It happened. It finally happened.
On Wednesday at the Footprint Center the Phoenix Suns debuted their Big Three. Devin Booker, Devin Durant, and Bradley Beal who, through 23 games in the 2023-24 season had yet to play together, finally did. Ironically enough, it was on a night in which the fan base welcomed former Suns (and still favorites) Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson back to the Valley.
The Twins are back in The Valley ❤️ pic.twitter.com/VpE1Vc1Gvd— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) December 14, 2023
Burn it down. We never should have traded the Twins. Beal is a bum. KD is over the hill. Devin Booker sucks in elimination games.
My point? Settle down. Phoenix was without key rotation players last night as Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon were out, as was Josh Okogie. Those players have combined for 1,793 minutes played this season.
The first quarter of the season was that of survival. The next quarter of the season will be one of growth. The Big Three has arrived, but that does not mean that they fit together perfectly like LEGO’s. It will take some time as they learn their playing patterns, spacing, and chemistry. Simultaneously Frank Vogel will be experimenting with his rotations and finding strategic ways to exploit opposing defenses.
This takes time. “We showed some spurts…we’re going to get better,” Kevin Durant said of the Big Three.
What did we learn from the debut of the Big Three? It’s been a while since I put together a “thumbs up, thumbs down” piece, so why not look at it through the lens?
Thumbs Up: Devin Booker, Alpha Dog
This is Devin Booker’s team. This is Devin Booker’s town.
When you get three All-Stars and put them on the same team, the question becomes who is the alpha dog? Who is the go-to guy? You’d love for all three to play seamlessly together, but all have been the primary option/scorer/facilitator on their team since they were 9 years old. It’s easier on NBA2K than it is on an actual basketball court to accomplish.
Devin Booker showed us, at least in their first game together, that he is that dude.
Devin Booker tonight:— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) December 14, 2023
60% FG pic.twitter.com/lBr7vlqzne
He began the game as a facilitator, slowly and strategically attempting to set up his teammates to get quality looks at the rim. With seven assists in the first half, it appeared that this is the role that Booker was gravitating towards. He did not attempt one shot in the first quarter.
But a lull occurred in which the Suns gave up a 16-0 run to the Nets. And that is when Devin Booker took over from an offensive standpoint. He scored 16 points in the second quarter, shooting 5-of-7 from the field including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. He ended the game with 34 points and 12 assists on a very efficient 9-of-15 shooting. He added six rebounds as well.
Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal will surely have their moments as both are effective and efficient scores, but Devin Booker showed that he is the alpha dog on this team and did so in front of a crowd on Wednesday night. The fact that teammates were wearing his Book 1 shoes? That’s alpha stuff right there.
Wear Book 1’s. Get double-doubles.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 14, 2023
Be like Book. https://t.co/a6CuLm2fLA
Thumbs Down: Iso Heavy Suns
When you have talents like Booker and Beal as your primary facilitators, the offense should take care of itself, right? As Lee Corso would say, “No so fast, my friend!” There is an adjustment period that we will endure over the next few games as, along with Kevin Durant on the floor, they learn their space.
The byproduct? Stagnant offense.
Too much isolation. Move the ball around. Cut. Set a back screen. Do. Something.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 14, 2023
Phoenix was poking and prodding the Brooklyn defense, attempting to identify strategic matchups. The problem? Like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nets possess numerous long-winged defenders who can disrupt the passing lanes. The probing and pressing resulted in extended plays and ineffective shots off isolated possessions.
It felt as if Chris Paul was back on the team and it is clear Booker downloaded that aspect of the Point God’s game. Isolate the defense, cerebrally identify the weakness, and execute. The only issue? The Suns weren’t connecting on their shots.
The Suns found themselves open from three but went 1-of-9 from deep in the first quarter.
As the game progressed and rotational moves were deployed, we witnessed more fluidity. But it will remain an issue for the Suns as they are purely a half-court team. Frank Vogel must find ways that encourage movement in the offense. The movement will create mismatches, open up space, and force defenses into decisions that they are not comfortable with. Too much isolation allows defenses to rest and react with fresh legs and minds.
Create chaos. Limit isolation. This isn’t the KD/Harden/Irving Nets. We hope.
Thumbs Down: Boxing Out
The Suns are not a great rebounding team. Heck, they’re barely good. They entered the evening 16th in the league in total rebounds, and one of the reasons is their lack of box out-ability. Is that a word? I’m making it one.
Too often we see the Suns watch the ball clank off of the cylinder and, rather than standing their ground and identifying a defender to box out, they watch. The Nets took advantage of the flat-footed Suns, snagging 10 offensive boards which led to 16 second-chance points.
It’s a trend we’ve seen far too often this season.
Phoenix Suns backup centers have a rebounding percentage of 49.6%, 10th worst in the league.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 14, 2023
The Suns are 16th in the league in total rebounding. Yeah, we need another backup big to spell the non-Nurk minutes to help with rebounds.
Nurkic does his part, but a team rebounding philosophy needs to be an area of focus behind him. The Bosnian Beast relies on physicality to gather his rebounds, and when you have a long athletic team like Brooklyn in town, they’ll give him fits.
Drew Eubanks has drastically regressed as it pertains to production, and last night was no different. 4 minutes played. That’s all he earned. We need more from the Suns as a team and Eubanks as a player.
The Suns are +49 with Nurkic on the court for the last 5 games and -50 with Eubanks on.— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 14, 2023
Thumbs Up: Nurk-a-licious
it was clear from the first possession that the Big Three’s presence will greatly affect how Jusuf Nurkic performs as his opportunities will increase. The space created is going to benefit him time and again. What he does with that space is what matters.
The challenge that Nurkic has had this season is with athletic centers, and Nic Claxton falls into the classification. He’s not a slow, big, bruising body down on the block that Jusuf has to contend with, which is typically the archetype that Nurk does well against. He is slim, athletic, and moves well. I’d love to see Clax in Phoenix.
Nurkic had his way with Claxton, however. In the 5:49 they were matched up against each other, the Suns scored 41 points. Nurkic ended the night with 22 rebounds. He scored 15 points.
Again, it comes down to fit. Nurkic, based on our initial impressions, fits in nicely with the Big Three. Of course, teams will game plan against it, and Nurk will have down games. He will have the space and not execute in the future. Expect that. $16 million a year for the center position, remember that.
But know that he had a fantastic game against the Nets on Wednesday night. A thumbs-up worthy one.
This is the beginning, my friends. There will be adjustments and adjustments to those adjustments. Again, the second quarter of the season is one of growth together as Phoenix figures out how to unleash the Big Three and how the rotations off of them will function.
Enjoy the ride. Be critical, sure, but enjoy it.