On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, as most of the world was watching NFL football, those who caught the Phoenix Suns blast the tanking Spurs, 133-95, caught sight of a familiar face having his first breakout game of the season.
Dario Saric got his second start as Torrey Craig is sidelined with a groin strain, and put up a season-high 17 points (6-8 shooting, 4-5 on threes, 1-1 free throws) while dishing 2 assists and grabbing 3 rebounds. Dario was a +16 in his season-high-tying 21:28 of play. The 17 points are his most since March 2021, almost two years ago now.
The great Duane Rankin of azcentral.com and Arizona Republic got Dario’s thoughts after the game.
"Feeling good, feeling good."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 5, 2022
Dario Saric after his breakout 17-point effort. going 4-of-5 from 3 in his second start as #Suns ripped #Spurs 133-95 in San Antonio.
Saric came into game with 24 points total in nine games.
So can Saric playing with another big work for Phoenix? pic.twitter.com/DPdbaxBTaf
Dario missed all last season with an ACL injury and barely played so far this year in the Suns four-out, switch-heavy scheme. He fits better as a backup center, but Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo have already overloaded that 18-minute-a-night rotation spot, leaving no minutes for Dario.
Sure, the 6’10” Saric could slide out to power forward as the second big man, but he would often get eaten up on defense against a team playing four guards and one big man.
“It’s tougher,” head coach Monty Williams says of playing a second big man. “because of the way the game is played today. To try to play two bigs can hurt you from a spacing standpoint.”
“Well, I think it can work,” Dario says of being the second big next to Ayton. “I get it. Today’s NBA is usually like four guards, one big, and switching low, switching up, not changing the tactics all the time.”
He cited New Orleans, and could have cited the Bucks (Giannis + Brook Lopez) and Celtics (Horford + Robert Williams when healthy), as teams who start two bigs whenever they can. It’s against those teams the Suns could use a second big out there like Dario.
But the matchups aren’t always favorable. He doesn’t move quite as well laterally as the Suns need, where the ‘power wing’ can end up on the perimeter guarding any of the five players on the court. If left on an island against a matchup-hunting playmaker, Dario would get blown by on the regular. So they would need to modify their plan, fight through picks to reject switches and keep Dario on a bigger, tertiary player at all times.
In Dario’s favor, he’s a real connector on offense with quick decision-making on passing, driving or taking the shot. And if he’s making his threes (4 of 5 on Sunday), he really helps the Suns extend and diversify their offense.
“When he’s knocking down his shot,” Williams said, “and he’s playing point-five and flying off of his spot to run through the ball, he can score, he can defend.”
He was able to tip that balance in his favor on Sunday against the West’s worst Spurs, but the balance tipped the other way on Friday night against the previously-worst but much more athletic rim-attacking Rockets. The box score shows a +10 next to his name in 21 minutes because he didn’t play in the collapsy-fourth, but no one watching that game thought Dario was the difference in winning and losing that one.
For as long as Torrey Craig (groin) is out, we might see Dario get more time as the power wing/forward, hoping his offensive connector skills offset any defensive lapses.
“Not many bigs can say they have all the skills that Dario has,” Williams said. “It’s just taken him a while to get his legs underneath him, and we’ve had other guys just playing a little bit better.
“But to see him out there playing instinctual baskeball gives all of us a lot of confidence that he’s on his way. He’s not there yet, but he’s on his way to getting back to the Dario that we all know and love.”
Let’s take a look at the immediate schedule.
Suns (16-7) at Mavericks (11-11), Monday night
Not a good matchup for Dario.
Luka Doncic is the ultimate matchup hunter and leads the league in usage rate. You all remember him getting switch after switch until he found his perfect matchup in the playoffs last year. Too many possessions ended up in Chris Paul (too small), JaVale McGee or Bismack Biyombo trying to stop him out on the perimeter. He killed them.
I don’t think Dario Saric would fare any better than Bis/Jock, but then again I don’t think Damion Lee would either. So we can only hope Torrey Craig gets back to good soon. Or maybe Josh Okogie gets a stint here? Don’t be surprised if Okogie gets a chance to check Luka.
Suns host Boston Celtics (19-5), Wednesday night
Might be a good matchup for Dario.
With Robert Williams out injured, the Celtics have blown the doors off the NBA with a lineup starting Al Horford as the only real big man, depending on how you count the girthy Grant Williams. Dario might do well in this matchup, as Williams doesn’t have the quicks to blow past Dario on the perimeter.
The Suns will have their hands full everywhere on the court against what’s by far the best team in the league this year. Jayson Tatum is a bona fide MVP candidate like Book. Jaylen Brown is the best #2 in the league. And the guys around those two are perfect fits to help them on both offense and defense.
Suns at New Orleans Pelicans (15-8) TWICE this weekend
Maybe a good matchup for Dario.
The Pelicans are ROLLING right now, playing like the best team in the West most of this season. They’re right with the Suns as the only teams with both a top-6 offense AND top-6 defense for most of the season.
They start Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas on the front line — much more girth than the Suns are used to facing, and imposing than the team the Suns beat in the first round last year.
While Dario can’t defend Zion, his big presence on the court bump and box out Jonas V and Larry Nance Jr. for offensive rebounds, freeing Deandre Ayton to focus on Zion.
You all remember how the Suns really needed Dario against the Bucks in the 2021 Finals, mostly because Ayton was islanded by Giannis, leaving only the 6’6” Jae Crowder to fight 7’0” Brook Lopez and 6’10” Bobby Portis for back side rebounds. That lack of size killed the Suns in those Finals. That’s how sneaky effective Dario can be against teams who employ two big men.
Let’s see how Monty Williams handles this week of big, important games. A lot of it could depend on how each first half unfolds.