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Two Up, Two Down: Kevin Durant is doing the heavy lifting for the Suns without Booker and Beal

Phoenix lost to the 76ers and defeated the Pistons. What did we learn?

Phoenix Suns v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

sEmotional highs and lows. We all experience them day to day, whether it be in traffic (use your darn blinker!...oooh, I made that light!) or at work (why is Stanley late?! He’s so inconsider—oooh, he brought donuts!). Navigating the regular season is no different as losses bring frustration and wins bring relief. We’re all a little bipolar, especially when it comes to basketball.

Early in the Phoenix Suns’ season, I’m sure you are toeing the line of your sanity. The team has yet to be healthy and in turn exits the second week of the NBA season with a 3-4 record, good for the 11th seed in the Western Conference. Not exactly where you would have predicted them to be, right? But almost .500 with their third-best player sitting out all 7 games and their (arguably) best player out for 5? Would you take that? Or are you still irate that they’re not 7-0?

Eat a donut.

This past weekend was a microcosm of the season as Phoenix lost to Philly on Saturday 112-100, following it up with a win in Detroit 120-106.

So here we are, experiencing the emotional complications that come with a talented but unhealthy team. Anticipation adds to the frustration. It’s difficult to assess a squad that isn’t healthy, especially early on. We find ourselves daydreaming about what they could be rather than what they are, but then we remember the Stanley brought in donuts, and we snap back to reality.

Let’s put some thumbs up and thumbs down as it pertains to what we witnessed this weekend, shall we?

Thumbs Up: Drew Eubanks is a quality backup center

Jusuf Nurkic has had his challenges this season. He isn’t a great perimeter defender, his interior defense has been average, and due to 3.4 fouls per game, he finds himself hanging out on the bench. Joel Embiid played him off of the court in the Saturday game as he played a mere 23 minutes.

Thankfully, Drew Eubanks is spelling him. Eubanks averaged 19 minutes, 9 points on 66.7% shooting, 4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2 blocks over the weekend, putting his physicality and hustle on display.

He might not be the most athletic. He definitely isn’t the quickest. He is, however, a solid defender whose head is always in the game and finds himself in the right position regularly, especially in the role he is being asked to fill.

Thus far this season he has a 102.3 defensive rating, the best on the team outside of Jordan Goodwin.

The defensive presence he provides from a backup big standpoint allows Nurkic to play aggressively, something he is going to do regardless. Knowing that he has a safety net behind him — the same net he’s had for the past two seasons as they played together with the Portland Trail Blazers — is perhaps why he fouls so much. I’m making a stretch for sure as Nurkic simply finds himself in awkward situations and the whistle goes against him. Still, knowing the guy behind you is capable must play a factor in his aggressiveness.

His basketball IQ is certainly what James Jones targeted in free agency this past offseason as that is what the Suns GM values. We’re seeing that on the court and in the sun against the Pistons, Drew continued the early season trend of putting himself in the right places at the right time.

Thumbs Down: The fan base overreactions

Dave King wrote about it yesterday as he was a guest on the Suns JAM Session post game podcast following the defeat at the hands of the 76ers. The chat that occurs live via YouTube can be distracting and, after a loss, toxic. It’s understandable to be emotional after a loss. One of the greatest challenges I personally have in hosting that podcast is to manage my emotions as we talk about the game that we just witnessed moments after its completion.

I’ve been doing it for four years now and I’m much better at managing myself, but I too am guilty of overreactions.

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We all just need to chill. There’s no Booker. There’s no Beal. You’re in Philly. What were your expectations? Realistically, what did you expect the Phoenix Suns to do as they play a fully healthy 76ers team?

I love this Tweet by @PHXSunsChamps23 as it puts into perspective what Phoenix is currently facing:

It’s a reminder that any team without their second and third-best players is going to struggle. Is it unfortunate that we are down both Booker and Beal? Absolutely. We spent all summer fantasizing about what our offense would look like with the big three and we’ve been robbed of that experience.

But we aren’t even 10% of the way through the season yet. My fellow Suns fans, be emotional. But recognize that you’re being emotional and emotions to make smart people look stupid.

Thumbs Down: Three-point shooting

Phoenix finds themselves in familiar territory when it comes to shooting threes: they don’t do it often and their percentage is average. In Kevin Young’s offense last season the Suns shot 32.6 threes a game, making 37.4% of them. That was the 17th most with the 7th best percentage. You’d think if you rostered three-point sharpshooters, especially at that clip, you’d adjust your offense to shoot more. Math.

This weekend the Suns shot 28 three-pointers and made 30.4% of them. On the year, Phoenix is 19th in the league with 35.5 3PA and 18th in the league at 35.5%.

I know, I know. No Booker. No Beal. The gravity they bring will open up the spacing, the spacing will equate to open shots, and the open shots will equate to higher shot attempts and percentages. At least that is what we assume to be true.

Phoenix is taking 20.4 wide-open three-pointers a game, which is the 7th highest rate in the league. They are knocking down 38.2% of those wide-open looks, which is 17th best in the league. Despite no Booker and no Beal, the spacing is occurring, they simply are hitting.

Yuta Watanabe went 2-of-7 (28.6%) from deep over the two games this weekend and the career 39 3PT% shooter is at 33.3% on the year. We’re seeing regression by a number of players early on this season from deep:

  • Watanabe: career 39.0%, this season 33.3%. -5.7%
  • Nurkic: career 29.2%, this season 23.8%. -5.4%
  • Durant: career 38.5%, this season 34.6%. -3.9%
  • Goodwin: career 31.9%, this season 28.0%. -2.9%
  • Okogie: career 29.1%, this season 26.7%. -2.4%
  • Gordon: career 37.1%, this season 36.4%. -0.7%

Some of those are pretty ugly percentages to begin with, and it is a small sample size. But the three-point shooting overall needs to increase in both attempts and efficiency. The team has the shooters. They just need to convert.

Grayson Allen (47.2%, career average 39.5%) is the saving grace with his shooting thus far. He has the highest three-point percentage (outside of Booker’s 53.3% in two games played) while attempting the second-most three-pointers on the team with 36.

Thumbs Up: Durant’s heavy lifting

Kevin Durant continues to amaze me. I will probably reference him numerous times throughout this season as I cannot break my pattern of being a fanboy for the way in which he is a pure bucket. The manner in which he plays basketball with fluidity and efficiency is truly art in motion. I love watching him, and still can’t believe he’s on the Suns.

Durant is doing all he can to will Phoenix to victory at this point through his elite shot-making and competitive influence on his teammates. His 41 point performance on Sunday came to 24 hours after he put up 31 and he’s doing it without much help.

72 points in two days. Not a bad weekend at the office. “We’re excited, we finally got a W,” Durant said after winning on Sunday. His weekend averages: 36 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks on 48.9/28.6/92.3 splits.

What is impressive is he is doing it with double and triple teams coming his way quite often. No Booker and Beal means the opposing defense does not need to guess as to who will have the ball in their hands.

Poor Durant, all he wants to do is win and have his teammates by his side when he does it. This is the second consecutive big three he’s been a part of in which he is doing the heavy lifting. Our hope is this heavy lifting now doesn’t negate his availability later. But while we wait, he sure is amazing to watch play the sport of basketball.

Where do you find your thumbs after the weekend? They aren’t residing in the wind as you’re hitchhiking out of Planet Orange, are they? I certainly hope not. Hitchhiking is dangerous!

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