EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns will force Denver Nuggets, NBA to pick their poison

Mar 30, 2023, 7:01 PM | Updated: Mar 31, 2023, 12:36 pm

Devin Booker #1, Kevin Durant #35, Deandre Ayton #22 and Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns stand o...

Devin Booker #1, Kevin Durant #35, Deandre Ayton #22 and Josh Okogie #2 of the Phoenix Suns stand on the court during a timeout from the second half of the NBA game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Footprint Center on March 29, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 107-100. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — There are almost always two sides to something.

If Kevin Durant plays the rest of the Phoenix Suns’ regular season games, he will have 10 under his belt before the playoffs start.

That is not a ton of time for Phoenix to establish continuity, admittedly something easier to do with a versatile superstar like Durant.

But it’s not a ton of time for opposing defenses to get a look at it and try a bunch of different stuff out, either.

What we will be watching over the rest of this season is what the opposition is willing to sacrifice. Want to double Durant on isolations? Well, that might end in an open shot for Devin Booker. Want to contain Booker’s drives? Well, that might leave Deandre Ayton open on his rolls or allow the ball rotations to trigger on the perimeter to someone like Durant or Chris Paul attacking a closeout.

In Wednesday’s Suns win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the guests in Footprint Center were first and foremost not giving Durant any space off the ball (as they should) and tried to do the same with Booker (as they should).

That left Paul and Ayton enough room to run the two-man game in the fourth quarter to much effectiveness, winning the game.

This whole discussion point was expertly detailed in video form by The Dunker Spot’s Nekias Duncan, highlighting four plays where the star gravity opened up a whole lot for Ayton in particular.

The last possession in there, the ultimately game-winning lob to Ayton, was open because Durant was in the corner where the help comes from.

“At the end, he was in the corner and Chris and Book and DA were in the middle third playing. That’s something that we can go to if you put Kevin in the corner,” head coach Monty Williams said Wednesday. “Nobody wants to leave him. If they do, he’s gonna knock that shot down.”

At a two-point game with a little over six minutes left, the only points Booker or Durant would score were Booker’s two free throws when the game’s fate was already sealed and neither had an assist as well.

The adage that has been a favorite of Booker’s for years now is “pick your poison.” A defense can only take away so much.

And here’s the thing: A defense can only have a certain amount of the right defensive personnel as well.

“Most teams don’t have two solid defenders like Minnesota does with [Anthony Edwards] and (Jaden) McDaniels so I know it frees up Chris a lot,” Booker said of it Wednesday. “It’s gonna be hard for guys to be picking him up 94 feet every time so it relieves pressure for everybody.”

Let Paul further expand on that.

“Offensively, we gonna be able to get whatever we want, I feel like,” he said. “Because usually we play against Minnesota and Jaden McDaniels usually guard me. So now you see, if he ain’t guarding KD, he’s probably gonna guard Book — now point guards actually guard me.”

On Friday, the top-seeded Denver Nuggets roll into town, and we’ll see what they try then and again in Phoenix six days later.

Denver’s got a bit going for it in this matchup. Aaron Gordon is a solid body to throw on Durant, as is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on Booker. Bruce Brown will be a factor in that off the bench too. And since the turn of the new year, the Nuggets have been a top 10 team in defensive rating.

But its still got three other guys, and two of them are going to be prominently involved defensively.

Jamal Murray, not quite a liability but not a plus defender, will presumably take Paul. Michael Porter Jr., still a liability two years after the Suns relentlessly targeted him in the playoffs, will get somewhat of a pass on Josh Okogie, but believe me, Phoenix will find a way to incorporate him. Then there’s Jokic, who is in the same category as Murray and will be tested by the various pick-and-rolls to force him to recover in space or switch, like the Suns have done in the past.

Murray and Jokic can be solid and even good most nights when fully locked in. Jokic, for all the foot speed problems, is underrated even. The thing is, they have to be at that level defensively and more against this Suns team. (Jokic did not play on Thursday night in Denver after being listed as questionable due to right calf tightness so his status for Friday is up in the air.)

It’s an excellent team that will provide another good test, like Minnesota. After Durant’s implementation was seamless for the three road games at the beginning of the month, his home debut looked like more of what was to be expected, a bit stagnant. Williams said Thursday that the team was able to get in two full scrimmage days earlier this month to make that possible in Durant’s initial debut and called Wednesday almost like training camp in a way with how Durant had to get assimilated.

It’s going to take time, and Paul said they will try to simplify things a bit for now, noting he’s never played with an isolation scorer like Durant who consistently forces double teams.

After Wednesday marked three wins in a row overall for Phoenix, Paul was not willing to say the team is starting to get on a little roll and indicated how the process is underway.

“No, this is the fourth game with one of the best players to ever play,” he said. “We won the game, which is cool, but we’re going to constantly change. We got a few games left, so every game it might be somebody different. At the end of the game, it was me and DA in pick and roll. It might be KD and Book (next game). With our team, we got so many guys that’s willing and able to do whatever.”

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