EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic must maintain footing for Suns playoffs series vs. T-Wolves

Apr 18, 2024, 11:34 AM

PHOENIX — For as much as the Phoenix Suns have so far failed to meet the expectations set before the season, they have gotten fantastic contributions from their supporting cast. And how the group impacts the first-round matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves will play a large part in determining its outcome.

While Jusuf Nurkic’s play has been up and down, on the whole, he has provided the Suns good minutes as a starting center with a team-friendly skill set. It’s been at a level that didn’t seem feasible to get back when Phoenix traded Deandre Ayton. Grayson Allen was a part of the return as well and had the best season of his career, with his own coach saying Allen’s been better than expected in every part of his game.

Royce O’Neale was a no-brainer acquisition at the trade deadline and has swung a handful of games in Phoenix already. And then there’s Bradley Beal, who is a part of the Big 3 alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant but has taken on responsibilities that, for the most part, have him somewhere in between that duo and everyone else on the team when it comes to the pecking order.

Beal and Nurkic are the two to focus on, two guys that we couldn’t be certain would be suiting up for Round 1 due to their respective injury histories. Beal’s playing through a right finger injury that still has pain pop up throughout a game while Nurkic has also been a warrior through a handful of issues the last few months. Both players being healthy enough for the start of the series is worth pointing out on its own.

The season’s deal with Bradley Beal

The story of Beal’s first season in the Valley was this: as soon as he looked like someone settling into a role, he got hurt. It happened nearly a half-dozen times, including his broken nose that he played through before finishing off the last 23 games of the year.

In the back half of March, it looked like getting “Bradley bleeping Beal” this year wasn’t going to come to fruition. Over a nine-game stretch, he was averaging just 9.3 shots per game as he was definitively taking on the “point guard” position. It looked like the season would hinge on how far Booker and Durant could carry Phoenix while Beal joined the glue guy ranks doing a more than fine job in that type of role.

Booker and Durant urged Beal to be more aggressive. The whole season and especially the last two months surely had to frustrate the bejeezus out of Beal because he was making the often-discussed sacrifices for the team that hovers around a Big 3. At the same time, he was sort of being told he had to do make sacrifices while also switching on “Bradley beeping Beal” mode when necessary.

Somehow, in a huge credit to Beal, everyone got their wish in the last five games of the year when Beal posted 26.8 points a night, including two ultra-spirited outings at the end of the regular season when his team absolutely was going to lose without them.

Beal acknowledged on Wednesday this was not the role he envisioned. But he has still made the most of it.

“It’s probably a little different but it’s one I’ve accepted and one I’ve embraced for sure,” Beal said. “It’s been fun playing this style of basketball. It’s been an adjustment, I won’t say it’s been the easiest thing but it’s definitely fun to be in this position. With the talent I have, it makes my job easy.”

How sustainable is this back-and-forth dance for Beal? There’s merit to pondering that.

What we do know is Beal’s been terrific this year in the little areas. He has ramped up his defense since the back stopped giving him problems, is up there with anyone on the team for his activity around 50/50 balls, gets inside the paint a ton and is shooting 52% from 3 in his last 28 games.

“Obviously when you’re in different situations, different roles, you’re required to do different things and bring different intangibles to the game,” Beal said. “I’ve had years in D.C. where I was doing that. … I was doing a lot of off-ball, a lot more backcuts and kind of two-man games like I do with Nurk. But it’s been a full development, man. I’m excited that I get to show other parts of my game.”

Beal will have to star in multiple games for the Suns to win this series. Minnesota’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are three very good perimeter defenders that will be busy with Booker and Durant. Beal’s going to have large pockets being defended by someone like Mike Conley and has to make the Timberwolves pay for trying to get away with that. It’s the No. 1 reason why this Big 3 was supposed to be unstoppable.

“We have to, man,” Beal said of everyone remaining aggressive. “You can’t let anybody off the hook. I think that’s probably the biggest observation, especially with a good defensive team like Minnesota. They pack the paint really well, they use their size and physicality really well, you don’t get many offensive rebounds so you gotta be really strategic with the way you attack and everybody has to be in that mindset.

“We can’t pass up open shots, we can’t force contested 2s over Rudy (Gobert). We have to be very smart with what we do and the shots we generate. I think we did a good job of that last game but obviously they’re gonna make adjustments and we gotta be ready for that.”

Jusuf Nurkic’s role has likewise evolved over Suns’ season

Sticking to a similar theme, Nurkic’s usage has dialed back significantly compared to the start of the year. He pretty much stopped taking 3s in mid-January and his field goal attempts over his first 38 games of 9.8 a night dropped to 7.0 over his remaining 42 contests. Nurkic has been honest and softly alluded to how this isn’t the ideal role for him but he’s willing to do whatever gives his team the best chance to win.

Nurkic has been at the same time Phoenix’s most important and volatile player.

The Suns’ offense relies on his secondary playmaking to keep things moving and his superior screen setting opens up more space. His defense has its limitations but underrated at the same time, where his execution with coverages — like for the Suns’ so-far successful containment of Edwards — goes largely unnoticed.

He also has games when anything positive he is doing is cratered by too many misses around the rim and turnovers.

Because of the amount of shooting on the floor for the Suns in their best lineups, Nurkic has been great lately with kickout passes when he’s around the basket. Bigs are taught to go up strong and finish, but Nurkic has been better about making up for the limitations there.

The turnovers are non-negotiable in the postseason.

Since Feb. 29, Nurkic is turning it over 2.9 times a game, far too many considering his usage. Interestingly enough, in the 16 games he’s racked up at least four turnovers, the Suns are 12-4, a nod to how important his involvement is. But Phoenix won’t get away with that in the playoffs, especially for a Timberwolves squad that struggles in the halfcourt against the Suns’ defensive gameplan and would benefit from the increased pace coming from those giveaways.

Nurkic also has to stay on the floor. In the last two meetings against the T-Wolves, Nurkic has picked up either his fourth or fifth foul in the mid-third quarter.

Phoenix is outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when Nurkic isn’t on the floor, the worst number on the team out of the starters. That has to do with both what Nurkic does on the floor and the lack of quality play behind him. Against a team with size like Minnesota, it’s even more important.

The other, more consistent role players

Allen would be included further in this discussion of game-swinging role players if he was not Grayson Allen. He’s been the most consistent player on the team and the Suns were fortunate a one-game move to the bench in the last week of the regular season didn’t scramble his rhythm.

Allen shot 19-for-34 (55.9%) against Minnesota in the regular season and in particular was constantly trying to drive the basketball, taking advantage of smaller matchups like Conley. Big man Karl-Anthony Towns was marking him on Sunday and Allen’s activity as a screener will be something to monitor.

Like Allen, O’Neale would be included in this discussion if he was not Royce O’Neale. He’s going to bring his usual positives on the floor no matter what, along with the streaky shooting.

The latter is just luck of the draw. Jae Crowder was the same type of player and he knocked down 12% of his 3s for the first round in 2022 before bumping that up to 43% in the conference semifinals.

Look, ultimately a playoff series is determined by star power. Phoenix’s biggest strength will always be having Booker and Durant. It has the two best players in this series.

But it has been a weird season for Booker, a player we’ve watched consistently improve in the Valley. Every. Single. Season. And he didn’t this year after last postseason suggested he was ready to make a run at MVP.

His offense hasn’t found a reliable, proper footing amongst the balancing act of his role and more defensive mixups have been popping up like a few seasons ago. If the wonky nature of this season has hurt anyone on the Suns the most, it’s been him.

Durant played the most minutes he has for a regular season since he was 25 years old and the 2,791 is the first time he logged at least 2,100 in five seasons. That has many suspecting he’s a bit worn down, a theory that doesn’t seem totally justified. He still very much dominates games like Kevin Durant, perhaps not as much as you’d expect. If anything is worth a shout in regards to fatigue, it’s how often he’s involved when the mental mistakes on the team start to compound.

Point is, both Booker and Durant have not been as consistent as they need to be. Again, the jelling process of the team is affecting that. They are also supposed to rise above that and will have to in this series. Given how strong Minnesota’s depth is, it’s crucial the two don’t get forced into those efforts alone and are getting help. Booker tried his best at this last year and it could only take the team midway through the second round, even with the supernova highs he reached before he got hurt in Game 5 against Denver.

If Phoenix wins this series, it’s because it got a “Jusuf Nurkic Game” or a “Grayson Allen Game” or a “Royce O’Neale Game” or a “Bradley Beal Game.” All four have made that happen in the regular season and need to keep it up on the big stage.

Empire of the Suns

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