EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Bradley Beal thrives in D.C. homecoming, Suns cruise by Wizards

Feb 4, 2024, 4:06 PM

Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks on against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Barclay...

Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks on against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Barclays Center on January 31, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

If there was anyone on the Phoenix Suns in need of feeling the comfort of their old stomping grounds, it was the dude playing through a broken nose.

Bradley Beal’s first game back in the D.C. area since the Wizards traded him to Phoenix was an emotional one for the guy drafted No. 3 overall by Washington way back in 2012 and he looked quite cozy for his return, a 140-112 win on Sunday.

He scored 26 of his season-high 43 points in the first half and shot 16-of-21 overall in the game with six assists and two steals.

Beal since breaking his nose came into the fixture shooting 20-for-58 (34.5%) overall and 3-of-24 (12.5%) from deep, an understandable slump.

With that said, defenses are giving Beal a defensive scheme not representative of a three-time All-Star and Third Team All-NBA member in 2020-21 when he posted 31.3 points a night. He’s getting decent space to operate on the ball, and off it, help defenders are actually leaving him sometimes while he spaces the floor. There are even instances when it’s happening while Beal is one pass away, the type of pick-your-poison predicament Phoenix will happily take every time. Nearly all of Beal’s 3s this year are tracked by NBA.com as open or wide open, with the latter yielding a 3-point percentage under 32% when no defender is within six feet.

It’s only a matter of time before he starts to look more like himself as both a shooter and player. Beal was just that over a terrific four-game stretch in a low-usage role right before he got clocked in the face and Sunday was a good start getting back on track.

Phoenix (29-21) led by 21 at halftime after shooting 69% with 18 assists and six turnovers against a Washington (9-40) team that was the squad looking the part of playing in a Sunday matinee contest. The Suns were more focused, and it helped them out in a portion of games that has been a huge problem, an area where Beal catching his form would be crucial.

Sunday’s win marked the 15th straight game the Suns have had the trio of Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant healthy for, a span lasting one month and a single day conveniently enough. While other players have missed time in patches, it is a strong enough sample size to really dive in and assess how the Big 3 is performing, with 19 contests overall under its belt.

Far and away the biggest takeaway is how much Phoenix struggles when Booker gets a breather.

Entering Sunday, Phoenix’s offensive rating since the 15-game spurt began drops from a phenomenal 125.5 to awful 102.2 once Booker is off the floor. And even on defense the plunge goes from a rock-solid 113.4 defensive rating to terrible 124.8. Looking at the net ratings specifically, that’s a points per 100 possessions difference of 34.7, an astounding number.

The statistic in there that tells the tale is assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s a stellar 2.26 while Booker plays, a mark that would rank third overall in the NBA, but it’s barely positive at 1.03 when Booker rests. For reference, the Orlando Magic’s 1.69 ratio is placed 29th ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers at 1.52. That’s how low that non-Booker ratio is.

How’d it look on Sunday?

Well, as it turns out, Booker got his third foul in the late first quarter to give this an extended look. And across the 8:04 of game time, Phoenix was +5 with seven assists and four turnovers. The game was out of hand by the time these minutes showed up in the second half.

While it was progress, it’s a point especially worth spotlighting with the trade deadline on Thursday.

The Suns do not need a point guard in the starting lineup. They could, however, afford to explore one of the reserve variety to slot in for fluctuating minutes on a night-to-night basis. A floor general of sorts to organize everything and better maximize Beal and Durant in the non-Booker minutes.

As a reminder, while he didn’t play particularly well last season, this is a role Cam Payne could have held had Phoenix not traded him for what now in the present day looks like mostly tax relief (that ESPN’s Bobby Marks calculated in July to a figure of $26.4 million). Payne, if you’re curious, is averaging 14.9 minutes per game for the Milwaukee Bucks across 45 appearances and is shooting 45.9% from the field and 40.3% at 3-point range. Milwaukee’s net rating when Payne plays is -1.4, an acceptable return for a hold-the-door position as Damian Lillard’s backup.

A lot of this comes back to Beal and his ability to settle in. Booker has with the combo-guard duties but it is understandably going to take longer for Beal to get comfortable with his own game and commanding certain stretches.

On a minor but worthwhile part of that equation, Bol Bol returned to the rotation for the first time in nearly a month since spraining his right foot. He played very well in two-and-a-half games before the injury and an impactful reserve across those sections of a game would do wonders for Phoenix. Bol had eight points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes on Sunday.

The extended Big 3 time has unsurprisingly benefitted no one more than Jusuf Nurkic. His great recent form continued on Sunday with 18 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Nurkic’s field goal percentage in the 14 of those 15 games he’s played is now 59.4%, a dramatic jump compared to his 48.7% number in his 33 games prior. Nurkic’s finishing has always been a weakness of his game but the quality of looks the ball-handlers are finding him combined with how much they are empowering him has made a huge difference.

Those three guys have all the confidence in the world in Nurkic and he plays like it. Phoenix relies on his playmaking around the top of the circle as a constant option, perhaps the offense’s go-to at this point to trigger ball movement and pace in half-court situations. On top of that, his decisive play in the short roll with an assertive, direct approach of using his size around the basket rounds him out to a legitimate offensive weapon for this team.

Nurkic’s chemistry with Durant was awesome from the jump and it’s getting better with the guards. He has played like a top-15 player at his position across this stretch, and most importantly, is staying healthy. The conversation has rapidly changed from “not sure how much he plays in the playoffs” to “where would Phoenix be right now with a replacement level center instead of Nurkic.”

Durant provided 18 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block while Booker added 14 points and six assists. They combined for only one turnover.

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