EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns claw to scrappy win in Kevin Durant’s home debut

Mar 29, 2023, 11:59 PM | Updated: Mar 30, 2023, 8:36 am

PHOENIX — Twenty days after spraining his left ankle in pregame warmups and missing 10 games, Kevin Durant returned to the Footprint Center floor 75 minutes before tip-off on Wednesday to go through the same routine.

He got about halfway through it, and just as he was moving toward the right block, the same place he twisted that ankle, he turned around and walked over to the scorer’s table.

Durant arrived in front of our own Vince Marotta, looked down and found what he was looking for. He ripped off the plastic covering on a sticky pad, getting a fresh source of grip on his sneakers to make sure everything was extra secure. And then he got that back-to-the-basket work in.

Everything went fine, all while ball boys were quadruple-checking for any possible precipitation emerging by quickly tapping their fingers on the hardwood. Durant was probably the least anxious person out there while the collective stress of a fanbase watching could be felt. It went off without a hitch and the onlookers collectively exhaled as he walked off the court back to the locker room.

It could finally be treated as real, Durant’s home debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 107-100 win.

His performance, however, did not feel real, especially after how smooth Durant’s first three Suns games went. He missed 13 total shots in those, and on Wednesday, that was also how many he failed to convert. Durant was 5-of-18, marking it the 786th regular season game in which he’s taken at least 15 shots and just the 24th he shot under 30% in, per Stathead. That’s 3% of those games, quite the statistical anomaly.

Durant’s greatness and the effortless, smooth nature to his scoring go hand in hand. To see him, the “Slim Reaper,” struggling to find a rhythm — it speaks to something different going on.

How about, oh, I don’t know, playing your fourth game in nearly three months after two separate injuries and making your home debut in front of a fanbase that had been champing at the bit to see you live for over six weeks since your introductory press conference in front a few thousand screaming fans and following a late scratch in the presumed home debut three weeks prior?

“Whole city has been waiting on this,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Wednesday. “It’s a really special night. A big night in the history of the organization and the fans showed the love that was deserved.”

Of course, the one NBA player’s emotions that everyone is obsessed with discussing above all others plays a home debut that inspires reactions on what his emotions were. There is a strange bit of humor in that.

Predictably, there were some nerves!

“It was hard for me to get sleep today, it was hard for me to stop thinking about the game and sometimes you can want it too badly and you come out there and you start rushing and start being uncharacteristic,” Durant said of his energy today.

“I think that it’s a lot given what happened last time when he was supposed to play his first game,” Suns point guard Chris Paul added on Durant. “I think conditioning is one thing but it’s also the excitement. I don’t care how long you play this game, you’re still excited, you’re still nervous. If he didn’t feel that then it would be a problem.”

“Don’t tell him I said it, but he did,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said when asked if he thought Durant was nervous. “I seen it. You can tell there was a little fatigue as well. Just everybody, the emotion, and all that stuff was involved. He got teammates [that are] dogs and we’re gonna cover up for you, man.”

Cover up, they did.

A defensive effort that got better as the game went along was fueled by a tremendous amount of energy out of halftime resonating off of Paul. He was heavily involved on both ends, and while his 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting with six assists and two steals is similar to many of his lines this month, it was Paul’s best outing since the All-Star break.

In an offense with endless options given Durant’s presence, the two-man game of Paul and Ayton was what closed up shop.

A Paul jumper at 6:06 remaining followed by an Ayton dunk with 4:40 left and another Paul midrange bucket at 2:13 to go kept Minnesota at a distance, a seven-point edge. Sandwiched in there was a huge Torrey Craig offensive rebound putback on a missed Paul 3-pointer.

With the lead down to four at under a minute left, Paul found Ayton on a lob, the type of free alley-oop finish Ayton rarely gets.

The reason why? Well, look in that weak-side corner why don’t ya and see who the low man has to help off of.

“It’s completely different,” Booker said of the spacing with Durant.

“Whether he has the ball or he’s on the floor — his tippy toes could be on the floor (and) they’re gonna have to change up their defensive coverages a little bit,” Ayton, the source of interior gravity, said of Durant’s exterior gravity.

That is how Durant can help the Suns win, even on a 16-point off night.

“A couple of those shots, though, I definitely [was rushing] and trying to get it all back at once,” Durant said of it. “I can get in my own way sometimes thinking too much, trying to get those shots back. Trying to settle in as much as I can.”

It’s worth noting he was pretty darn good defensively, meaning he was easily a positive out there despite the rough shooting numbers. I would be shocked if this was not the worst game he plays the remainder of the year, regular season and playoffs.

The Timberwolves are a team almost built to muck up games, whether that’s by design or not.

Minnesota is an odd matchup personnel-wise with two traditional bigs. Phoenix countered this by doubling Karl-Anthony Towns, something it rarely does, even against the best in the world. That combined with stretching the floor Towns and backup 5 Naz Reid provide make it a disjointed bunch of defensive rotations Phoenix is not used to.

On the other end, Mike Conley is one of the better defenders at his position still, and on the right night, the young duo of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels can best just about anyone on the ball. McDaniels is in the running for an All-Defense spot while Edwards moves like someone who has the capability to make that list for a decade straight.

Most basketball games are decided by who dictates things, though. All of that doesn’t mean it should discombobulate the Suns, not if they play their brand of basketball. But their energy and execution were off, so Minnesota reigned supreme in that facet.

Fortunately for Phoenix, the Timberwolves still didn’t play all that well and were playing their third game in four days of a challenging road trip. The biggest lead in either direction was five points until the early third quarter when a 9-2 Timberwolves run was the first real surge from either team and put them up 10.

Phoenix responded with a 15-4 run to take the lead back, but even after a Cam Payne-led spurt to end the third frame was positioning the Suns to get back in the driver’s seat, the game’s flow got all mucked up again.

Durant, however, hit a pair of huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter set up by Payne to keep Minnesota at bay before the aforementioned Paul, Craig and Ayton baskets were the 6-0 run to really get the Suns in control.

Minnesota’s 21 turnovers were the real difference maker on a night where the Suns’ offensive mechanics weren’t yielding strong assist (20) or 3-point (6-for-20, 33.3%) numbers. Towns and Rudy Gobert had six turnovers apiece.

Part of that third quarter surge was from Devin Booker, who tied his season high for free-throw attempts with 15 and got the team into the bonus midway through that period. He scored a team-high 29 points to go along with five assists and four steals.

We mentioned Payne’s part of that, as “The Haboob” glided through the Valley with a terrific 11 points in 13 minutes.

Edwards contributed a game-high 31 points for Minnesota and Towns added 25. Phoenix limited the latter to just five points in the second half. Paul noted how Towns was getting some good looks off the same set play and that the Suns adjusted at halftime.

It will get lost in the shuffle how important this win was for Phoenix.

It was mostly an ugly affair that could have gone either way, and winning those games with the playoff positioning the way that it is in the Western Conference at the moment is a big boost. Phoenix has six games remaining and is now three games clear in the loss column of the drop to the play-in tournament at seventh, a mess everyone assumed it would avoid but easily could have found itself in with another sloppy loss or two.

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