Every season needs a turning point, especially those in which the talent is present but the production isn’t there. Phoenix has played like a two-wheel drive 2007 Dodge Ram that you decide to take out to the south side of the Estella Mountains in the hope that you’ll hike up to Hayes Pick. You get stuck in the deep sands on the journey, and the trip turns into one of survival rather than reaching the top of the mountain. Shoulda got the four-wheel drive model, eh?
On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns played in four-wheel drive mode in the fourth quarter and might have hit that turning point we’ve been waiting for in their season. It was an impressive comeback they put together, winning 119-117 over their Pacific Division rivals.
Every bucket from the Suns 32-8 run that lead them to a huge comeback victory pic.twitter.com/ddTM0asLR8— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2024
For three quarters against the Sacramento Kings, the Suns looked dead in the water. Their defense was nonexistent, both on the perimeter and around the cylinder. The Kings are a good team, especially offensively. The chemistry that they’ve developed between Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox is apparent in the way that they attack opposing defenses. The way that they run the pick and roll is impressive and it generates points.
On Tuesday it felt as if the Suns could not stop it. If they dropped in coverage to help Jusuf Nurkic against Sabonis, Fox would calmly stroke a three-pointer. He was 6-of-10 from beyond the arc and scored 33 total points. If they blitzed Fox, he would either split the defense with his elite quickness to a wide-open rim or find Sabonis, who would make the correct decision with the ball. Sabonis ended with a triple-double.
With just over seven minutes left in the game, the Suns trailed by 15 points. This is typically the spot in which Frank Vogel would put Nurkic back in the game. The team’s energy level was low and their turnover rate was high. The team turned the ball over five times in the fourth quarter leading to 7 points for the Kings.
But then Frank Vogel made a move.
Rather than substituting Nurkic back into the game, he went with a small ball lineup that included Kevin Durant playing the five against Sabonis. The athleticism that Sabonis possesses is, unfortunately, a little too much for Nurkic to handle. We know this with Nurk; that he is going to have issues against certain centers in the NBA. While he’s matched up well against Domantas in the past, Tuesday night, it just wasn’t there.
So Vogel made the move and all of a sudden turning point occurred.
Kevin Durant, who I believe is the best defender on the Suns, shut down Sabonis. Due to his length and athleticism, KD was able to defend the pick and role that is the bread and butter of the Kings’ offense. The tide started to change and the shots that the Kings were making with such ease throughout the game stopped falling.
On the other side of the ball, Phoenix started hitting their three-pointers. It wasn’t as if they had been missing them all night long — the team was shooting 10-of-26 (38.5%) through the first three quarters — but they ramped it up in the fourth in an effort to cut into the large lead that the Kings had accrued.
Eric Gordon, who has been absent for the past couple of games while still being present on the court, started to come to life. He scored 6 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter which were two massive three-point hits that cut into the lead and tied the game.
But it was Kevin Durant on both sides of the ball who truly changed the tide. He had 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. He was everywhere, on offense and defense. It was Durant who would take the final shot, one on which he would be fouled, and hit the two clinching three free throws for the 119-117 victory.
The lineup the Suns closed with unlocked something special. Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon, and Kevin Durant had an offensive rating of 209.1 and a defensive rating of 36.4 in those final five minutes played together. A net rating of 172.7 put the Kings to sleep.
The Suns are shooting a whopping 44% from deep in 143 minutes when all four of Book, Beal, Grayson and KD share the court so far this season— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 18, 2024
Turning point in the season? Perhaps.
I do not believe that a small-ball five lineup is sustainable for the team. If it is, you might as well trade Nurkic and get somebody for $16 million. But it was nice to see the adjustment work as successfully as it did. It is another wrinkle that the Suns possess that can make them hard to defend in the playoffs.
The challenge? The Suns have to play better defense for a longer period. They shut down the Kings, out-scoring them 32-8 to end the game, but you can’t rely on that kind of production to win games consistently.
Urgency throughout the game needs to be prioritized.
Wins like what we witnessed on Tuesday can be galvanizing, however. This game was a “walk the talk” moment in which the team looked at one another and realized that you simply must play basketball with fluidity and focus. And on the defensive end. Hustle and grit on that end of the floor lead to offense, and the hope is that what the Suns experienced against the Kings can be used as a milestone for the coaches and players to pull upon.
Turning point? Time will tell. Phoenix has a tough road ahead of them, as they have the hardest remaining schedule relative to opposing winning percentage. If Phoenix can put together some wins, if they can best their competition over these next 10 games — which include games against the New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers twice, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and Milwaukee Bucks — then yes. This was the turning point.