Don’t look now, but the Phoenix Suns have what some people might call a “winning streak”. After a victory on Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, the Suns flew into the Windy City (O’Hare or Midway, I do not know) and won a hard-fought physical overtime bout against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night. That’s two in a row! They’re 4-4! Praise be to Lou Malnati’s pizza and Goose Island IPA!
What went well against the Bulls? What could’ve been better? Where should our thumbs be after the win, which finished the Suns’ first road trip of the season with a 2-1 record? Allow me to give you my thoughts and my thumbs.
Thumbs Up: The remnants of the Ayton trade
When Phoenix traded away Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers, we knew that Phoenix was parting ways with the best player in the deal. In return, however, the Suns received two rotational players with moveable contracts. While their upside isn’t what DA’s can be, their “fit” with this team shined bright on Thursday.
Gray Sun Allen
The man with some gray in his hair, Grayson Allen, was booed when introduced at the United Center as a starter. Bulls fans don’t have to search their memory banks as to why there is disdain for Allen. Once upon a two seasons ago, Allen fouled Alex Caruso hard on a fastbreak dunk attempt, which resulted in a fractured wrist for Caruso. He missed 21 games as a result.
Allen responded to the boobirds with a stellar shooting performance. He scored 26 points and made 8-of-13 three-point attempts. Those 8 threes were a career high.
THE GRAYSON ALLEN GAME.— Suns Are Better (@SunsAreBetter) November 9, 2023
26 points on 81.3% TS%, including 8 3s, with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal to go with it.
Won them this game. Best game of his career.
This is why the Suns traded Deandre Ayton. It wasn’t just for Nurkic. They needed a player like this. pic.twitter.com/J9UqGd2Phs
Bulls fans weren’t too happy in their game thread on Reddit, I can tell you that. It’s something I like to monitor during games, as we do the “Sub-Reddit Stakeout” segment for the Suns JAM Session Podcast for post-games. Needless to say, the last guy they wanted to play well was Allen.
Allen took advantage of the fact that Bradley Beal made his debut, as the floor spacing opened up the sharpshooter for numerous open looks. To his credit, he did something many Suns have not done thus far this season: he knocked ‘em down.
It was a solid Jusuf Nurkic game and we must celebrate that. We are learning, if we didn’t already know, who Bug Nurk is. Lumbering at times and someone who can be played off the court due to lack of athleticism, he is a big body that possesses rebounding acumen and a high basketball IQ. Is that a fair assessment?
In the matchup against the Bulls, he met his Spider-Man meme doppelganger in Nikola Vucevic on the court. Vuce is more athletic and a better three-point shooter, but for the most part, they are the same center. The only difference is Vuce gets paid $2 million more a year.
Nurkic feasted on Thursday, scoring 20 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, and dishing out 8 assists.
Jusuf Nurkic's 20 points, 16 rebounds and 8 assists makes him the first Suns player with at least that in a game since Charles Barkley in 1996, per @Stathead.— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) November 9, 2023
Alvan Adams, Neal Walk, Connie Hawkins and Paul Silas are the others.
Bradley Beal might not have had the most productive debut — 3-of-12 from the field for 13 points — but his gravity helped compliment what Nurkic does well on offense. It opens the floor for him to score around the basketball or find open teammates as a distributor.
When Booker returns, we can expect to see more of the “fit” we’ve been told about. Even if Nurk plays an athletic center, someone who negates his production on the defensive end, his offensive skill set will be an advantage.
Thumbs Down: The non-KD minutes
It’s been a struggle when Kevin Durant is not on the floor for the Suns. He is a team-high +34 through the first 8 games of the season.
Last night the same story unfolded. The team scored 36 points in the first quarter — a quarter KD played all 12 minutes in — only to fall flat when Durant went to the bench. The team shot 36.4% in the second and scored only 21 points, even with Durant returning with 5:21 left.
In the third, Phoenix came out of the half with the same level of offensive execution that they began the game with. 31 points were scored on 60% shooting from the field. But, as Durant went to the bench, the fourth-quarter Suns made their return. 19 Q4 points, with KD playing 7:59 and shooting 0-of-2 from the field. If KD isn’t scoring, no one else is in the fourth.
The Suns haven't made a field goal since the 4:45 mark of the fourth quarter— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) November 9, 2023
Thus far this season, here are the top five Suns’ scorers in the fourth quarter for players who’ve played in at least 5 games:
- Kevin Durant: 8.5 points (50 FG%)
- Jusuf Nurkic: 3.3 points (50 FG%)
- Drew Eubanks: 2.4 points (57.1 FG%)
- Jordan Goodwin: 2.3 points (30 FG%)
- Yuta Watanabe: 1.5 points (28.6 FG%)
That is what you call “falling off a cliff”, ladies and gentlemen.
Even with Beal back, the offense sputtered like a gas lawnmower that is almost out of gas. It will take time for Beal to get his legs underneath him and for the Suns to generate sustained offensive pushes. When this occurs, the pressure on Durant to be the only viable offensive player in the fourth will help Phoenix put teams away, not rely on late-game heroics to win by one point.
Thumbs Down: Them darn turnovers!
Frustrating. So frustrating.
It’s one thing when the defense plays hard and forces a turnover. To their credit, the pesky Bulls did plenty of on-ball pressure that flustered the Suns. Alex Caruso has a PhD in disruption and was a big part of the 6 Kevin Durant turnovers, simply by pushing him off of his spot for forcing KD into situations and spaces he didn’t want to be in.
It’s those unforced errors, the lackadaisical passes, that drive you to drink Diet Dr. Pepper’s at 10:38 at night. Ain’t nobody need soda that late in the evening! Yuta Watanabe’s telegraphed pass to Drew Eubanks near half-court is an example of an error that can be corrected, but until it is, you’re pounding DDP’s.
THE. ANDRE. DRUMMOND. EXPERIENCE. pic.twitter.com/lH0x96OaRi— CHGO Bulls (@CHGO_Bulls) November 9, 2023
The Suns allowed 30 points off of 22 turnovers against the Bulls. Granted, the Bulls entered the game with the most steals per game in the NBA, but the Suns didn’t need to help them continue dominating that statistic.
It’s been a continual issue for Phoenix, as they now average 17.3 turnovers per game. For context, the average 24.8 assists. As a team, they are rocking a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. Oh hell, let me pop another Diet Dr. Pepper...
Thumbs Up: KBD’s insertion into the starting lineup
After the Wembanyama debacle last week, Frank Vogel made an adjustment by putting Keita Bates-Diop into the starting lineup. The team is 2-1 since then. A direct correlation? Probably not, but it is a contributing factor.
Josh Okogie hustles. He plays with a high-motor. He plays bigger than his 6’4” frame. But at the end of the day, while he has those skills, KBD has the physical deliverables. He’s long. He’s intelligent. He’s a better shooter. Whoever the fifth starter is must possess the ability to hit open shots when they present themselves, and they will present themselves. Okogie is shooting 23.5% from deep this year.
What we witnessed in Chicago is why he is in the starting lineup. On offense, he didn’t shoot much, but he doesn’t need to. When he did, however, he knocked down his opportunities, going 2-of-4 from the field (all from deep), and scoring 7 points. His overtime three-pointer was game-changing, as Phoenix was down four points when he knocked it down.
On defense, the Bulls chose to attack him with Demar DeRozan for the final shot, but due to his length, DeRozan did not get off a clean shot. The ball hit the iron and the Suns won.
Keita Bates-Diop had a quiet statline, but an incredibly productive game.— Suns Are Better (@SunsAreBetter) November 9, 2023
Tasked with defending DeRozan, who finished 6-20 on FG. Hit a massive 3 in OT to save the game.
This is who you want out there with the starters. He has officially won the job as the Suns’ 5th starter. pic.twitter.com/EcfWrIz0oF
Time will tell if this is a Vogel experiment or if KBD is there to stay with the starting five. Early returns are he fills the role splendidly, as he is shooting 50% from the field and 45.5% from three. While these offensive numbers might not be sustainable, and he will not fill up the stat sheet with other metrics, KBD makes winning plays.
How do you think the Suns did in their close victory? Do you like Diet Dr. Pepper too? Can we be soda buddies?! Will KBD stay in the starting lineup? Will we finally improve in the fourth once Beal gets his legs back and Booker plays?
Let us know below!