After 18 unbearably long days of knowing that Kevin Durant was a Sun without actually watching him play for the Phoenix Suns, Wednesday night finally ended the drought.
In a 105-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets, the Suns started off the KD era undefeated. Sure, it was hardly a perfect win, and it came against an extremely imperfect opponent, but for a team integrating one of the 15 greatest NBA players of all time, the Suns operated pretty smoothly for the majority of the night.
This is just the first step of 20 before the end of the regular season, so there’s not much time for everyone to get their bearings. But based on these five tantalizing glimpses from Kevin Durant’s debut, it may not be long before the immense potential that was promised takes shape.
1. Hyper-efficient numbers for Kevin Durant and his two young co-stars
Playing on a minutes restriction, Durant finished his night with 23 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in just 27 minutes of action. He was incredibly efficient with his looks, going 10-for-15 from the floor in a display that showed how he fits in with the Suns’ 0.5 offense, but also how he’s capable of deviating from the system at any time to get a bucket.
Don’t be surprised to see more arms up in the air just like Devin Booker’s whenever a shot from KD goes up:
WATCH BOOK LMAO pic.twitter.com/WShovjFb4N
— ۟ (@CardsCanyon) March 2, 2023
It wasn’t just Durant who made the most of his time on the court. Booker led the way with 37 points in 33 minutes, plus 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in his best game since returning from the groin strain. He looked reinvigorated, shooting a blistering 15-for-26 from the field, 3-for-7 from 3 and 4-for-6 from the free-throw line (which of course KD gave him shit for).
Deandre Ayton rose to the occasion as well, dropping 16 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block in 33 minutes. He controlled the boards, feasted on easy looks around the rim and knocked down the occasional midrange jumper when it was available.
Everything came in a natural flow on the offensive end, and while there will still be kinks to iron out against defenses that are better than Charlotte’s 22nd-ranked unit, the results from their first trial run feel promising!
- Book/KD/DA: 76 points, 32-51 FG, 5-11 3P, 28 rebounds, 13 assists, 5 blocks
- Rest of Suns: 29 points, 10-38 FG, 4-14 3P, 20 rebounds, 17 assists, 4 blocks
This stat isn’t meant to pick on the other eight Suns who took the court Wednesday, but rather, to point out how scary this offense might be on a more normal shooting night.
Chris Paul went 1-for-8 overall and missed all four of his 3-pointers despite shooting 37.6 percent from long range on the season coming into the night. Josh Okogie went 0-for-4 and missed both of his 3s despite having shot 41.2 percent from deep since the start of 2023. T.J. Warren, who shot 51 percent with the Brooklyn Nets, was 1-for-5. Jock Landale went 2-for-7, and Terrence Ross didn’t even play due to right toe soreness.
It was just one of those nights for pretty much everyone except Booker, Durant and Ayton.
"The more we live in who we are and live up to the character of our team, it allows for people you're integrating to fit in and see where they can be effective so they can be themselves."
Monty Williams on Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton being aggressive with Kevin Durant. #Suns pic.twitter.com/6MpkUqfg6i
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 2, 2023
But it was encouraging to see three of the Suns’ four main offensive hubs score so efficiently in their initial trial run, and even though Paul didn’t shoot well, he still helped orchestrate with 11 assists.
On a more typical shooting night, when the other guys’ open looks start falling, defenses will have to pick their poison. Wednesday served as a mere baseline of what the Suns offense can do, and it’s encouraging that if CP3 and/or Okogie have off nights, Phoenix has enough firepower to compensate.
2. The ultimate security blanket
When the going gets tough, Kevin Durant gets going. Or something like that, because when Charlotte started to claw its way back in the game, one dominant stretch from KD effectively put it away.
Despite playing limited minutes, on a new team, in a new system, surrounded by mostly bench guys, Durant took over at a crucial point in the fourth quarter. Kelly Oubre Jr. had caught fire, hitting another 3 to cut Phoenix’ lead to six points with 10:44 to go.
From that point, Durant scored nine straight points for the Suns, going a perfect 4-for-4 from the field and 1-for-1 from the foul line. He was the sole scorer during a 9-4 run that pushed Phoenix’s advantage back to 11 points, and the Hornets never got closer than nine with Booker checking in a minute later to close things out.
Phoenix’s best player of the night wasn’t on the floor for that stretch, but Durant was so measuredly productive it didn’t matter. KD unleashed a quick barrage of midrange jumpers to keep the Suns afloat, showing a tantalizing glimpse of the security blanket he provides this team.
In the playoffs, when defenses know your every play and tighten down, Durant is the unflinching weapon that can render everything else irrelevant.
kd on the suns feel like on marvel vs capcom when you would be fighting wolverine and cyclops would pop out and laser the fuck outta you and bounce
— aaron. (@ayroned) March 2, 2023
3. Kevin Durant makes everyone’s life easier
The Suns shot 47.2 percent overall against Charlotte, but more interestingly, here’s how the numbers broke down with Durant on and off the court:
- Kevin Durant on: 23-for-43 (53.5%)
- Kevin Durant off: 19-for-46 (41.3%)
As we covered in greater detail with our offensive breakdown of KD’s game, simply having his gravity on the court makes life simpler for Booker, Ayton, Paul and anyone else fortunate enough to play alongside him. Durant canned 37.6 percent of his 3s this season with Brooklyn, and because of his length and ultra-high release point, giving him any space on the perimeter is a no-go.
The Suns are already hinting at how they can capitalize on Durant’s gravity as a scorer. On the play below, Booker gets a screen from Paul before curling around Ayton and taking his shovel pass in stride. KD is on the wing, and normally, his defender — Gordon Hayward in this instance — would have to help at the nail to prevent Book from easily getting to one of his favorite spots in the midrange.
But since that’s Kevin-Freaking-Durant who’s camped out on the wing only one outlet pass away, Hayward stays glued to his man. That gives Booker tons of room to penetrate further into the paint and draw out the big man before dishing to a rolling DA:
On this possession, Durant starts at the top of the key without the ball and spaces to the wing while T.J. Warren passes to Ayton, who was trailing KD. Warren immediately darts toward Ayton and receives a handoff as Durant and Okogie swap places.
That little bit of off-ball activity, combined with the threat of KD’s shooting and Charlotte’s admittedly lazy defense, provides Warren with enough breathing room to drive to the basket and finish a tough look at the rim.
Even when the shots didn’t fall, there were examples of process over results. On this play that Steve Jones Jr. highlighted in his second tweet below, Durant sets an off-ball screen for Booker to cut toward the basket before turning his attention to setting a ball screen for Paul. Booker loops back around to the weak side of the court, but the CP3-Durant screen in the empty corner preoccupies the defense.
That gives Booker his opening to circle back out to the wing as Ayton and Okogie close together for a staggered elevator screen. Book misses the 3, but it’s a high-quality look:
Suns run Hawk action here to use everyone. Booker cuts off Durant who goes right into a pick and roll with Paul. You're thinking show, recover, help. Booker comes off the stagger on the weakside. pic.twitter.com/IJ7UL8Vchd
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 2, 2023
And of course, when Durant gets pressured, he’s capable of making the right read and passing over the top of double-teams.
Here, he sets a screen for Damion Lee before catching the ball in the post. It looks like Lee is darting back up to the top of the key for a 3-point look, but instead, he curls around Jock Landale’s screen back toward the basket.
When Landale’s defender comes over to double KD in the post, Landale makes good contact with Lee’s defender and the result is a layup for the cutting Lee:
Once again, Kevin Durant makes everyone’s life easier.
4. Staggering should be fun
Heading into KD’s debut, the Suns had outscored their opponents by 140 points with Booker on the court…and been outscored by 52 points whenever he sat. That 192-point swing is precisely why you trade for someone like Kevin Durant.
Durant isn’t on his full minutes allotment yet, but even in smaller doses, the Suns offered a taste of what they can do in the postseason whenever Book needs a breather. Bench units sure become a lot spicier when they’re led by KD!
In the 12 minutes Booker sat against Charlotte, the Suns were a +12, with Durant himself spearheading those reserve-heavy groups:
The Suns were +12 in the 12:15 of game time Devin Booker spent on the bench while Kevin Durant was in.
Durant shot 7-of-9 for 16 points.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 2, 2023
Phoenix’s all-bench lineups should be a thing of the past come playoff time, when Durant is no longer on a minutes restriction, Booker is past this final ramp-up period after being on one of his own, and Paul’s energy will no longer need to be conserved. When the core four are logging 40-plus minutes a night, Monty Williams will be able to stagger his lineups to make sure he always has one or two of them on the floor.
Given how poorly the bench shot Wednesday night, and how good Durant was to ensure that didn’t even matter, letting KD take on CP3’s normal burden of carrying those minutes with the second unit is a welcome prospect.
5. The wonders of secondary rim protection
This one shouldn’t have been news to anyone who read our explainer on KD’s underrated defense and secondary rim protection, which made it even more thrilling to watch Durant record a pair of blocks in the first five minutes of his debut.
With another 7-footer patrolling the back lines of the defense, the Suns can be more aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage with Ayton, who has the foot speed and lateral quickness to handle himself on the perimeter. They’ll be putting their length to good use, and being more aggressive with hedges and switches not only mixes up defensive coverages, but could help the type of mismatch hunting Phoenix saw in last year’s playoff run.
Williams wouldn’t commit to anything just yet, but his answer to a question from Nekias Duncan revealed the potential impact of Durant’s elite rim protection.
Got to ask Monty Williams about Kevin Durant’s rim protection, and how that may unlock some scheme versatility with Deandre Ayton.
Also asked about the lineup staggering, where Williams revealed Durant will be on a restriction for a bit. pic.twitter.com/F3BuMlZdOG
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) March 2, 2023
“You have to play a few games before you start making declarations about what you can and can’t do, but we hope there’s a possibility where, because [Durant] can rim protect, it may allow for DA to be more aggressive in pick-and-rolls because you’ve got Kevin sometimes behind you,” Williams explained.
Durant admitted the Suns have him in more pick-and-roll coverages than he was used to with the Nets, who switched everything. But he showed no problem assuming the same weak-side shot-blocking role that filled next to Nic Claxton in Brooklyn.
This was a pristine example of DA being more aggressive in corralling the ball-handler coming off a screen, knowing Durant could protect the basket against the roller:
Try to post Durant up off a switch, and you may not like the result there either:
Even on this play, he didn’t get the block himself, but just the threat of Durant’s 7-foot-5 wingspan and 7-foot frame forced Dennis Smith Jr. to alter his layup attempt. That midair adjustment under KD’s outstretched arm gave Landale enough time to recover and swat the ball himself.
The Suns recorded nine blocks as a team, which was tied for their fourth-highest single-game output in that category so far this season. Phoenix only averages 5.0 blocks per game, and for reference, the league-leading Nets only average 6.4 blocks per game.
This is the sort of impact we figured Durant might have on the Suns’ defense and rim protection, but it was good to see it immediately take shape in his very first outing.