Phoenix Suns manage comfortable victory over Blazers

Nov 21, 2023, 11:03 PM

PHOENIX — It wasn’t quite the 30-point blowout it likely should have been, but the Phoenix Suns got the job done on Tuesday night with a 120-107 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers to make it four straight.

Kevin Durant and Devin Booker both didn’t dominate this game, nor chunks of it, but constantly sprinkled in contributions to end with stat lines that are about as impressive as they normally are.

Durant reached 25-plus points for the 13th straight game with 31 on 13-of-21 shooting and added four rebounds, nine assists and three turnovers. Booker was 9-of-20 for 28 points with three rebounds, six assists and one turnover.

“I think we tightened some things up defensively that we’ve been working on,” Booker said of the key to the win. “More communication, talking to each other. I always say that’s the key for our transition offense, is if we’re getting stops and forcing long rebounds into transition buckets.”

Head coach Frank Vogel shouted out a specific defensive coverage the Suns addressed well after making it a point of emphasis beforehand. Phoenix had 20 fastbreak points.

The Blazers still showed some moxie to not let this game trail off like it could have.

Portland’s offensive process is a rough watch right now, which can be heavily attributed to the absences of Scoot Henderson (right ankle sprain) and Anfernee Simons (right thumb ligament tear). The Blazers opted to run everything around the returning Deandre Ayton, getting him the ball within 15 feet and letting him go to work.

The Suns are aware of the tells, scheming for helpers to come over as soon as Ayton brings the ball down or puts it down for strip attempts Ayton makes rather easy. The big man was effective and efficient, using his dribble to better position himself in a way he has to every night in order to become a reliable individual scorer. He finished with 18 points (9-of-14), eight rebounds, four assists and two turnovers.

Defensively, the Blazers are just flat out bad and all Phoenix has to do is attack its actions with pace and be consistent with execution. That won’t generate a good look nearly every time down against all defenses, but against a squad like Portland, that is the case.

All of this together plus some terrible Blazers live ball turnovers allowed the Suns to go up by 16 points 10 minutes in. Kevin Durant led the charge, converting on his first six shot attempts for 14 points.

But then the Suns hit a severe lull, stooping to the level of their competition mid-game after indications to begin the night were we wouldn’t see that. The second unit had a rough showing and an 18-2 Blazers run over 5:38 put them within 1 at the mid-second quarter.

The starters weren’t great, either. Eric Gordon has been good overall but is especially prone to standstill moments defensively when he just isn’t fully engaged. Jusuf Nurkic will get picked on and sometimes it gets ugly.

Portland, the league’s worst 3-point shooting team by 2.5% coming into the night at 30.5%, was 9-for-20 (45%) in the first half to help stay within five. Booker was trapped a lot and couldn’t find much room to shoot while Durant missed his next five shots after that hot start.

Both those guys started to get going more in the third quarter and Nurkic responded after a poor first half with 11 of his 18 points, thriving off much better team ball movement. So was Nassir Little with seven of his 13, as he continued to be the first wing off the bench while Yuta Watanabe (left quad contusion) remains out. Phoenix was quickly back up 15 midway through the third quarter and Portland never managed to make the Suns sweat it the rest of the way.

Phoenix got to the line a whole lot, shooting 27-of-28 (96.4%), and racked up a season-high 66 points in the paint.

The Suns right now are being forced to face their reality of having one of the league’s more inferior center rotations on too many nights. More often than not, they’re getting an underwhelming performance from Nurkic or Drew Eubanks, and the backup has lots of variability in how well or poorly he plays. The bar is rather low in terms of what is asked out of the pair when it comes to good screen setting, proper decision-making on rolls, finishing around the rim and solid defensive positioning. Nothing Earth shattering.

Foul trouble in the last two minutes of the first half forced Chimezie Metu to close it out at the 5, and it’s probably something Vogel should try a bit more with the lack of reliability Phoenix gets from the bigs. Metu got a look to begin the fourth quarter, as well. He has to prove trustworthy in standard center defensive spots but offers switch ability and the best 3-point shot out of the trio. It’s something that looks like it will continue to be an issue, with the hope being Bradley Beal’s (low back strain) presence will provide more star power for the position to play off of.

With the win, Phoenix kept its in-season tournament hopes alive at 2-1. The Suns will almost assuredly need to not only win their final fixture of group play on Friday in Memphis against the Grizzlies but also beef up their point differential to outrank other 3-1 teams vying for the lone wild card spot in the Western Conference, with the Los Angeles Lakers (4-0) winning Phoenix’s Group A already.

The 13-point victory bumped Phoenix’s point differential to +13.  The Denver Nuggets are 2-1 and lost to the 2-1 New Orleans Pelicans in Group B, so they appear to be one of the biggest wild card threats and hold a +9 point differential. The Sacramento Kings (+16) and Minnesota Timberwolves (+10) are both 2-0 in Group C and have yet to play each other, so the loser of that game could be in the mix if it isn’t a large margin. The Golden State Warriors (-1) in Group C and Houston Rockets (-3) in Group B are alive at 1-1 as well.

Phoenix plays early Friday afternoon and will finish before any other West team tips off, so the other wild card hopefuls will have the advantage of knowing the point differential to beat if the Suns indeed defeat the 3-10 Grizzlies. There is also one more set of games on the following Tuesday before everything is wrapped up.

Ayton received a 20-second tribute video a few minutes before the national anthem, and the crowd’s response was a mix of cheers and boos that I’m sure varied based on where you were sitting. It wasn’t too intense either way, though. He got more pronounced boos during starting lineup introductions and loud ones on the second possession of the game when he scored on Nurkic in the post. It will likely be a different situation entirely for Chris Paul on Wednesday.

Booker was asked about playing against Ayton.

“It’s fun,” he said. “I think our first time in the regular season? I’m happy we came out with the win. He played extra hard tonight. I seen that. My challenge for him is to play like that every night.”

Booker knows better than anybody how Ayton’s impact and motor can fluctuate nightly given he was his teammate for Ayton’s entire Suns tenure, and we know that challenge was presented to Ayton before his departure far too many times. We’ve heard different versions of that requested standard over the years but it did bring a little more oomph on Tuesday coming from the other side.

Durant played 37 minutes in the first game of a back-to-back while Booker was at 33.

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