EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ role players flashing capabilities team will need in postseason

Feb 28, 2024, 12:39 PM

Grayson Allen #8 of the Phoenix Suns in action during the first half against the Chicago Bulls at F...

Grayson Allen #8 of the Phoenix Suns in action during the first half against the Chicago Bulls at Footprint Center on January 22, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns shouldn’t need anything more than the standards set for their role players when the postseason arrives. How Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant play will ultimately determine how far they go. If all three reach their caliber, it will take something special from the opposition to take Phoenix down.

But it’s basketball. Things happen.

Booker, despite coming off a playoff run that nearly 100% defies this notion, will have an off night. Durant and Beal will, too. And there’s obvious injury concerns, with a decent chance the Big 3 is shorthanded in some way, whether it’s a game or longer.

Ultimately to advance in a series, the Suns will require at least one standout performance from the supporting cast. Phoenix’s previous three playoff appearances on teams with less starpower certainly showed that. There was Cam Payne in the first two games of the 2021 Western Conference Finals, Deandre Ayton in the 2022 first round and Torrey Craig in Game 2 of last year’s opening series, just to name a few.

That is why Sunday’s 123-113 win over the Los Angeles Lakers was so encouraging for the Suns. Even without Beal and Eric Gordon, they put forth their most well-rounded game of the season. In a compressed rotation that was all five starters playing 37-39 minutes and Bol Bol’s 24 minutes making him the lone reserve over 10, all six of those guys made a real impact, while Booker and Durant didn’t put up the usual stellar production.

In an even better wrinkle, it came via the Lakers purposefully cutting off space for the star duo to force the other guys to beat them. They did.

Grayson Allen attempted 17 shots on Sunday, including a dozen 3s, after getting up just three field goal attempts in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. Allen leads the NBA in 3-point percentage by three whole percentage points (48.6%) and teams are still choosing to leave him open in the impossible “pick your poison” choices.

Head coach Frank Vogel said on Tuesday the coaching staff wanted Allen to be more aggressive and he obliged.

“Grayson’s one of those guys that can ratchet up his aggressiveness based on who he is on the floor with,” Vogel said. “If it’s just him and Kev and some role players, then he has to carry himself like one of the top scorers.”

Allen found himself in positions to shoot all afternoon because of the traps. The second triple below, in particular, is one that is a great sign. He needs to have a chucker’s mindset with how much Phoenix has to increase its 3-point volume.

Allen was also getting downhill. He and Gordon have done a great job supplanting the rim pressure someone like Beal provides.

A few times, Allen was driving into nothing. A few times, he was getting his shot altered or blocked by Anthony Davis. A few times, he scored.

Even when he drives and kicks it out in a manner that doesn’t necessarily trigger rotations that lead to an open sot, keeping the offense moving both on and off the ball makes that a plus.

“They’re tough because he protects the rim and he’s one of the handful of bigs in the league that can stay all the way back,” Allen said of driving on Davis after the game. “He doesn’t have to step up and he can (still) protect the rim and kind of guard the dump-off, forces it into a tough angle. But you have to keep attacking the paint, try to make the read. … Just so that we’re not becoming stagnant around the perimeter.”

The other X-factor of these schemes is Jusuf Nurkic, who was awesome. He had lots of real estate to work with off Booker and Durant.

And what Nurkic does so well is trigger the actions on the second side — a.k.a. what the possession comes down to once the defense denies the primary option. This is often on the fly, situations where Nurkic can turn nothing into something.

That last 3 for Allen is one of those situations. Nurkic will flash to get the ball, either as a handoff partner or a passer into space. He gets the patented Durant backdoor find and there’s the elite shooter open in the corner.

Another time it’s a Booker drive not yielding much and Nurkic working it with Royce O’Neale.

“We always want to have ‘what comes next?’ after the initial action, and that’s where the spacing really comes into play and we’ve made some good steps there,” Vogel said . “And some good steps in terms of having more multiple-actions stuff in the fourth quarter where we have a look for a first option, and if that’s taken away, quick swing into some second action we like as well.”

The bit on the fourth quarter is interesting given the Suns’ struggles there and the issues with a lack of movement/pace.

Booker on Tuesday noted it’s really about spacing. Vogel said part of practice was focused on two possessions when the spacing wasn’t there. Booker confirmed that standing three feet in one direction or the other can make or break a sequence.

Phoenix has been great at having a shooter like Allen one pass away from the All-Stars, which led to one of those 3s above. That’s one example of a minor difference that matters.

This is part of why improving during the regular season is so meaningful. The Suns appear to have arrived at a significant progress point, figuring out the top eight guys in the rotation. Now the last 24 games is about taking what has been built up and getting more out of it.

Sunday was not the type of game Phoenix could have won six weeks ago, even if O’Neale was in Phoenix then and Bol was already a key reserve.

There is no more “if the Suns can figure out _____ by March they’re in business.”

March is here on Friday. We mostly know what this team is now. And some of what we’ve learned is its top-end depth can be relied on to pick up the slack in the regular season. Can it in the postseason?

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