EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns tip off NBA In-Season Tournament bracket with rematch vs. Lakers

Dec 4, 2023, 4:15 PM | Updated: Dec 5, 2023, 7:26 am

There is significance whenever the Phoenix Suns face the Los Angeles Lakers, but when you add on Phoenix’s 0-2 record in the matchup this season and that it is the headlining fixture of the NBA In-Season Tournament quarterfinals, we’ve got quite the regular season basketball game on our hands.

All of that for Tuesday’s contest should bring some extra intensity.

To start with the tournament itself, if you’re understandably skeptical on what that provides, this is when the money at stake really gets magnified. We’ve already seen group play prove to a certain extent how much the competitive nature of these guys heightens these games and that should only increase now that a single-elimination bracket exists with added incentives beyond that.

Quarterfinalist players and head coaches locked up $50,000 each, with assistant coaches also receiving a chunk of a prize pool as well. Advance to the semifinals and that bumps to $100,000, putting $50,000 on the line in these games. Finalists get $200,000, meaning it’s $100K up for grabs in the semis, and the $500,000 awarded to those members who win it all equates to a $300,000 difference to fight for in the title game.

That is life-changing money for guys like Udoka Azubuike and Saben Lee, who are on two-way contracts that are salaried for under $600,000. It’s a sizable amount of dough for the nine other Suns making $2-3 million this year, and as for the top earners, it still matters to them.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton told The Associated Press “I’m sure the richest guy in the world would be happy to get $500,000″ and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson pointed out this is the type of money he could give to his family.

It matters.

As for the game itself, Phoenix will be relishing the chance to get one back on the Lakers that earned the right for this showdown to be in L.A. after winning Group A over the Suns. One guy in particular should the most, and that goes for Devin Booker on practically any night, but he missed both losses versus the squad he always gets up for.

While not discrediting how the Lakers won those two fixtures, Booker’s absence defined how both were decided.

In the second game of the season, Phoenix managed one field goal and three points over the first 10:05 of the fourth quarter after entering it leading by 12. It was +27 when Kevin Durant was out there in the opening three quarters before the offense got incredibly bogged down through 10 turnovers and double teams on Durant stalled everything out.

For the loss in group play, the Suns were up 14 in the mid-second quarter and ahead nearly all game going into the fourth quarter at a 96-89 scoreline. But even with Bradley Beal in the lineup, Phoenix’s offense was lost without its point guard and bad defensive rotations left (admittedly poor) Lakers shooters open. A 14-2 Lakers run to open the fourth while Durant rested was enough for L.A. to steal another one.

Booker’s return has in many ways been a cure-all concoction to Phoenix’s woes. In the nine games he’s played since mid-November, the Suns own a 123.3 offensive rating and 110.3 defensive rating when Booker is on the floor, per NBA Stats. That would be the league’s No. 2 offense and seventh-best defense.

Expect the crunch-time offense to have far more rhythm with Booker in there.

On the check list of what great point guards do, Booker’s presence is making his teammates better, namely center Jusuf Nurkic.

Nurkic had an uneven start to the season on both ends of the floor but has been particularly impactful across these last couple of weeks. Phoenix is outscoring teams by 12.6 points per 100 possessions in its last 10 contests while Nurkic is out there, compared to a mundane 0.4 net rating in the initial 10 games of the season.

Nurkic’s consistency as a defensive anchor has improved greatly, cutting down on his tendency for getting a half-step or beyond out of position being something his agility can’t make up for. He’s proving capable within the specifics of Frank Vogel’s schemes designed around maximizing the most out of what a flawed (but not bad) defender like Nurkic gives a team.

While he is slow footed, Nurkic’s tape from last season in Portland showed a guy who can still play plus defense if he reads a situation correctly and positions himself as such. He has done that more often than not lately and makes good plays on the ball.

Offensively, Nurkic’s passing and screening are always going to benefit the Suns, something his cohorts have complimented all season. Using that wide frame in his own individual game, however, is something both he and the Suns have begun embracing more.

Nurkic has his own issues with tentativeness and staying aggressive, an area he’s worked on recently. Over the course of his career, Nurkic has never been a particularly efficient shot-maker, missing his fair share of bunnies around the rim and ranking lowly in his percentages at the basket compared to the average center. This year, he’s shooting 55% at the rim, in the fourth percentile among centers according to Cleaning the Glass.

What he’s been doing to make up for that is strong, physical post play. Nurkic is clearly taking coaching to heart and Phoenix is helping that process by giving him a few more touches.

He is a large, large man. We are 20 games in and I have yet to see Nurkic fail to back someone down with ease. On the 26 field goal attempts tracking data has down as post-ups, Nurkic is shooting 46.2%, a below average and acceptable return rate for an offensive alternative. The last 10 games have made up for 17 of those 26 shots.

Nurkic showcased this in Friday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets against Nikola Jokic, Nurkic’s former teammate who won his starting job, which eventually led to the Bosnian getting traded to Portland. As he always has in the past, Nurkic brought some edge with him and Jokic was ready for it, doing all he could with his hands and weight to prevent the space.

You can tell his Suns teammates love it, along with the pinches of swagger Nurkic has in those moments.

It’s particularly relevant to Tuesday because any added value Phoenix can get from its starting center in a matchup with Anthony Davis will help. Davis is the prototypical big that can give Nurkic some problems, thanks to his length and speed. In the two regular season meetings, however, Davis was 3-of-14 in half-court situations when defended by Nurkic.

Davis has issues with asserting himself as well, shown through eight of those attempts being jumpers. When Davis gets downhill, good things tend to happen. So, Nurkic was rolling out the red carpet for those shots outside the paint. If Davis is popping instead of rolling, it allows Nurkic to cut off driving lanes easier.

With the closest thing to a playoff game we’ll get in the regular season, it’s a good reminder that Nurkic’s 1-on-1 center matchup will be one of the X-factors for Phoenix in just about every potential series draw. Davis is one of the best players in the world, so a face off with the Lakers serves as a nice preview of that.

Oh yeah, and there’s the whole Durant vs. LeBron James thing. More on that here, and in the two matchups this year, Durant is averaging 38.5 points per game while James checks in at 26.5. James was slightly more efficient on 31 shot attempts while Durant nearly doubled him at 55 with a 23-19 advantage in free throw attempts.

Durant time after time has said that’s not how he prefers to play. He knows there are games he has to take over, such as those two without Booker, but Durant wants his shot numbers in the mid-to-high teens. The efficiency backs that up.

In Durant’s 26 regular season Suns contests, he’s 131-for-270 (48.5%) in the ones he took at least 20 shots in while a much better 132-of-229 (56.7%) for games with 19 shot attempts or fewer.

Against the Lakers, Durant should get back in that comfort zone with Booker alongside him.

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