EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns find new identity through pace and pressure

Jan 17, 2024, 1:40 PM | Updated: 3:32 pm

Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball against Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoen...

Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball against Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on January 16, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Kings 119-117. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Y’all know the meme with Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen, right? From “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as he waits for Rick Dalton to pop on screen after denying an offer of an acid cigarette from Cliff Booth? What a picture.

Anyway, that was the last five minutes of the Phoenix Suns’ miraculous 119-117 comeback victory against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday.

At Frank Vogel’s introductory press conference in June, he touted a team that was going to play “scrappy as hell” on both ends and later on in the summer preached 3-point volume and pace as pillars of how they will play offensively. That team was M.I.A. for the overwhelming majority of the team’s first 39 games, and just before the midway point of the season arrived, it was at long last on display across the Suns’ 23-4 run to close the win.

But a new identity emerged in the process.

With 5:11 left and the Suns down 17, Bradley Beal quickly got the ball up the court off a made free throw. He was in an action within five seconds after previously sprinting down the floor and getting a layup in transition off a missed Kings floater, giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Beal received a screen from Grayson Allen, as the Suns’ small-ball five-out lineup saw some success with Josh Okogie in for two minutes before Eric Gordon closed. Beal was immediately doubled and found Allen one pass away for a 3.

With Kevin Durant defending All-NBA center Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento ran a pick-and-roll for the big to put Durant in a spot where he has to make the correct read. He did, meeting Malik Monk at the foul line and elevating for a tremendous contest that forced Monk to pass to Sabonis as he was about to let go of the shot. Beal had recovered by then and got in the passing lane enough for a turnover. Durant immediately got going on the run-out and slammed the ball home to the deficit to a dozen.

Durant emphasized pressure postgame a few times, and this was the point in the game where you could really feel it develop. Sacramento had already committed five turnovers in the fourth quarter. More were coming.

After Kings head coach Mike Brown took a timeout that was the last significant break in the action until there were two seconds left in the game, he checked back in Sabonis and the Kings started doing their own targeting by screening to get Allen on All-NBA guard De’Aaron Fox.

The lefty used his phenomenal speed to get a step on Allen, but with Harrison Barnes in the dunker’s spot (floating on the baseline) prior to flashing the corner, it gave Durant enough space to cut off Fox at the rim. The read there is Barnes in the corner, but since Kevin Huerter was just there, Gordon wisely stayed put while keeping an eye on Fox and picked off the pass.

Watch everyone run after that.

The Kings got back in transition well enough before Durant attacked a closeout as Allen cut, and his man (Fox) had to cut off Durant since Huerter was cross-matched on Durant. Allen was free and made a smart cut to open space that triggered the ball movement to a Durant 3.

Sacramento rolls the ball up, borderline reeling. It runs the non-sensical dribble handoffs cycle that make most college basketball offenses seem like they are from a century ago, and Devin Booker has seen this before, so he’s flying around to keep Monk close to him. It earns Barnes an offensive foul and the Kings’ third straight giveaway.

Sabonis checks back in, a cue Sacramento is going to junk it up with some zone defense. Phoenix identifies it, Booker from the corner calls out the action with a hand motion and gets a solid look from 3 on the wing for Durant that doesn’t go down.

Sacramento then looks to post up Sabonis, who Gordon is cross-matched on. Sabonis’ catch comes 20 feet out, so he runs a handoff to get rolling toward the rim while Monk slashes right. Allen sticks on Sabonis before getting way up to deny Monk. Another run-out. Beal dunk.

The ball gets rolled up again and Booker hilariously runs up while barreling into Sabonis to prevent any more seconds going off. Chris Paul was proud watching that.

More Sabonis hub action and Booker fouls on the handoff attempt. Off the sideline out of bounds, Fox gets the switch he wanted on Durant. I think? Well, he should not have wanted it.

Durant makes his latest fantastic defensive play on some Kirby stuff and swallows Fox whole, enveloping his jumper. Another run-out. Durant 3.

When Brown took his timeout, it was a 12-point game. Now the Suns’ deficit was four, and it happened in real time across a stretch of less than three minutes.

Like Durant said, pressure!

The screening with Sabonis persists, putting the defensive game-changer of the spurt (Durant) in the action yet again. Monk gets deep enough to find Sabonis for a dump-off and a floater over Allen goes down. Phoenix gets the ball past half-court at 20 on the shot clock and Booker’s targeting of Sabonis on a switch brings on a foul. A sideline out of bounds results in Beal stepping out of bounds on a great baseline isolation design. At 1:51 left and a six-point Kings lead, that seems it.

For the Kings’ latest turn, again it’s Sabonis screening. Durant is defending the ball again. This is absolutely mystifying to watch back. Monk, armed with a superb handle, tries to shake Durant loose to no avail. As Monk crosses over toward the help and allows Beal to swipe down, his man Fox retreats for the end-of-clock catch toward the top of the key while Monk thinks Fox is staying put. Their eighth and final turnover of the period.

Booker once more has the offense’s gears spinning before the shot clock even enters the teens. Sabonis continues as the pigeon, switched onto the point guard. Booker drives into the help, and since it’s Sabonis defending, Keegan Murray also follows Booker all the way into the corner. Booker knows what that results in from there.

Gordon 3. One-possession game.

The Kings stunningly do not call a timeout. To some extent, they understandably keep it moving and trust Fox, the inaugural winner of the Jerry West Award for the game’s best clutch player. More dribble handoff ACC nonsense to murder half the shot clock. Sabonis gets in his hub handoff spot with six seconds left on the shot clock. Monk desperation 3. No good. Murray grabs the miss, however, and Fox isolates just to take a poor pull-up 3 ensuing a loose ball that who else but Allen comes down with.

Remember, pressure.

Booker jets up the floor. Sabonis is sick of it and desperately tries to deny the kick-ahead pass, falling over in the process. Uh oh.

Gordon 3. Tie game.

No timeout. Again. The Kings run real offense earlier in the clock but have been tumbling down the hill for so long they are just along for the ride inside the snowball. Fox isolates and misses a pull-up middy. Durant draws a foul on Sabonis, his latest awesome defensive play, and that’s basically it from there.

What has to be ascertained from this is 1) the Kings completely melted down and 2) it was because of the way the Suns played. The identity for the Suns is not the main preseason talking points from Vogel. It’s instead what Durant harped on.

Pressure.

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