The Phoenix Suns stayed tight-lipped until the last possible second, but Kevin Durant is officially making his return to action Wednesday night.
The team had officially listed him as “questionable” heading into an important matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, which marked the first time he’d been upgraded from “out” during his 10-game absence with the left ankle sprain.
However, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported on Tuesday that Durant’s expected to make his Suns home debut Wednesday night, barring any setbacks. Then on Wednesday, general manager James Jones confirmed on Burns & Gambo the plan was for him to return:
Suns GM James Jones confirms on @BurnsAndGambo that the plan is for Kevin Durant to play tonight vs Minnesota.
— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) March 29, 2023
During his pregame presser on Wednesday, Williams and the team finally, officially confirmed he’d be back.
“He just checked all the boxes like we normally do,” Williams said. “He’s responded well to the conditioning and all the stuff that we have to do to get ready to play. So just normal protocol for us.”
Leading up to tipoff, the Suns were either being secretive about his status to maintain a competitive advantage, or they were leaving the door open to be cautious with bringing him back. At Tuesday’s practice, Williams said Durant had done a bit more work on the floor, but nothing had changed yet in regards to an official update. The Suns continued to focus on “checking all the boxes,” which is how they approach bringing any player back from injury.
“It’s always the same thing: Is he in a place where he can play against contact?” Williams explained. “Is the cardio where it needs to be? Is the fatigue level where it needs to be where once he gets fatigued, he’s not putting himself in harm’s way? I think those are the things that are hard to do this time of the year because we just don’t have the practice time.”
In any case, with Durant set to return against the Wolves, here are five things to keep an eye on.
1. Expect a minutes restriction for Kevin Durant
The Suns are fully aware their playoff hopes rest on Durant being healthy after trading away Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. They’re also aware he’s under contract for the next three seasons, and that this year’s postseason aspirations rely on talent and their bottomline chemistry as “hoopers” to make a run.
In other words, as much as Phoenix would’ve liked to have Kevin Durant in the fold this whole time to build cohesion and iron out a rotation, the seven remaining regular-season games with KD can only go so far in accomplishing those tasks. The Suns will want him on the floor as much as possible, but they won’t risk jeopardizing his ankle when they’re integrating one of the most adaptable superstars of all time.
Durant immediately elevated their offense in his first three appearances, looking like a natural fit as a part of the 0.5 offense…and as a guy who can go out and get his own bucket at any time:
To that end, don’t expect Durant to log unlimited minutes in his first game back. Everyone knows he can produce in whatever time he gets, since he averaged 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks in just 32.7 minutes per game over this first three Suns appearances.
Williams confirmed during his pregame presser that Durant would be on a minutes restriction. He’s been awfully lax with his “minutes restrictions” for Devin Booker, Chris Paul and even Durant upon their returns from injuries, but they’re in the endgame now. Keeping KD healthy is priority No. 1, even with playoff seeding on the line. In his first game back after missing the last 10, he’ll be on a minutes restriction.
2. This is a big game!
However, as much as Williams will try to abide by a minutes restriction, don’t expect him to hold true to that exact number. There’s a reason he’s treated those restrictions like the pirate’s code: The Suns get competitive in-game, and they want to win.
Monty with Kevin Durant on a “minutes restriction” pic.twitter.com/R5ZYZCn1U1
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 4, 2023
This matchup feels like a prime example of that, considering what’s at stake. The Suns currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference heading into Wednesday night’s action, 0.5 games ahead of the LA Clippers in fifth, one game ahead of the Golden State Warriors in sixth and 1.5 games ahead of the 7-seeded Wolves.
A win would give Phoenix the head-to-head tiebreaker and drop Minnesota to three games back in the loss column, all while staying one loss ahead of LA and two losses ahead of Golden State.
A defeat would pull the Wolves within 0.5 games of the Suns, tying the season series and therefore giving Minnesota the tiebreaker due to conference record, the next determining factor. The Wolves would be 28-20 in the West with a win, while the Suns would drop to a 25-21 conference record with a loss.
There’s still a lot that could happen over these remaining two weeks of the regular season, but a win against this T-Wolves team that has finally gotten healthy and won four straight games would go a long way in helping Phoenix secure home-court advantage. So as much as Durant will probably log limited minutes in his return, don’t expect him to be hard-capped at whatever that number is either.
3. Monty Williams’ bench experiments will continue
It’s time for Suns fans to just accept it: Monty Williams’ bench experiments aren’t going away, and we probably won’t know what the established playoff rotation is until the playoffs are actually upon us.
A few weeks ago, Williams talked about wanting to cut his rotation down to “nine-and-a-half” guys. But recently, he’s said he’s got an “open mind” about expanding that rotation. He noted how he wasn’t giving T.J. Warren a fair shake but changed his mind thanks to some prompting from his assistant coaches, and at Tuesday’s practice, Williams mentioned how he’s been unable to chop the rotation down, citing Phoenix’s recent game against the Utah Jazz as an example.
“I think I have to have an open mind,” Williams said. “I said I wasn’t gonna play more than nine and a half guys, and last night, I probably played 18 guys, ’cause you’re just trying to figure out, like, we couldn’t make a shot last night versus the zone. We just kept missing. And [assistant coach Kevin Young] was like, ‘Maybe we could give [Damion Lee] a shot.’ He comes right in, he knocks down a shot, and it was great for the team. And so I think when you’re in situations like that, the rotation could change.”
In recent days, Williams has even gone as far as suggesting the fifth starting spot could change. Josh Okogie has manned that spot, but with his 3-point shooting being unpredictable in recent weeks, Williams noted that Torrey Craig is capable of taking on similar defensive assignments.
In any case, now that Durant will finally re-enter the fold, don’t expect Williams’ bench experimentation to suddenly stop. If anything, he’ll most likely continue to tinker in order to get a better idea of which combinations work when the Suns stagger KD in with bench-heavy lineups — something that worked extremely well in that three-game sample size. Now that Landry Shamet is back, and Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren are surging in the scoring column, Williams has a lot of options to play with alongside KD.
4. Kevin Durant makes life easier for Devin Booker
With or without Kevin Durant, Devin Booker has been on an absolute tear in March. He’s averaging 32.7 points, 4.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game on .565/.433/.872 shooting splits this month — not a far cry from the 36.0 points, 7.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game on .560/.500/.778 shooting splits he posted in three games alongside Durant.
There’s no question Durant makes Booker’s life easier, and although 67 minutes is a small sample size, lineups featuring Book and KD boasted a +31.2 Net Rating in their first three games together, per NBA.com.
The Suns with KD were HUMMING ☀️
Sources confirmed to ESPN that Durant will make his return tonight vs. the Timberwolves. pic.twitter.com/q9qAslmvSs
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 29, 2023
Booker said he felt the effects of KD making everyone’s lives easier in their first team scrimmage, and it’s a situation he’ll take advantage of. If Booker is capable of putting together a career-best scoring season predominantly against opponents’ best defenders, just imagine what he’ll be able to do against their second-best defenders.
“Yeah, it’s a really good feeling,” Booker said. “And not only that, not even the defender, just the spacing overall, and the gravity of the game. It’s even more now than ever where teams are just gonna have to pick your poison. And we’ll see how it goes. I mean, we had a three-game sample of it, and that went well, but as you know, when the playoffs come, things tighten up a little bit more, the game is more physical, so we’ll see how it gets when it’s time.”
"If you're around greatness, it brings out greatness in you." #Kings coach Mike Brown on how having Kevin Durant has helped Devin Booker elevate his game.
"He's a competitor and he's that guy as well." #Suns pic.twitter.com/PHDp1fMz12
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 12, 2023
For his part, Durant has actually told Booker to be even more aggressive when he’s on the floor. KD has spent the majority of his career passing out of double-teams, and the Suns moved the ball well in those situations during their three-game sample size together, zipping the ball out of double-teamed post-ups to find Book on the backside.
“He’s such a gifted, talented offensive scorer that he can make plays for others, but he can create for himself,” Durant said. “So I felt that a couple of times last game, he had the one-on-one opportunity with not a lot of help, and I felt like he was going downhill and getting whatever he wanted. So we want to exploit that as much as possible, but he’s gonna play the right way regardless, and it’s gonna more times in the future where I’m gonna have to tell him to probably shoot. But that’s always a good thing when your best players are willing to come off the ball.”
5. Keep an eye on Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton
Durant and Booker make for an unstoppable scoring tandem, but keep an eye on how things open up for Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton in particular.
Ayton struggled to find touches in the team’s first three games with Durant, averaging 10.7 points on only 6.7 field goal attempts over that stretch. However, that’s a small sample size, and he did a lot of positive things that get overlooked. For example, he shot 65 percent from the field over that span, controlled the boards with 11.7 rebounds a night, and his gravity helps open things up for the Suns’ perimeter shooters.
“I would say mainly how these teams are guarding me, man,” Ayton said of that stretch. “They’re saying, ‘Bruh, y’all got KD and Book and 3, we just gonna lock up the paint.’ I think they just gonna live with the jump shots. And now I think the court’s open now, and one screen is opening up the whole floor for me, so I think K getting back, they’ll get back to me where they do their thing and I’m dominating down low.”
Still, the Suns need to do a better job of getting DA involved and keeping him involved, especially if he remains committed to doing the little things that make this offense and defense hum — setting good screens, rolling with purpose, dominating the glass, crashing for offensive boards and running the floor in transition.
As for Paul, his adjustment to spending more time off the ball has been well-documented this season. When Durant first joined the team and everyone wondered what the rotations might look like or how the offense would work, Paul was pretty consistent with his response.
“I don’t know, we figuring it out,” he said with an exasperated grin. “You know, it’s new for all of us. I don’t know. I think everybody’s probably like, ‘Ooh, what are they gonna do? What’s it gonna look like?’ Shit, we tryin’ to figure it out too!”
Paul is shooting 50 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season, so even though he didn’t shoot the ball well during Durant’s three-game stint, he’ll have more open looks and more open lanes than he’s had all season. How he capitalizes on those openings could make all the difference come playoff time, especially since his facilitation and assists have remained steady.
“Chris is Chris, he’s sacrificing a lot,” Williams said. “I think Chris has had to adjust more than anybody, having to get off the ball a ton more this year, playing with Cam and Mikal with the ball, Book with the ball, now Kevin’s got the ball. I think when it’s all said and done this year, it’s gonna pay off for us.”