EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ lack of cohesion spoils Big 3’s debut, Twins’ Nets win in return

Dec 13, 2023, 11:13 PM

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Bradley Beal #3 and Devin Booker #1 during the seco...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Bradley Beal #3 and Devin Booker #1 during the second half of the NBA game against the Brooklyn Nets at Footprint Center on December 13, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Nets defeated the Suns 116-112. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns still require some time to jell, and the lack of clicking together into place for a new group has been apparent.

It was the defining theme of a 116-112 loss to the Brooklyn Nets (13-10) on Wednesday that perhaps not so coincidentally came on the night of the Big 3’s debut.

Many of Phoenix’s (13-11) problem areas such as defensive breakdowns, fourth-quarter execution, rebounding and turnovers are basic things not primarily related to roster construction. The great teams are fine-tuned machines on the details, as we saw in previous Suns iterations.

This group just hasn’t found cohesion yet and it continues to have long stretches of games where the lack of continuity is glaring. Injuries and the amount of rotation shuffling have a lot to do with it. It’s also less than two weeks before Christmas and nearly a third of the way into the regular season.

If this reads as a plea for urgency, it’s not. Just a statement on the basketball team we’ve watched for 24 games and the work they have to do. Timetables are tricky, as Kevin Durant wisely put.

“Basketball is unpredictable, man. Who knows?” he said. “You can’t pinpoint or get you an exact time on when we’re gonna get it clicking. … It could be tomorrow, it could be two weeks from now. But I know we’re going to come to work and try to figure it out the best we can.”

When asked earlier what he’s learned develops cohesion and continuity, he simply put, “Just reps. More games, more possessions together.”

Booker and Durant understand how valuable the process is. They aren’t twiddling their thumbs, waiting for everyone to get healthy. The focus and intent to grow in the present, regardless of who is or isn’t playing, is there.

“It’s definitely a balance,” Booker said. “I’m not the guy to be like, ‘Let’s push it off and we’ll figure it out once it gets closer to playoffs.’ I understand the importance of all these games.”

He reiterated his point after Tuesday’s win that Phoenix has to learn from both wins and losses.

“You don’t want to get too high, get too low,” Booker said. “You go on a win streak and the team feels like they’re on top of the world and there’s nothing wrong and then you lose three games in a row and you feel like you’re not going to make the playoffs — we can’t be that type of team.”

The Suns, on the second game of a back-to-back, were allowing open looks all night to a Brooklyn team that while talented lacks high-end playmakers capable of continuously breaking down the defense to put it in problematic positions. A five-out attack and good pick-and-roll players creating penetration was tough for Phoenix to handle.

It still wound up as a very winnable game in the end, one Phoenix easily could have taken down if Durant knocked down a jumper or two he normally does and a botched alley-oop to Booker is converted.

But with desperation reaching overdrive and Brooklyn up six at 1:14 to go, the Suns attempted to execute a late double-team on Spencer Dinwiddie, which resulted in one quick pass to Cam Johnson open in the corner, their best shooter. He missed but that told the tale.

The Big 3 of Bradley Beal, Booker and Durant showed its potential at times, such as the 18 points in the opening five minutes of the second half. It was mostly Booker leading the way, though, with a terrific 34 points, six rebounds, 12 assists and two turnovers on 9-for-15 shooting. Phoenix was +16 when he was on the floor.

Durant added 27 points, Beal provided 14 and a big-time 15 points and 22 rebounds out of Jusuf Nurkic crushed an undersized team. Booker played 40 minutes and Durant hit 38.

Without Grayson Allen (groin) and Eric Gordon (calf), Phoenix shot 9-of-28 from 3 on a night the Nets were the latest team to over-help and welcome open 3s for the supporting cast. Josh Okogie (hip) would have been especially helpful to have defensively.

The Valley crowd was expectedly very receptive toward Mikal Bridges and Johnson. Both played well. Bridges managed 21 points on 7-for-19 shooting while defending Booker all night and Johnson contributed 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.

Booker didn’t take a shot in the first quarter, the first time that’s happened for him since 2015, which was two months into his career in a reserve role, per Stathead. As the point guard with Beal and Durant alongside him for the first time, he was not so much deferring but wasn’t as downhill with his attacks in a way where he was looking to score first. That’s what makes him who he is, and the adjustment will take some time because we’ve gotten to know how unselfish he is.

Head coach Frank Vogel put it well in describing it as the trio needing to “be aggressive to read, not to score or to pass” while complimenting Booker’s pulse for when to do what. Booker noted he does not go into games with a mentality toward over-passing or scoring, instead taking just what is the best play available.

Phoenix was doing OK with that first quarter until Bridges scored all eight of his first quarter points in the last 83 seconds, ending it with an assist to a wide-open corner 3 for Royce O’Neale, all while Booker rested. When Bridges sat to open the second period, Cam Johnson hit back-to-back 3s to quickly put Brooklyn up 15.

That provided a much-needed wake-up call to the Suns’ defensive disposition but Brooklyn kept generating open shots. There wasn’t an increase in execution that was matching the increase in effort.

Booker responded to his one-point opening shift by putting up 16 in the second quarter, a turbo-charged solo effort to keep the Suns within eight at halftime despite a bad defensive effort. They opened the second half by scoring 18 points in the first five minutes, with 15 of them coming via the Big 3.

That’s when the game came down a one-possession stage, and at a 109-106 Suns deficit, Durant was unable to knock down three jumpers over 70 seconds that were all good looks. Dinwiddie, the notorious Suns killer, then drilled a 3 to put Brooklyn up six at 1:54 remaining, and after a Booker triple didn’t go down, Dinwiddie scored at the rim to leave Phoenix chasing the game in the last 90 seconds.

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