Shorthanded Suns stall out in 4th quarter of loss to Lakers

Oct 26, 2023, 10:30 PM | Updated: 10:33 pm

Kevin Durant in Suns-Lakers...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns is defended by Cam Reddish #5 and and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Crypto.com Arena on October 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant nearly carried a Phoenix Suns team without Bradley Beal (low back tightness) and Devin Booker (left foot soreness) past the Los Angeles Lakers before predictable offensive shortcomings arrived abruptly and suddenly in the fourth quarter of a 100-95 loss on Thursday.

Through the first 10:05 of the final frame, Phoenix had one field goal and three total points via a Durant 3-pointer. For the quarter as a whole, the Suns turned the ball over 10 times and were outscored 28-11.

Phoenix was +27 in the minutes Durant played in the opening three quarters and led by 12 before going down four with under three minutes left. The Suns struggled massively to generate good looks without any creators at guard out there but a Durant 14-footer and strong finish through contact in transition tied the game with 90 seconds to go, while also having Durant pass Hakeem Olajuwon for 12th on the all-time scoring leaderboard (26,949 points for Durant now).

But after a rather relaxed 46 minutes and 30 seconds from LeBron James, he turned on his downhill jets as the mobile refrigerator with one-of-a-kind afterburners that has dominated the league for two decades.

James drove right to the basket to finish over Suns center Jusuf Nurkic, who didn’t do too bad of a job in cutting off the space. He’s just the king for a reason.

James scored a layup, Durant missed a pull-up 3, James scored another layup and then the Suns’ final congested possession with no room for Durant to move went south to end the night.

Durant finished with 39 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, a steal, a block and eight turnovers on 14-of-28 shooting. Phoenix was -23 in the nine minutes he sat.

James countered with 21 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks in their first matchup since 2018 while Anthony Davis contributed a team-high 30 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and three blocks.

Without Beal and Booker on the floor, much of the onus for making the offense click was placed on Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon, the two who started in their place. While Gordon was able to get downhill into some buckets, both guys weren’t doing so on a consistent enough basis to trigger ball rotations or a one-pass setup into an open look. They can’t just be individual players or drive into nothing too much or it really bogs down the offense.

This is where Jordan Goodwin was great off the bench in the first half and why head coach Frank Vogel closed with Goodwin on the floor bringing the ball up. Goodwin was able to find lanes off the ball screens to get to either his floater, a swing pass or a dump off until those situations dropped off for him in the fourth quarter, putting everything back on Durant to find the right spots once Phoenix fed him the ball through his off-ball motion.

Durant is the best scorer of all time so he makes the defense move on his own so his team’s offense can. No Beal or Booker meant Durant had two extra bodies waiting for him wherever he went, and that makes it easy enough to find someone open.

But Phoenix obviously hasn’t been practicing that much or developed a feel for these minutes with just Durant, so the spacing on some of the ridiculous over-helping by the Lakers was still a work in progress. Players were cutting when they shouldn’t and the timing was off as a whole, resulting in a handful of Durant’s turnovers.

The Suns were able to be in the game because of Durant’s prowess through an absurd amount of defensive attention and a terrific effort with physicality defensively, led by Goodwin and Josh Okogie.

Basketball is a numbers game in many ways, and one of them is how the shot clock can be one of the best defenders on the floor. If a team on offense triggers its action and begins a play with 15 or less seconds left on the shot clock, one stalled out moment will result in half of that getting cut. From there, it’s desperation time and the chances of getting a good look up diminish greatly.

One way defenses can make this happen is with immediate ball pressure, using hounding defenders on the primary initiator of that given play so they can’t freely dribble into their position. A few chest bumps and arms in the way later, the odds of that possession going well have already been cut down. Goodwin and Okogie were all over this in the first half, even blowing some possessions up when they entirely denied the first read so L.A. had to eject and close out the sequence on a standard approach with little movement.

They can be disruptors through and through, so when they are providing contributions offensively to this level, it’s going to, by default, make the Suns a better defensive team. In a loss that will result in some criticism of the supporting cast, it’s important to spotlight how well Goodwin and Okogie played on both ends in this one.

Okogie was at it again with havoc on the offensive glass, grabbing four of his eight total rebounds there while adding 10 points and three assists. Goodwin took 16 shots (!), which shows 1) how much Phoenix needed another ball-handler and 2) that L.A. was OK making him a scorer. He made six of them for 14 points with six rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Gordon was 6-for-16 with 15 points and no assists while Allen produced six points, six rebounds and four assists on 2-of-6 shooting.

The Lakers will be happy with a win when they shot 5-of-29 (17.2%) from 3.

Through two games, the Suns now have 39 assists and 39 turnovers. The 39 turnovers are the most Phoenix has had in a two-game stretch since March 2021, per Stathead.

With Chris Paul at the helm, Phoenix had an excellent assist-to-turnover ratio for three straight years. At least in the early-going here, that will change. The Suns not only want to play much faster but have a lot of continuity to build up as well.

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