Nearly seven weeks after being traded to the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Durant made his home debut at The Footprint Center.
In a 107-100 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night, the Suns clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker against an opponent that had won four straight coming into the matchup. It marked Phoenix’s third straight win, preserving their spot as the 4-seed in the Western Conference.
More importantly, the Suns were able to capitalize on precious time with Durant on the floor in one of the team’s seven remaining regular-season games, all while picking up a much-needed win to stay on track for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
After Kevin Durant had missed 10 games with a left ankle sprain, there was plenty to keep an eye on in his highly anticipated return. Here are a few important observations the exciting, uneven night.
1. Even Kevin Durant gets gameday jitters!
In his first attempted debut in Phoenix, Durant rolled his ankle in pregame warmups. The second time around, he made it through his pregame routine just fine, but his actual on-court start was about as underwhelming as he’s ever had.
KD missed his first six field goal attempts before finally hitting his first shot. His first point came at the free-throw line, before he missed the second one. By halftime, he was just 1-for-8. Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards deserve credit for making life extremely difficult on a guy playing in just his fourth game over the last two months, but Durant clearly looked like he was pressing:
A lot of his misfires were contested, but they were shots Durant is more than capable of making. His timing and rhythm looked off, and after missing his first few attempts, he started forcing it.
“It’s frustrating, but I’ve been in this position before and had slow starts before, so I just tried to figure it out,” Durant said. “I think a couple of those shots, though, I was definitely more rushed and trying to get it all back at once. I can get in my own way sometimes thinking too much and trying to get those shots back, but I tried to settle in as much as I can.”
Durant was visibly upset, shaking his head after misses with body language that made his frustration plain as day.
I think Kevin Durant put way too much pressure on himself in that half. He knows how much people have been anticipating this game, he’s been waiting for it too, and it looked like he was taking misses harder than normal, shaking his head and whatnot. He’ll be fine once that fades
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 30, 2023
Coach Monty Williams chalked it up to KD — a player who rarely misses shots in warmups, workouts or practices — not performing to his usual standards. Williams also noted there was a readjustment process on multiple fronts.
“I think there’s a level of rhythm, cardio, finding where you belong on the team — offensive rhythm, defensive rhythm, like, there’s a lot going on,” Williams said. “And when you just jump out there and get with a group that’s been playing together for a while, it can take you a minute to find your flow. But those three games that he did play before his ankle injury, we saw it. We just didn’t see it as much tonight, so I think it’s something that we’ll get to here quickly.”
"Greatness don't shake his head, feel me?"
Monty Williams with a pep talk to KD 🤝 pic.twitter.com/t8PCzrRCiZ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 30, 2023
Durant finished his Suns home debut with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 5-of-18 shooting. In the process, he missed as many shots (13) as he did in his first three Suns games combined.
However, he was able to knock down a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help Phoenix maintain its narrow lead, hinting at what’s to come once he gets his wind back.
“If you look at the shooting numbers, you’re like, ‘That’s not Kevin,'” Williams said. “But I think the way he stayed with it when he hit the 3 in the third quarter, like, that’s Kevin. He’s not gonna run from those types of shots. And I thought he battled on both ends. I think his cardio’s gotta get back to the level where he wants it. Once he gets that, you’ll see the Kevin that we all know.”
So was it a matter of conditioning, or a lack of chemistry with his new Suns teammates after missing a few weeks; returning for three games; missing another 10; and then finally coming back? In actuality, it was much simpler: Even Kevin Durant gets pregame jitters!
“I was just saying that to the guys in the locker room, it was hard for me to get sleep today,” Durant said with a smile. “It was hard for me to stop thinking about the game, and sometimes you could want it too bad and you come out there and start rushing and start being uncharacteristic.”
“I don’t think he felt no pressure; I think that it’s a lot, given what happened last time when he was supposed to play his first game,” Chris Paul added. “I think conditioning is one thing, but it’s also the excitement. You know what I mean? I don’t care how long you play this game, you’re still excited, you’re still nervous. So if he didn’t feel that, then it would be a problem.”
Did Kevin Durant seem overly excited for his Suns home debut?
Deandre Ayton: “Yeah, he did. Don’t tell him I said, but he did.” pic.twitter.com/zzoToX0oAI
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 30, 2023
Durant did what he could to put the early nerves to rest, switching up his shoes at halftime. It worked to some degree, as he went from 1-for-8 in the first half and then 4-for-10 in the second. He was in good spirits during his postgame presser, acknowledging his rusty return and putting to bed any notions of curses.
But one thing was clear: Nobody felt the need to get in Durant’s ear in the huddle about his poor start.
“What you gonna tell him?” Booker asked with a straight face before laughing. “Nah, he’s good. You know his name. He knows what he’s doing. He was probably just amped up, geeked to get out there and felt the pressure, felt the anxiety, and that’s a one-game thing. That’s over with.”
Despite the uncharacteristically ugly performance, the Suns are more than happy to settle for the 24.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists Durant is still averaging in his 31.8 minutes per game, all on .567/.529/.864 shooting splits.
2. Kevin Durant still provides spacing, defense
Even on a night where Durant shot less than 28 percent from the field, his mere presence opened up shots and driving lanes for everyone else. It’s something he showed when he immediately elevated Phoenix’s offense during his first three appearances, and it showed up in a big way on a game-sealing alley-oop that didn’t directly involve Durant at all.
With 32 seconds left, Chris Paul threw a pretty alley-oop pass to Deandre Ayton over Rudy Gobert, putting the Suns up by six and effectively sealing the game. But what shouldn’t get lost in this highlight play is Durant sitting in the corner, opening up that action thanks to his gravity as a 3-point threat.
“At the end, he was in the corner and Chris and Book and DA were in the middle third playing,” Williams said. “That’s something that we can go to if you put Kevin in the corner. Nobody wants to leave him. If you do, he’s gonna knock that shot down.”
Deandre Ayton has only averaged 7.3 field goal attempts in the four games he’s played with Durant, but so far, it’s been a matter of taking what the defense gives.
“Just being out there with him and understanding him just being out there, it was like me rolling to the rim, and everybody just coming in the paint on me, and you have open shooters,” Ayton said. “Same goes for him, whenever he has the ball or he’s on the floor, his tippy-toes would be on the floor, man, they’re gonna have to change up their defensive coverages a little bit.”
Durant spent a considerable amount of time in the corner early in the game, and the Suns struggled to establish an offensive rhythm. Williams said that wasn’t by design; they simply weren’t moving the ball well, settling for shots after one action.
However, Durant flattening out the defense opens up driving lanes for Booker and especially Paul. There were numerous instances where Durant’s man staying glued to him on the perimeter, opening up high-quality looks for others:
Paul said he can immediately feel the difference in spacing whenever KD’s on the floor.
“One thousand percent,” he said. “We just gotta keep moving, try to simplify it as much as possible. Never played with a guy like that, that when he isos, you’re like, ‘They better go double.’ [If] they don’t go double, most times, he just gonna miss; it ain’t too many people that are ever gonna make him miss.”
Paul finished his night with 19 points and 6 assists on 7-of-15 shooting, looking as aggressive in hunting his shots as he had in weeks, especially since he was initiating offense more than he had in some time.
“Chris has to be Chris,” Williams explained. “As I’ve said before, he’s probably sacrificed more than anybody getting off the ball. We needed him with the ball, the way they were playing and pick-and-roll tonight, and I thought he did a really good job.”
Durant will obviously make Booker’s life easier, but Paul may be the biggest beneficiary of his return, even when KD isn’t directly scoring.
“It’s completely different,” Booker said of the spacing. “And most teams don’t have two solid defenders like Minnesota does with Ant and McDaniels. So I know it frees up Chris a lot. It’s gonna be hard for guys to be picking him up 94 feet every time, so it relieves pressure for everybody.”
3. Defense can cover for rare off shooting nights
Over their four-game win streak, the Timberwolves averaged 120.8 points per game. Against the Suns on Wednesday, they managed just 100, failing to crack the 30-point mark in a single quarter.
As much as Durant upgrades the offense, the importance of coming together defensively wasn’t lost on anyone.
“If you asked me why we won tonight, it was the defense,” Williams said. “I’m sure we all expect to see these offensive explosions when you have Kevin and Book and Chris and DA and the shooters we have, but to be able to have that in your tool bag, that kind of defense, I think it’s something that we need.”
The job Phoenix did on Karl-Anthony Towns in the second half was the best example of locking in defensively. After KAT went off for 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the first half, the Suns limited him to just 5 points on 2-of-5 shooting in the second half. They trapped him aggressively to force the ball out of his hands, and their rotations to recover out of those double-teams were solid for most of the night.
Monty also praised Suns players for knowing the timing of when to help on KAT in the post and how to rotate/switch to defend once Towns moved the ball.
Good example of that here: pic.twitter.com/BxuNQoKGLR
— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) March 30, 2023
“I think the havoc, getting the ball out of the primetime player’s hands is huge, and then coming up with a rebound or deflection,” Williams said.
Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig were vital on that front, with Okogie retaining his starting job and Craig logging 23 minutes off the bench to help make up for Durant’s minutes restriction. Okogie scored 10 points on 10 shots, while Craig only managed 4 points, but their work in hounding KAT, getting deflections and crashing the offensive glass proved what they bring to the table in more complementary roles.
“Defensively on the ball, forcing Edwards away from the screen was something that we wanted to do tonight,” Williams said of Okogie. “And he and Torrey, from fronting in the post to getting over screens to 50-50 balls, I thought those guys were phenomenal. Deflections, that’s the kind of stuff that allows for you to win games like this when you don’t shoot the ball well.”
It was a reassuring way to win an ugly game in Durant’s first night back on the court. Everyone knows this offense will be unstoppable most nights, but when playoff defenses clamp down or shots don’t fall, it’s reassuring that this team — which has limited time to build cohesion on the defensive end — can buckle down and get stops.
Mixing the right energy with the right defensive schemes yields promising results.
“When both of those things align, I think that’s when you have a night like this,” Durant said. “One hundred points on the night, 44 percent shooting, and we didn’t shoot the ball well. So when we don’t shoot the ball well and we still can get stops like that, I think that’s what makes us dangerous.”
4. Don’t be surprised to see different 10-man rotations from here
We’ve covered the potential bench rotations ad nauseam lately, so we’ll keep this brief: Continue to expect the unexpected.
Williams has had trouble narrowing down his lineups to a 10-man rotation lately despite saying he wanted to keep it around nine-and-a-half. On Wednesday, he held true to his word, only playing 10 guys. Cam Payne, Terrence Ross, Torrey Craig, T.J. Warren and Bismack Biyombo all got the nod on Wednesday, leaving Landry Shamet, Damion Lee, Ish Wainright and Jock Landale out in the cold.
However, given how well Landale has played recently and how much his skill-set in the short roll fits with Durant-led bench lineups; given how Shamet defends his ass off and can knock down corner 3s; given Lee’s absurdly high 3-point percentage and floor-spacing ability; and given Wainright’s strength and defensive versatility, it’s almost impossible to assume Wednesday’s lineup is the new standard going forward.
More than likely, Williams will use these remaining six games to continue tinkering. It’s what he was doing before KD returned, and now that Durant is back, it makes sense for him to try a few different 10-man rotations and see which players work best with The Stagger.
5. Suns are a highly talented work-in-progress
On a similar note, the Suns aren’t going to always look pretty over the next two weeks. Durant is still working his way back into game shape and has barely played for the last two months. There will be hiccups.
However, their sheer talent level and depth should help see them through this acclimation process, even if there will be bumps in the road.
“It’s hard for me to gauge all of that because we’ve had 24, 25 different starting lineups,” Williams said. “I think we’re gonna be a work-in-progress, but I like the fact that we can win games while we progress.”
Paul has maintained a “slow and steady” approach to getting everyone on the same page, and he stayed consistent after Phoenix’s latest win.
“This the fourth game with one of the best players to ever play,” he pointed out. “We won the game, which is cool, but it’s gonna constantly change. We got a few games left, so every game it might be somebody different. At the end of the game, it was me and DA in pick-and-roll. It might be KD and Book. But I think with our team, we got so many guys that’s willing and able to do whatever.”