EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ latest comeback flurry at home falls short vs. Thunder

Mar 4, 2024, 12:20 AM

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Grayson Allen #8 o...

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Grayson Allen #8 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on March 03, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — You don’t need to be a meteorologist to see a troubling forecast ahead for the Phoenix Suns.

As their gauntlet of a schedule began on Sunday, they started it without Devin Booker (right ankle sprain), their most valuable player.

On the second game of a back-to-back and hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was a rough opening to the stretch that could determine whether Phoenix is a play-in team or not.

While the end result went as expected, a 118-110 Suns loss, Phoenix’s (35-26) performance sprouted some slight optimism in a few different ways, developments it will need to produce wins without Booker.

The Suns trailed by as many in 20 points across a first half it began leading by 13 to open the game. At the start of the third quarter, the Suns were busting their tails to no avail, looking for their third wild comeback flurry at home this season. But a brief 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 10 late in the frame got the crowd involved, and up against the momentum, OKC (42-18) started missing 3s. That scattered its offense enough for the Suns to eventually re-take the lead with 10:55 left in the game over a ludicrous 35-9 run.

Bradley Beal and Jusuf Nurkic were sensational all night. Inside the comeback, Phoenix spammed ball-screen actions for the two and Beal’s ability to get downhill paired with Nurkic’s playmaking plus the shooting around them did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Beal looks very much like himself coming off the hamstring injury. It took him a bit after his previous three injuries but this one didn’t require a delayed fuse. While Phoenix switched a lot defensively, he was the primary defender on MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, increasing his workload. He finished with 31 points, six assists and seven turnovers. Despite the giveaways, it was his best game as a Sun. They desperately need more of his menacing slashing toward the basket.

“Man, we have missed it,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said of Beal’s rim pressure. “He is so dynamic touching the paint and he was great. … Really creating the chain reactions that puts us at our best.”

Nurkic grabbed a franchise-record 31 rebounds while scoring 14 points with four assists and five turnovers. It was the most rebounds by a player leaguewide in nearly 15 years. He manhandled a Thunder team that starts stud rookie Chet Holmgren at the 5.

But Beal (minutes restriction) and Nurkic (gigantic human) would require rests to get through the whole fourth quarter and those came just as the leaks started to emerge for the offense with a few turnovers, a huge problem area on the night. If the game would have been five minutes shorter, the Suns probably win.

OKC snatched back the advantage with a little over five minutes left on a Jalen Williams driving finish, a final frame he and Gilgeous-Alexander took over as we’ve come to expect, scoring 19 of the Thunder’s 29 points in the fourth. The consistent flow of offense the two provided individually got OKC back on track enough and back in possession of the game by the time Beal and Nurkic could both return.

To repeat a similar theme all season, the Suns are one of the best teams over 30-35 minutes. It’s getting to a consistent 40, let alone 48 they continue to prove they are unable to do. And another: OKC only had five turnovers to the Suns’ 22 which it scored 31 points off of and it was able to attempt 11 more shots. Beal, Kevin Durant and Nurkic committed 17 of them. Can’t happen.

Beal during his availability postgame let out a “turnovers, man” as he scanned the boxscore during a question. He thought most of his seven came from looking too often in Durant’s direction instead of trying to be aggressive at all times.

“Shoot the ball. That’s how you fix it,” Beal said. “Don’t overpass it. That’s where a lot of our turnovers come from.”

The Thunder doubled Durant often and its hyper-athletic, long and strong wings got under him to frustrate him. Off the ball, he was going through hell, loads of physicality to try to establish position. Vogel deemed the Thunder “fouled the [expletive]” out of Durant and wants the league to look into it. On top of that, a few of Durant’s turnovers were of the variety he’d want back, giveaways more than anything. He ended up with 20 points, three assists and five turnovers.

“For me, I’m just trying to figure out ways to get going,” Durant said. “It’s hard to get going in my spots when as soon as I dribble the ball somebody coming to double-team, as soon as I catch it in the air there’s two people on them, getting denied at the 3-point line so I can’t be an off-ball player in catch-and-shoot. I got a corner 3 and then I got a wing 3 and after that it was denials from there.”

Durant didn’t have a point or assist in the fourth quarter, and that speaks to an error in the Suns’ usage of him. Systematically, Phoenix continues to favor isolations for Durant out of the mid-post, especially when he is doubled. But what got the Suns in the position to potentially win on Sunday was movement and Phoenix does not get enough from those double-team isolations to warrant this many possessions. They tried to use Durant more in the middle of the floor late, a step in the right direction for an improvement point over the last quarter of the regular season.

Durant played 36 minutes after 40, 38, 39, 40 and 39 in the first five games since the All-Star break.

No Booker meant a change to the starting lineup, and while Eric Gordon returned after missing the last three games, he was kept amongst the reserves in favor of Royce O’Neale. This is the type of move that has been developing since O’Neale has turned into Phoenix’s version of Bruce Brown, but Gordon has typically been favored a starting spot when any of the three guards were out. It’s the right move and a lineup that made its debut on Sunday.

The bench + Beal/Durant lineups will be relieved by Gordon’s scoring and shooting, a time in the crunch of the rotation that is even more important now. Speaking of which, that’s another adjustment to consider while Booker remains out. We have yet to see Beal free of a minutes restriction without Booker, so he likely spends more time on the floor in the first and third quarters than normal. Beal did remain in a “minutes range” on Sunday, so not yet. For now, Durant took over the Booker spot of playing full quarters.

Saben Lee played well in 16 minutes but both he and Bol Bol in the rotation is too much non-shooting on the floor together. Bol only played in the first half and is 2-for-12 from 3 in his last four games. Josh Okogie (right hip) was a late scratch.

Gilgeous-Alexander was solid to his standard and that was 35 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, three steals and three blocks. He could of easily had 50 on a better shooting night. Catch him live if you haven’t yet.

Vogel did not have an update on Booker’s ankle sprain suffered on Saturday. More information will come on Tuesday. With 21 games remaining and how the standings have shaped up, the difference between a week and three is paramount.

“We got time. But we can’t keep saying we got time,” Beal said on establishing continuity. “Like you said, we only got [21] games left. It’s a good amount of games to really get us going right and get us going right before the playoffs so I think that’ll be really good for us but we do gotta get rolling. We can’t keep talking about it. We can’t keep coming to you guys and saying, ‘Oh, we got time. We can fix it.’ We gotta do it.”

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