Phoenix Suns’ supporting cast steps up to hold Lakers off

Feb 25, 2024, 5:51 PM

Royce O'Neale #00 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Kevin Durant #35 after a three-point shot...

Royce O'Neale #00 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Kevin Durant #35 after a three-point shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 25, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns were trending in the wrong direction heading into the fourth quarter on Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, normally a death sentence for them this season. But a fantastic effort from the supporting cast continued, and Phoenix recovered to beat the Lakers 123-113.

After a season-high 45 points in the first quarter, the Suns managed only 50 for the middle periods and held just a five-point advantage going into the fourth that previously got as high as 20.

Phoenix quickly got that back up a dozen and its resistance was not via a flurry from its stars. In the first 9:36 of the final frame, the Suns put up 21 points and only four were scored by Devin Booker or Kevin Durant. L.A. was content cutting off space for the pair even if it meant leaving a great shooter open. Booker’s “run-and-jump” double-teams he sees at the start of possessions were even happening when Durant was on the floor depending on the lineup.

“They gonna put so much pressure on trying to just stop us and forget about the rest of our team, then we gotta take advantage like we did tonight,” Durant said.

A Lakers team surging on offense as of late was held in check as well by a much more connected defensive conclusion from the Suns. The head-scratching mistakes at least weren’t there and a few full efforts imposing their will was a difference-maker.

“We were flying around and putting bodies in front of drivers at the rim,” head coach Frank Vogel said of the effort, noting that defending with their chest and without their hands was at the top of the scouting report to keep the Lakers off the line. L.A. only attempted eight free throws.

Without Bradley Beal (left hamstring tightness) and Eric Gordon (left groin soreness), the top minute-getters surrounding the All-Star duo were immense.

Jusuf Nurkic returned from a one-game absence to produce 18 points, 22 rebounds and seven assists, a stat line previously done only once in franchise history, per Stathead.

“A big part of why we won,” Booker said of Nurkic. “I don’t think we’ve won a game without him this year in the four that he’s missed so that speaks for itself.”

Nurkic had been going through a rut in February after a stellar run of form the previous two months, making Sunday a big bounce-back performance for him.

“Didn’t play a lot of fourth quarters these couple weeks. … I said, ‘Frank, I’m gonna keep it simple. I’m not going to give you a reason to sub me out,'” Nurkic said.

Phoenix knocked down 17 3s and a dozen were from Royce O’Neale and Grayson Allen, who each hit six.

“That’s what we’re gonna need, especially if teams are gonna tether their defense to leaving those guys open,” Booker said. “Making them pay like that, that hurts.”

O’Neale added 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block to go with his 20 points and was +22. Allen scored a team-high 24 points while Bol Bol provided an important 11 points off the bench. All of a sudden, the Suns have an impactful eight-man rotation when healthy.

Nurkic facilitated plenty of offensive possessions when Booker and Durant were trapped while defending Anthony Davis. O’Neale spent time defending LeBron James, plugging in gaps elsewhere like he normally does. Allen’s rim pressure, whether it resulted in an open shot or not, was needed all day.

Nurkic said the “whole group was pissed” after a poor loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday and it showed with Phoenix’s energy throughout the game. There were still a few mental lapses that could have proven costly, like in the third quarter, but it was contained for the most part.

Los Angeles this month has been a four-headed scoring monster, with Davis, James, Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell all averaging north of 18 points per game in February. Russell’s 41.4% shooting has been the outlier to a terrific stretch of efficiency for Davis (25.3 PPG, 56.6%), James (25.2 PPG, 53.2%) and Reaves (18.7 PPG, 50.4%). The fifth starter is Rui Hachimura, and he’s playing well too at 14.4 PPG on 57.1%. The four perimeter players are also at or above 40% on 3s in February.

The Lakers shot 52% in the game off strong outings for James (28 points on 12-for-19 with 12 assists), Davis (22 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-17) and Russell (20 points and seven assists on 8-for-14). Phoenix was +14 on free tosses to help make up for that and the 26 Lakers points off 15 Suns turnovers.

Durant was 7-of-20 for 22 points with seven assists and three turnovers. Booker’s 21 points were on 8-of-18 shooting with nine assists and three turnovers.

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