EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Bradley Beal’s return amplifies Suns’ ball movement in win vs. Hornets

Dec 29, 2023, 11:27 PM

PHOENIX — The vision is now easier to see, thanks to Bradley Beal’s return on Friday night and how it affected a 133-119 Suns win over the Charlotte Hornets.

Phoenix’s flow on offense over the last week had been taking steps forward, with the ball movement peaking while the end product of possessions had room to grow.

That kept up on Friday, and this was the largest improvement yet for both categories.

If you’ve seen quotes from the team or optimistic messages online somewhere in the tone of “process over results,” this is a good game representing that thought. The Suns got some great ball movement going from the jump, with 10 assists on 14 made field goals in the first quarter. All 10 of those assists were via the Big 3.

What happened after it zipped around got better as the game went on (and will for the rest of the season in the bigger picture). There were a handful of opportunities for the top dogs to take open shots early in the clock, but they wanted to keep the process going. It was strong, and watching that knowing there is still room for growth has to be encouraging for the Suns. They were still generating a tremendous amount of good shots.

It’s important to emphasize how much that increases team morale and overall cohesion. After one of Kevin Durant’s early assists to Jusuf Nurkic, he let out a, “That’s basketball!” yell as Charlotte called a timeout.

“I think we were just unpredictable tonight,” Durant told Arizona Sports on the Suns’ offense. “They didn’t know where the attack was coming from. I think we drove and kicked and found the extra pass on the back side pretty easily tonight. When we got the defense scrambling like that, we’re always at an advantage. When we make two, three passes and everybody touches the ball, that’s the essence of basketball.

“That’s the beauty of it you see so much when those plays happen. The camaraderie, the togetherness, the teamwork is highlighted when you make plays like that.”

Charlotte knocked down eight 3s within the first 15 minutes and change to stay within striking distance, continuing to play confident offensively. Phoenix eventually got its advantage up to 16 before the Hornets knocked down their 12th 3-pointer of the first half to stay within 10 at halftime.

The benefits of what the Suns (16-15) were doing really came to fruition in the third quarter, when they scored 24 of their 35 points in the opening 6:36 of the period to go up 20.

Charlotte (7-23) played in Los Angeles the night prior and against Phoenix was without three starters: LaMelo Ball (right ankle sprain), Gordon Hayward (left calf strain) and Mark Williams (low back contusion).

The Hornets, however, kept drilling 3s. Their 20th by guard Terry Rozier with 8:33 to go was his seventh and put them back within 10. Phoenix quickly responded, and even after a few more blips from the Hornets, they never got within 11 the rest of the way.

This recent team form has boosted Durant’s play the most. He was coming off a 16-assist outing in Houston with three turnovers and he wound up at 11 assists and one turnover on Friday. Durant was going through some slight turnover issues prior to that and Suns fans hadn’t gotten a proper representation of the phenomenal playmaker he is this year through all the injuries, something he really put on display more prominently with Brooklyn. Expect to see more of that in Phoenix now.

“He’s responded as about as well you could possibly imagine,” head coach Frank Vogel said.

“He’s been doing it at a high level, especially these last two games. … It just shows the capability of how great he is and how he’s just a player,” guard Devin Booker said of Durant. “He’s never put himself in a box as a scorer or any position. He’s just a basketball player at the highest level. He just takes what the defense gives him and he’s getting us all good looks.”

You could tell Durant was embracing it with the 11 shot attempts, seven of which came in the fourth quarter, adding up to 21 points. That is going to happen to one of the Big 3 nearly every night, and this is before Beal is really back to tip-top shape. The thing is, it’s normally going to be a good sign if it does, as long as the supporting cast knocks down shots. It did on Friday, and the trio is all capable of setting it up. This is the unselfishness we’ve been talking about for months.

“It’s about elite talent becoming a team,” Vogel said. “And honestly, the last three games we’ve really played that way.”

Booker was the one to find that scoring space a lot easier with the ludicrous spacing, breaking the 30-point threshold for the first time in seven games with 35 to go along with seven assists and two turnovers.

Beal has had three games coming back from an injury now, and this tops the list in terms of how well he was moving. The gas tank was a bit low, which is to be expected. Friday being the start of a six-game homestand will speed up that process. He finished with six points (3-of-8) and seven assists with two turnovers.

That put the Big 3 at a combined 25 assists and five turnovers.

“Felt how it looked, man. This a game-changer, being at full strength,” Booker said. “The offense was moving, the ball was hopping around and we were getting the best available shot every time down. Guys giving up good shots and passing it into great ones. And great players doing that.”

Beal said his ankle isn’t quite yet at 100% but the main hurdle is just trusting it mentally. He confirmed getting past the first game was a huge help.

“Hopefully it’s behind me and I can just continue to move forward,” he said.

Nurkic and Eric Gordon were the two biggest beneficiaries of the ball movement. Nurkic ended up with a monster 24 points and 15 boards on 10-of-13 shooting while all 12 of Gordon’s shots were triples and he made seven for 21 points.

Grayson Allen, as expected, was the fifth starter. He shot 6-of-8 for 16 points, keeping up his high level of play all year.

Rozier reached 42 points and the Hornets converted on 23 trey balls. Going back to the 2014-15 season, they become only the seventh team to lose while reaching that number of 3s, making the overall win-loss record now of those teams 110-7, per Stathead.

Nassir Little (left knee soreness) and Josh Okogie (right ankle sprain) were out, opening up two rotation spots off the bench. But since Beal was back, Vogel was able to just go to nine guys, even through Beal’s minutes restriction. That was guards Saben Lee and Gordon, plus bigs Chimezie Metu and Udoka Azubuike.

At some point we should see Keita Bates-Diop or Yuta Watanabe get another crack at it in moments like this, and Friday felt like the night to see it. Bates-Diop can get indecisive at times and Watanabe presses too much but both have been solid defenders when on the floor. Their lack of shooting this year on what are always going to be open looks hurts, with Bates-Diop at 25% from deep on 40 attempts and Watanabe checking in at 33% for 69 shots.

For now, the energy of Azubuike, Lee and Metu was favored.

Phoenix shot 62% and 60% from 3 (18-for-30). The Suns stringing together these types of offensive efforts to round out the year before the schedule gets brutal in January post-New Year’s Day would be big time.

Staying at home for five more games will help.

“We haven’t been putting a good product on floor at home and every time we step out on the floor we want to build our togetherness, take care of home court but also unite our fans as well,” Durant said. “And I think with wins and the way we played tonight, 34 assists, everybody touching the basketball, I think that’s going to unite our fans more than anything.

“They see that little stuff. They see when we making the extra pass and we’re helping each other on the defensive side of the ball. As much as we can do that at home, that’s just going to make it better for us going down the later part of the season.”

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