully understand the weight of using a verb like “mastered,” and Durant has borderline done it with his sport.

With how many double teams he received in that week, it was impressive to watch Durant’s instant adjustments to keep the offense churning thanks to his ability to make the right pass immediately. He already trusts all of his teammates, and more importantly, wants his teammates to know that. The win in Chicago was an example of how he will burn teams if they want to go this route on a particular defensive coverage.

(Side note: Listen for the “Boom!” from him on some of the last buckets. He loves it.)

He makes everyone better around him, as all the superstars do.

Wednesday would be just the 11th game this season when the Suns have their intended starting lineup. This one featuring Durant, Booker, Ayton, Chris Paul and Josh Okogie was +38 in 49 minutes, good for a 37.3 net rating. That included a 92.2 defensive rating (like something from the 1980s), a number that will balloon a bit in a bigger sample size but speaks to how Durant’s impact will shore up a lot on that end. We’ll get to more on that in a minute.

Deandre Ayton’s involvement

In the three games Durant played, Ayton attempted 20 total shots and half of those were in Charlotte for Durant’s debut.

That’s gotta go up. The Suns are more than aware of it and will surely have it be a focus in these two weeks.

When Durant was on the floor, the player I noticed him deferring to the most out of anyone was actually Ayton. When he ran an action with Ayton, he wasn’t pressing his own agenda and instead waited for it to develop for the big man so he could get him the ball. Like Paul when he got here two years ago, they both understand how crucial Ayton is to the team’s success and want to work out the kinks with him right away.

As is the case with any ball screen partner, Ayton has his own cadence to get down. The Suns opened the last two games Durant played with the same play that’s designed to get Ayton the ball from the extra attention Durant draws in.

The bottom line is Ayton’s role is the garbage man. Always has been and always will be. But now it’s the most magnified it has ever been.

He’s doing all the dirty work: Setting screens, running the floor, sealing, protecting the basket, crashing the glass and running the floor some more. Ayton has excelled at it in the past but at no point until now has it been clear that his offensive involvement could seriously ebb and flow. And as everyone knows, the ebbs and have been ebb-ing and the flows have been flowing already when it should be a more direct, defined source of production for the offense.

It won’t be perfect. Some nights Ayton’s going to take 15 shots and some nights he’s going to take five. The Suns, however, will keep him engaged the more he’s getting the ball and can’t allow him to get lost without it.

Dare to dream

It was less than a week into seeing the possibilities unlocked by Durant, the extra notches on the skill tree the Suns can reach now.

Two 7-footers on the court changes what Phoenix can achieve defensively. Schemes will be diversified. Durant’s prolific and effective weak-side rim protection allows it.

Against the Hornets, Ayton flashed a few containments of the ball-handler at the level of the screen, thanks to Durant creeping over under the rim.

That was new. Ayton’s always been athletic and intelligent enough to execute but the problem has been who defends the paint in the meantime and the recoveries out of a trap.

Problem solved.

Elsewhere, during Durant’s recovery, Phoenix used Darius Bazley, Torrey Craig, Ish Wainright and T.J. Warren as small-ball 5s. Outside of situational moments for a possession or two, the Suns never used this concept in the past.

As the great Brian Windhorst once said, “Now why is that?”

*Points fingers while pondering at the sky*

Head coach Monty Williams spoke on what that look gives the Suns.

“The versatility to be able to switch and Torrey and Ish and T.J. — they give you a level of size and physicality. … Just being able to keep the ball in front, guard the ball with guys that can move their feet for more than two dribbles and then hopefully it takes away 3s because you’re switching (and) you don’t have to help as much,” he said. “I think that’s something that we can hopefully grow (but) the tough part about those lineups is trying to figure out what offensive package can you get into because typically you have a bigger guy running your stuff and you don’t have that with that group.”

Then, Williams confirmed the coaching staff has talked about using Durant as a 5.

“We have. I think it’s something that, it would be irresponsible not to look at it,” Williams said. “I think in those situations you don’t have to make it calculus, you know what I mean? You’re just trying to space the floor and take advantage of his skill set and making sure everyone around him is spaced properly.”

Rotation choices

Right at the moment when Phoenix’s bench has found its groove, another shuffle is tossed its way with Durant coming back, changing the rotations yet again.

Ross is averaging 19.3 points per game in the Suns’ last three contests and Warren checks in at 13.3. Even the likes of Bismack Biyombo (11.3), Jock Landale (9.5) and Cam Payne (9.0) are finding a flow as well.

Durant starting moves Torrey Craig to the bench, and he’s really the only guy we can say with absolute certainty has a rotation spot. The other goes to the backup center, Biyombo or Landale, depending on the matchup. But as we covered, Phoenix could go small to avoid needing a center if the playoff matchup calls for it.

Payne and Landry Shamet were previously viewed as integral to Phoenix’s success. Depending on how Williams chooses to utilize the top foursome, though, he could position himself into not requiring a ball-handler off the bench if he staggers Booker, Durant and Paul in a certain way to keep a primary initiator on the floor. And we all know those playoff minute totals are going to get high.

This thought, however, more gets presented because of how Ross and Warren have played as of late.

“They’re just buckets,” Booker said of the two on Tuesday. “I think coming to a new system, new team, you each have to find your ways and when the best time is and where the spots to be able to get it done (are). And I think they’re becoming more and more comfortable every game and those are the type of guys where it doesn’t really matter what type of defense you play on them.”

While Ross has still been a defensive liability, surrounding the Suns’ stars with shooting is a must, and that’s what he can provide. His flamethrower upside is the type of microwave scoring that has been sorely missing in Phoenix’s second unit and is making an impact in the fourth quarter of close games.

We saw it in Sacramento.

And a briefer version of it again in Utah. Peep the bench after the second bucket — they loved that one-two.

Whether it’s the 15 points in 7:28 against the Kings or seven points in 3:18 versus the Jazz, those explosions matter and will swing a playoff game. And the lesser one was more impressive, because Ross was struggling big-time prior to that fourth quarter and was 2-for-8 before he nailed his first three shots in the final frame.

Warren has been more adept defensively, looking the part through switching and fitting into the system.

He didn’t look like himself in spot minutes since arriving the day of the trade deadline but now we’re seeing “Tony Buckets” with the scoring prowess we expected from the former Sun once Williams gave Warren a legitimate look in 20-plus minutes each of the last four games.

Williams admitted he may have not given Warren a complete look in the rotation had Durant not been injured, so if Warren is making plays in late April and beyond, remember that as a positive to come out of a bad situation.

Damion Lee’s shooting, Payne’s slashing, Shamet’s on-ball defense and Wainright’s defensive versatility are all traits that will earn consideration, just like the bucket-getting from that duo.

Some of this travels around the bend just to arrive back at the original point of Durant as well. The way Williams was playing the rotations in those three games was having Durant start the second and fourth quarters, staggering Booker and Durant to also give the reserves a leader in that group.

It could come down to just who fits around Durant.

“What group is best with him in that second unit and trying to space around him the best you can. … It could be fluid going forward, trying to figure out who can space the floor, but then you have to think about the other end,” Williams said of that choice. “Like, who is gonna be the defender against the toughest wing? Maybe you have to sacrifice a bit of scoring to make sure your defense doesn’t take too many steps back.”

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