Royce O’Neale unlocks new gear of Suns’ small lineup in win vs. Kings

Feb 14, 2024, 12:34 AM | Updated: 3:28 pm

Royce O'Neale #00 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after a basket during the second half against the Sacr...

Royce O'Neale #00 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after a basket during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Footprint Center on February 13, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The gratification of finding that seemingly lost piece for the puzzle that’s been occupying real estate long beyond its welcome is what the trade deadline can do for NBA teams, and that rush is one the Phoenix Suns could feel on Tuesday night in a 130-125 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

Newly acquired wing Royce O’Neale made his home debut and was essential to the segment of the game the Suns turned in their favor, a small-ball flurry.

“He exceeded my expectations on both sides. … He hurt them in a lot of different ways offensively. … He was really good,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said of O’Neale.

Originally slated for an estimate of 15 minutes, an injury to Bradley Beal (hamstring) just a few minutes in plus the small lineups saw O’Neale reach 30. He amounted to a pivotal nine points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and a block.

When bigs aren’t on the floor and the importance of versatility is multiplied, O’Neale’s skillset can truly flourish.

A solid 3-point shooter that can burn eager help defenders, O’Neale is also a very good passer who will either trigger or keep Phoenix’s ball movement going, a crucial attribute for lineups that are highly skilled and can punish rotating defenses. O’Neale can also do that as a screener in the short roll, where he instantly becomes Phoenix’s second-best option in that role amongst the supporting cast.

His defensive chops speak for themselves, where O’Neale can bang with a big and also get physical enough with a quick guard to deter them. Devin Booker has been around O’Neale less than a week and has repeatedly emphasized how great of a communicator the veteran is. That part of the team’s process is what Booker thought was the key to victory.

“The talking was at a high level the whole night,” he said. “In the huddles, on the court. … We talked it through and ended up turning out well for us.”

Booker noted, “it seems like he’s been a part of the team a long time,” and that showed on Tuesday.

At the 5:16 mark of the third quarter in a game the Suns never came close to controlling, O’Neale checked in for center Jusuf Nurkic, marking the second time the Suns would go small. This would be the longest stint of the season by far.

Across over a dozen minutes, the Suns were without a center on the floor. The initial results were fantastic, a 25-9 run over 7:03 that put them up nine, some of which occurred while All-NBA Kings center Domantas Sabonis was in. But when Sabonis checked back in early in the fourth quarter, the scales started tipping back the other way and Sacramento’s 18-8 surge forced Vogel to put Nurkic back in.

Nurkic, after getting handled by Sabonis a game after getting handled by Draymond Green, emphatically responded. Over the final four minutes and change, he had two blocks, a save for a steal and a key seal under the basket that cleared the lane for an O’Neale dunk.

“When they went on a run and we came back to Nurk, Nurk made some big-time plays,” Vogel said.

Buckets went back and forth before Booker’s back-to-back jumpers put Phoenix ahead by 3 at 2:16 remaining. A few misses and turnovers later, O’Neale answered a De’Aaron Fox floater with a big-time 3 off a great find by Booker on one of Sacramento’s several lacking double teams that allowed Phoenix to generate defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown.

Fox answered the answer with his own triple, last year’s best clutch player living up to the title. Booker then isolated for a side-step 22-footer that was going in no matter how it was defended.

The make put free-throw shenanigans into motion, and Sacramento crucially fouled Booker before the inbounds down one, giving the Suns a freebie he knocked down. The foul on the ball then arrived and Booker made the first before missing the second.

But Josh Okogie, who was an erratic sparkplug in the small-ball lineups, climbed Mount Sabonis for the play of the night to tip out the rebound to Grayson Allen.

Booker and Allen didn’t goof on any more free tosses to wrap things up.

Booker converted on 6 of 7 shots after beginning the night 1-of-10, rebounding to a 25-point night with nine assists and three turnovers.

“Spectacular,” Vogel said of Booker. “He just played a hell of a second half. Played a hell of a first half (too but) he just didn’t make shots and he was playing through double teams and getting others involved. He’s got a unique knack for just feeling the game out and taking advantage of what the defense is giving him in the first half in facilitating and finding a way to get the ball up to the basket even through the double teams in the second half.”

Durant’s greatness seeps through contests like this, when he seemingly didn’t dominate any particular pocket of it and yet ends up at 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting with 10 rebounds.

A big-time 20 of Eric Gordon’s 23 points in the first half kept the Suns afloat. Allen was 7-of-10 for 19 points.

Transition defense was undoubtedly a focal point on the scouting report, if not at the top of it after what Sacramento did to Phoenix in that department the last time it was here. That did not come across in the Suns’ performance when giving up a 16-0 edge in fastbreak points just 18 minutes and change into the game. Phoenix padded that number with some bad unforced errors on passes outside the 3-point line but there were still some buckets that came down to poor transition defense. That was the story of a first half the Kings were definitively better in but the Suns deserve a lot of credit for hanging around and staying within a few possessions.

Phoenix spent a good chunk of the night playing the defensive anchor higher up to contain the Kings’ guards. The issue was the ball kept getting to Sabonis on the rolls and he had a monster night of 35 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists. And that didn’t slow Fox down much, who racked up a game-high 40 points with nine rebounds, six assists and three steals.

Malik Monk added 22 off the bench, and that trio was so great that Phoenix needed every bit of what it got from Allen and Gordon without Beal.

Vogel ruled out Beal for Wednesday’s home game versus the Detroit Pistons, Phoenix’s last fixture before the All-Star break. Beal’s break potentially already includes a procedure to correct his broken nose, one he said he still hasn’t fully committed to getting done yet. The hamstring adds a wrinkle to his plans over the next week. Vogel said the Suns’ initial diagnosis was it isn’t a serious injury.

Nassir Little only played in the second half and contributed a few easy-to-miss plays over that time, a nod to him staying ready like Nurkic did. With that said, the limitations of the small lineups with either Little or Okogie out there showed. As below-average shooters, they were used as screeners to maintain spacing and put the big they were defended by in the action, but that placed them in playmaking situations that could have been better. This further emphasizes the addition of O’Neale and what those lineups could look like once Beal returns.

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