EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ balanced scoring effort takes down Magic for 3rd straight win

Dec 31, 2023, 10:19 PM

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after dunking during the second half against the Orland...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after dunking during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Footprint Center on December 31, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are going to win a whole lot of games off what their Big 3 provides on a nightly basis, even when none of them are absolutely out-of-this-world for the whole game, which more often than not Phoenix will get from at least one guy nearly every contest.

On Sunday against the Orlando Magic, some tremendous play from the trio sprinkled throughout and good defensive stretches were enough to get a 112-107 victory over a team on the rise. It doesn’t have to be a continuous, all-game type of takeover. If the three of them are doing the things they can do productively over spurts while the team play outside of them is solid, the Suns are going to stack up victories.

The game after Phoenix’s ball movement popped to generate a good look nearly every possession, the Suns’ primary scorers saw an Orlando defense mostly willing to defend them straight up in either man or zone. There was hardly any aggressive help or semblance of a double-team until the second half, when it still was fairly reserved. Even in extreme examples, like Kevin Durant posting up a smaller guard, the second defender wasn’t coming.

Bradley Beal confirmed after his return on Friday that his first game back from an ankle sprain was a huge step forward in trusting it, the part of the recovery that didn’t quite have him at 100% just yet beyond his wind. That was evident on Sunday, when he was back to fully going at the defense and creating advantages.

“The more and more he plays, the more and more confidence we gain as a group,” Durant said of Beal.

Beal was 10-for-13 from the field for a season-high 25 points. Durant added 31 points with five rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block while it was 21 points, four rebounds, five assists and three steals for Devin Booker. They all had segments of the night scoring at high levels.

And to the point on team play, Phoenix only turned it over six times against a squad excellent at generating them. Only two came from the Big 3.

That strategy should rank amongst the worst ways to scheme Phoenix but it’s understandable from Orlando’s perspective given its defensive acumen this season.

Orlando (19-13) was a real test for the Suns to take what has been working recently and apply it against a good team, a label the Magic haven’t justifiably held in a while. They entered the day tied for second in defensive rating and opposing turnover percentage while placing second outright in opposing offensive rebounding percentage and points off turnovers per game, with the sixth-best second-chance points per game (15.9), per NBA Stats.

Phoenix’s biggest issues across December included its offense, limiting turnovers and finishing possessions by rebounding. If the Suns slumped in those areas, the Magic were going to jump all over ’em.

The Suns feasted on the passive approach from the Magic’s defense but they allowed 22 second-chance points in the first half to a below average offensive team. They should have been up by 20-plus but instead at the half it was a nine-point lead.  That was thanks to the ball movement still remaining fantastic when Orlando was in rotation and it brought on a balanced attack. By the five-minute mark of the second quarter, all five Suns starters were in double figures.

Orlando briefly flashed aggressive concepts but the Suns were cooking against anything through two-and-a-half quarters. Phoenix combined its execution and rhythm with more pace in the early portion of the third quarter, leading to a Beal poster dunk and ridiculous pass by Grayson Allen turning down a layup for a flashy no-look feed over his own head to an open Booker in the corner pushed the Suns to be up 15.

 

But over the last 7:22 of the period, Phoenix put up just eight points, letting the Magic get all the way back in the game to be down two going into the fourth quarter. That’s where head coach Frank Vogel said the ball movement stagnated a bit, a nod to how this will be a season-long process to perfect the offensive flow.

For the fourth quarter, Orlando targeted weaker defenders in isolation on switches, where its extremely promising young duo of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner went to work in order to keep the game close. It was then a stretch of the Suns failing to convert on pull-up jumpers while communication breakdowns defensively gave up open 3s the Magic also couldn’t knock down. Across 3:54 of game time, there were a combined eight points scored to leave the Suns ahead by four with 3:46 remaining.

It was going to be a missed opportunity for someone, and it would be Orlando’s.

Beal knocked down a jumper attacking a closeout out of the timeout, and a well-defended possession was followed by two points at the foul line for Durant. That little 4-0 run and Phoenix tightening up its defense was all it came down to from there.

After his huge game on Friday, Jusuf Nurkic was consistently a target for the Suns’ ball-handlers around the basket when they drove, sometimes when he was open and sometimes when he was not. He was less efficient than on Friday, 8-for-17, but was still great on the night with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three assists. Nurkic is a huge part of what the Suns do on both ends and he’s going to continue to look better the more time Phoenix gets this healthy.

Banchero (28 points) and Wagner (27) combined for 55 points. Watch out for them in the near future.

The Magic had zero second-chance points in the second half after those 22 in the opening two quarters, a credit to the Suns fixing what was going wrong.

Phoenix’s balance among the starters with scoring included Allen’s 10 points but the bench only had a total of six. Eric Gordon was scoreless with three shot attempets, and as is usually the case when that happens, the scheme the Magic were employing didn’t let him play off kick-out passes in his direction too much while the Big 3 dominated the ball in terms of starting possessions. The scales will violently swing back and forth on Gordon’s production because of this, especially with Beal back.

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