The peaks and valleys of the Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns were a team that came into this season with high hopes. Acquiring Kevin Durant last year, going all in by acquiring Bradley Beal, and parting ways with Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, Matt Ishbia hoped to start this new chapter of Suns basketball with a winning culture.

Well, that has not happened. The Big Three have only managed to play six games together this season. In a minuscule sample size of 108 minutes, the numbers are encouraging. Their offensive rating sits at a healthy 120.7, with a net rating of +8.0.

Overall, as a team, the offensive rating is middling at 116.4, with a net rating of +0.8.

So, what can we really take away from the Suns at this point in the season?

Let’s delve into some factors that show the possibilities of the team and what has contributed to their slow start.

The potential of the Big Three

Obviously, Beal being unavailable is one of the main reasons why this team has not taken off. The former Wizard has only managed to play in eight games for the Suns and only 44 minutes alongside Booker and Durant.

The team had envisioned a triple threat where opponents would have to pick their poison against guys who are elite three-level scorers on the floor at the same time.

Look at this play early in the game against the Knicks. Grayson Allen has the defense on its heels as he penetrates and passes it to KD on the left wing. After Durant pump fakes it and passes his defender, he has two high-percentage options with Beal and Booker wide open on opposite corners.

Booker’s missed shot notwithstanding, the potential of this offense is apparent when all three are healthy and playing together.

In the limited action that Beal has seen on the court, he has proved he can help take the offensive pressure off his two counterparts.

Here’s another instance of the trio in action against a zone. In the first quarter against the Nets, Booker commands a double team beyond the three-point line, and he quickly swings it to Durant on the right wing. As Beal’s defender comes out to defend Durant, the ball is then whipped to Beal in the right corner. Beal has two options: taking a decent look from the corner or getting to the rim. He opts for the latter and scores on a mid-range shot.

Again, it’s a small sample size, but in 13 games, Beal has a 23.6 percent usage rate, behind Durant and Booker who are a tick below 30 percent usage each.

The defensive lapses

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Chalk it up to not getting the chance to play with each other enough, but a lot of defensive lapses have been caused by miscommunication or a lack of focus. There have been plenty of instances where they had the game in control, but somehow managed to allow opponents to get back in it and ended up losing.

Towards the start of the third quarter against the Blazers, Booker seems to lose sight of what’s going on offensively and he’s caught watching Durant’s man in the corner without looking at the ball. Nobody even bothers contesting Jerami Grant’s shot.

After that shot, the Suns would end up getting outscored 18 in that quarter, and blew a double-digit lead along with the game to the lottery-bound Blazers.

Another instance showing a complete blown coverage is during the start of the game against the Knicks with all the Suns reacting to Donte DiVincenzo penetrating in the paint on a fastbreak, then kicking it out to former Knick RJ Barrett. Again, with the lack of focus, DiVincenzo easily relocates to the corner for a non-contested three-point look.

“Our effort on defense, that’s always going to be the first, the biggest concern going into a game every night,” Beal told the Arizona Republic recently. “Making sure we’re attentive to the details we need to do to guarding the ball and making it easy for ourselves offensively.”

Whether it is a lack of focus or simply attention to detail, the Suns have to figure out how to clean up these hiccups if they really want to be treated as a serious contender.

Fourth quarter meltdowns

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the Suns, you would guess that they would at least be average when it comes to the fourth quarter. 

In the past eight losses, four of those games have come when the Suns had the lead heading into the fourth quarter. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but when you actually look under the surface, some numbers are painful to see.

The Suns have the worst fourth-quarter point differential in the NBA for the season. According to Statmuse, the Suns are -131 in point differential in the fourth – 32 points worse than the second-worst team.

“Just play to our strengths as individuals,” Durant said recently. “We’ve had some solid fourth quarters, it was us driving closeouts, coming down, making quick decisions, getting into our offense a little earlier in the shot clock. We gotta lean on that type of stuff. [If] we play a little bit faster but under control in the fourth, it’s about to turn for us. We got some spurts, solid play in the fourth, but we definitely have to be better.”

In a close game against the Grizzlies during the fourth quarter, Nurkic has the ball on the left wing, while he waits for Allen to run an off-ball screen on Durant’s defender (Marcus Smart) allowing Durant to back cut to the rim. Smart doesn’t even bite on the screen and instead reads the play quickly and intercepts the overhead pass by Nurkic.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel has a glass-half-full outlook and doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Guys learning each other,” Vogel said recently. “It’s a new group, and when the pressure rises in the fourth, that’s when the connectivity exposes itself the most. We’ve made some progress in that area. Had a lot of good looks down the stretch, in and outs, missed layups, extra passes we could have made. We’re trying to establish a way of life, how we play offensive basketball. It’s been there in stretches for us, but not consistently enough, so it’s part of the cohesion process.”

Vogel has been preaching patience and talking about his guys needing to stay healthy and getting more reps together for their chemistry to gel. With their Big Three only playing a handful of games together, it makes sense.

Both Durant and Vogel are right. There have been moments in the fourth where they do look like they’re in sync and seem like their offense is impossible to stop, but then they seem to lose focus and play too much iso.

Who knows? In a month, all this talk could be moot if the three stars manage to stay healthy and start getting more reps in. But as of now, these are the aspects that the Suns need to shore up if they want to make a run in the playoffs.

Story originally appeared on HoopsHype