EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns show both sides of identity in win over Pelicans

Apr 1, 2024, 7:51 PM | Updated: 9:05 pm

Phoenix Suns...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns react after scoring during the first quarter of an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on April 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

If you were tasked with putting one game on for historians to give a proper representation of the 2023-24 Phoenix Suns, Monday’s 124-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans is your winner.

A tale of two halves spotlighted Phoenix’s immense potential in the first half before its season-long issues appeared for the final two quarters to make the finish a lot more eventful than it had to be.

The Suns were lucky to get a 52-point masterclass from Devin Booker. He also added nine assists on three turnovers.

At some point in January, Phoenix implemented a change to more or less give the keys of the offense to Bradley Beal as the “point guard” out of anyone. An under-discussed aspect of this transition was taking that away from Booker, the better floor general and player who since then had to reconfigure how he would impact games. It has waned more than usual this season, and that is one of the reasons why. He still had his fair share of possessions running the offense but his usage in that way has been more inconsistent than it had been in years past.

On Monday it was more of Booker bringing the ball up and it was exactly the spark he needed after two underwhelming performances.

Booker scored 24 of his 52 in the first quarter, following up his 52-point effort in New Orleans in January. It was one of those shot-making clinics he puts on display when no one has a chance at guarding him and every possession that doesn’t end with him double-teamed is puzzling.

Phoenix played off his flow in that quarter to the tune of 12 assists and zero turnovers, with a 9-of-14 mark from 3.

The Suns extended the lead in the first half to as many as 27 points before a disconnect in the third quarter emerged. The usual turnovers were a jump scare after how well Phoenix was taking care of the ball and its defense regressed significantly, giving up 26 points in the paint after New Orleans produced a total of just 24 across the firs thalf.

Phoenix’s lead was cut to just 13 entering the fourth quarter, where the Suns have melted down several times this season, but there was no more juice left from the Pelicans’ effort to storm back and that allowed the Suns to settle in just enough. They never fully regained control, though, looking nothing like the team in the first half that scored 74 points.

The Suns missed 12 straight shots to gift New Orleans a second opportunity at a comeback. The Pelicans obliged, crawling back within seven before a Booker layup through contact got him to 50 points and ended Phoenix’s rut. Booker scored again on a drive to put Phoenix up nine with under 90 seconds left to seal it. Phoenix only scored 21 points in the fourth quarter.

Booker set a new career high of eight 3s, something he achieved after tying his career high of six for the 27th time in his career. He came into the night an eye-popping 0-for-38 from deep in games when he had reached six and was trying to knock down his seventh. After missing his first go on Monday, the second went down. The 40th time was the trick.

Phoenix used New Orleans’ traditional centers as a way to contain driving lanes for Zion Williamson, giving him little room and unsure of how to get into the teeth of the defense. The Pelicans’ spacing was poor all night. Williamson was effectively neutralized and that completely changed how much they could produce on offense. His feel for when to attack and when to kick the ball out was nonexistent and he willed his way to 30 points, 20 of which came in the second half. It was one of the Suns’ better executed defensive gameplans of the season.

Monday included a much-needed great game out of Jusuf Nurkic, who has been playing through a few different injuries over the last six weeks and hasn’t been able to replicate his top form from the middle of the season through them. He finished with 19 points, 19 rebounds, four assists, a steal, two blocks and one turnover.

Beal was 5-of-8 for 13 points, nine rebounds, six assists, a steal, two blocks and three turnovers. Perhaps the best short-term solution is to dial back his involvement on the ball like Monday to maximize the rhythm for Booker and Durant, with the long-term goal of the trio playing off each other more easily next season. They just haven’t had enough time or a cohesive enough environment to figure that out, the most important part of a Big 3 properly functioning.

New Orleans was without Brandon Ingram (left knee bone contusion) and Jose Alvarado (right oblique strain).

The Suns (44-31) victory means they’ve got the tiebreaker over the Pelicans (45-30) in the standings. They’ll face New Orleans again on Sunday, another chance to make up ground with the team they’ll likely need to send to the play-in tournament seeds in order to climb back up to a spot in the top-six.

Phoenix once again got up 3s against New Orleans, ending up at 18-of-47 (38.3%). It is now 17-9 when it reaches the league average of 35 3-point attempts.

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