It's now or never for the Suns and their Big Three gamble

By the time an NBA team gets to late March, the goal is to be touching up paint and tightening screws — to be putting the finishing touches on the machine its front office, coaches and players have spent the previous nine months building, in hopes of best positioning itself for postseason success.

“Every game we play is an opportunity for us to get better,” Kevin Durant told Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic during the Suns’ Tuesday practice session. “To fine-tune what we do.”

Where you don’t want to be, though, is unclear on what “what we do” even means, because you’re still frantically trying to build the machine — searching high and low for the right tool to make the disparate parts fit, wondering why the detail-sparse instructions insist Tab Y should fit in Slot C, and blaspheming the gods who have cursed you to fail in every attempt at masonry. And that’s where the Suns find themselves heading into the final weeks of the 2023-24 NBA regular season.

Phoenix’s reconstruction process began in earnest nearly 14 months ago, when new owner Mat Ishbia and general manager James Jones packaged two key members of its 2021 NBA Finals squad with four unprotected first-round picks to boost Durant out of Brooklyn. That set the stage for several subsequent swings — replacing Monty Williams with Frank Vogel; moving Chris Paul (along with a bunch of second-round choices and pick swaps) for Bradley Beal; getting into the Damian Lillard blockbuster to flip Deandre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkić and Grayson Allen; turning whatever second-round equity remained into Royce O’Neale — all aimed at transforming a Suns team that had flamed out in consecutive postseasons into one better equipped to survive and advance in the brutal gauntlet of the Western Conference playoffs.

The Suns' Big Three of Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker has played only 31 games together this season. (Photo by Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)

The rub, though: You’ve got to get to the dance first. And after a disastrous loss to the Spurs on Monday — their third to San Antonio this season, this one coming with rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama watching in street clothes — the Suns sit at an underwhelming 42-30, in eighth place in the West, with the lofty aspirations of championship contention that attended all those big-ticket transactions now crashing against the harsh reality of the standings.

“I see a lot of overthinking,” Suns star Devin Booker said after Monday’s loss. “I think everybody’s feeling the pressure of the end of the season.”

And, more specifically, of the increasing likelihood that any hoped-for postseason run will have to begin with merely surviving the play-in tournament.

Monday’s loss to San Antonio would’ve been disappointing in any context, but it was particularly disastrous given the hellacious closing slate that Phoenix faces. The Suns conclude the regular season with 10 straight games against opponents with winning records — a cohort against whom Phoenix is just 21-22. Six of those games will come on the road, starting with matchups against the West’s top two seeds: Wednesday’s marquee nationally televised game with the defending champion Nuggets and Friday’s visit to Oklahoma City.

The Suns also have two more dates with the third-seeded Timberwolves, who have persevered through Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence, thanks to superstar-level play from Anthony Edwards. And two more with both the fourth-seeded Clippers and the fifth-seeded Pelicans, battling it out for home-court advantage in Round 1. Add in the Cavaliers and Kings, and Phoenix’s final 10 contests come against teams with a collective winning percentage of .645 — comfortably above the Suns’ own .583 clip.

That’s why Basketball-Reference and Playoff Status each give the Suns just an 8% chance of finishing in the top six, why Inpredictable puts it at 11%, and why ESPN’s Basketball Power Index pegs the odds at under 15%. The most likely scenario sees Phoenix finish eighth; that would require the Suns to win a game just to make the playoffs. Finishing ninth would necessitate two wins. Waiting on the other side of that, probably: the Nuggets or Thunder.

“We like our chances against anybody,” Vogel said after the loss to the Spurs. “We’re not worried about the schedule.”

That’s understandable. After all, Vogel and the Suns can’t do anything about the schedule; you can only control what you can control, as the cliché goes. And when the Suns have their full complement of dudes, they can control quite a bit — particularly in terms of the shots they generate and the binds in which they can put defenses.

A team featuring Durant (averaging nearly 28-7-5 on .632 true shooting), Booker (27-5-7 on .609 true shooting) and Beal (18-4-5 on .589 true shooting) can go toe-to-toe with the best of the best. Phoenix has torched defenses with that trio on the floor this season, outscoring opponents by eight points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in their shared minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass — a tick above Oklahoma City’s full-season net rating, the NBA’s second-best mark.

Melding the talents of three all-world shooters, all of whom are comfortable working with or without the ball in their hands and operating from every spot on the floor, gives an offense a surfeit of options on just about any possession. Put them out there with a connective-tissue big man like Nurkić, who’s perfectly at ease dropping off high-low feeds to cutters from the high post, and flank them with floor-spacing weapons like Allen (who’s spent all season getting served a steady diet of wide-open looks thanks to the attention his teammates draw and absolutely feasting on them, shooting a league-leading 47.9% from 3-point range), O’Neale (38.7% from distance since joining the team at the trade deadline) and Eric Gordon (39.4%), and you’ve got a recipe for fireworks.

The Suns can sometimes leave meat on the bone in Big Three minutes, spending more possessions than you’d like with a high-end talent just parked in the corner, chilling. But they’ve also shown the capacity to run offensive actions involving all three stars, and when everyone commits to the less glamorous stuff — sprinting through cuts, setting off-ball screens to occupy weak-side defenders, relocating along the perimeter to create passing angles out of post-ups and double-teams, etc. — that can leave defenses overwhelmed and under siege.

“The three of them on the floor together are, head and shoulders, the best offense in the league,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan put it earlier this season. That’s not hyperbole: Phoenix has scored a blistering 125.5 points-per-100 in Durant/Booker/Beal minutes, nearly two full points-per-100 above the Celtics’ league-leading offensive rating.

The issue, of course, is the one that many pundits pegged when Ishbia and Co. teamed three players who’d all missed significant time over the previous two seasons. Durant, Booker and Beal have played just 628 minutes together over a span of 31 games; 182 three-man lineups have shared the court more often this season, preventing Phoenix from developing the kind of continuity and rhythm that turns a collection of talent into a full-fledged team.

The main culprit: a series of back, ankle and hamstring issues that have cost Beal more than 40% of the season. Since he returned from his most recent injury on March 2, though, he’s worked overtime to try to get acclimated to life as a primary facilitator, absorbing more touches and spending more time on the ball than he did in his first 30 appearances.

A healthy Beal has brought a welcome surge of north-south attacking and rim pressure that adds a more dynamic dimension to Phoenix’s offense:

He’s averaging 14.5 drives per game in that span, shooting 58% on those forays to the paint. Perhaps even more importantly, Beal has notched an assist on 11.5% of those drives — tilting his game away from self-creation and more toward the sort of dribble-penetration kickouts that, with shooters and playmakers like Durant, Booker, Allen, O’Neale and Gordon spaced along the arc, can give defenses nightmares.

“I can get to the paint whenever I want, and I know that’s something that our team needs. … We facilitate a lot of our 3s that way,” Beal recently told Gerald Bourguet of PHNX. “It’s just putting pressure on the rim and getting them to collapse their defense, and find a way to get some easy layups and some easy 3s on kick-outs.”

That shift in the orientation of the offense, and Beal’s level of control of it, has had a positive overall effect on Phoenix’s attack. The average length of the Suns’ offensive touches is down, as is the amount of time it takes them to get a shot up; they’re playing at a brisker pace and cadence, even in the half-court, where they’ve scored at a near-top-five clip since Beal’s return.

The Suns as a team are throwing about 20 more passes per game since his return than they were beforehand, and rank at or near the top of the league in assists, secondary or “hockey” assists, and points created via assist per game. Beal has led that charge, averaging seven assists per 36 minutes and 17.4 points created per game via assist in this span — both of which would be career highs.

“He’s reshaping his game for this team,” Vogel recently told reporters. “He’s defending his butt off, too. His ball containment is the best on our team right now. He’s doing it on both ends.”

After months of injuries putting them behind the 8-ball, the Suns need that kind of commitment, focus and urgency across the board. With it, they can beat anybody — as they did earlier this month, when they handed rampaging Denver one of its two post-All-Star-break losses.

Without it, though? Well, a team that meanders through possessions, especially in the fourth quarter (where they rank dead last in the NBA in offensive efficiency), has a tendency to get extremely careless with the ball (25th in turnover rate) and frequently lacks urgency in getting back on D (19th in fast-break points allowed) can also lose to anybody … even a 15-win bottom-feeder without its best player.

"We definitely laid an egg,” Beal told reporters after the loss. “We came in, thought it was going to be easy, no Wemby. We just got our ass kicked. They came out aggressive, like Coach told us they would, and we didn’t respond. We didn’t. Did not respond.”

Now, they’ve left themselves no choice but to respond against by far the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA — and to do it with Beal nursing a sprained ring finger on his shooting hand and Nurkić recovering from a sprained ankle that knocked him out for most of the second half against San Antonio on Monday:

Beal’s the bigger star, but Nurkić would actually be the bigger loss; as fashionable as it is to clown him for his struggles with finishing around the rim, the Bosnian big man has proven vital to the Suns’ chances of success this season. Phoenix has outscored opponents by 9.3 points-per-100 with Nurkić on the court and has been outscored by three points-per-100 without him, dropping from a near-top-five defense in his minutes to a bottom-10 unit without him.

If Nurkić is shelved or limited, Vogel would have to lean harder on backup Drew Eubanks, consider exhuming Thaddeus Young from mothballs, risk the flammable Bol Bol-at-5 alignment or — and probably the best bet — go full damn-the-torpedoes with longer minutes for downsized, KD-at-the-5 lineups. Those five-out alignments feature as much shooting and playmaking as Phoenix has to offer; they score an obscene 136.8 points-per-100, light years ahead of the league’s most efficient offenses, stretching opponents until they snap.

Unfortunately, those opponents then get to take the ball out and snap back. The small-ball looks ask a ton from Durant defensively — and, in fairness, he’s been excellent on that end this season — and have generally proven too small to be functional. KD-at-the-5 groups have allowed opponents to take more than 40% of their shots at the rim and to collect more than 38% of their own misses, both of which would rank dead last in the NBA; as a result, they’ve conceded points at a rate (126.2 points-per-100) that would make Jordan Poole’s league-worst Wizards look like a clampdown unit.

Maybe that was always going to be the destiny for a Suns team that went all-in on three All-NBA-caliber scorers; when in doubt, pour on the offense and ride it as far as it will take you. Unless they can finally catch a rhythm against the league’s most daunting closing slate, though, it’s looking like this particular all-in bet won’t take Phoenix nearly as far as its decision-makers hoped.

“We know what needs to be done,” Durant said Tuesday. “Conversation is cool, communication is cool, letting everybody know what we need to do out there, but you still got to put our bodies in action to do it. It's a difference between going to do something and just talking about it.”