Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Suns pull off historic fourth-quarter comeback against Kings by embracing their small-ball destiny

Fourth quarters haven’t been kind to the Phoenix Suns this season. Despite having three of the best late-game shot-makers in the NBA, the Suns entered Tuesday’s battle with the Sacramento Kings with a pitiful -16.7 fourth-quarter net rating, the worst mark in basketball by far. So when they fell behind 109-87 with eight minutes and 22 seconds left on the clock, you would have been justified in shutting off your television and assuming the game was over.

If you’ve read this story’s headline, you know that it wasn’t. The Suns scratched the deficit down to 16 in the ensuing three minutes. And then, with 5:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, Frank Vogel made the decision that swung the game. He inserted Eric Gordon into the game for Josh Okogie, removing his best perimeter defender so that he could put his five best shooters on the floor at the same time. The lineup of Gordon, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Grayson Allen outscored the Kings 23-5 in the final 311 seconds to steal the game.

The comeback was historic. Phoenix is just the second team in the past 25 years to overcome a deficit of at least 20 points in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, ironically joining the 2019-20 Sacramento Kings. According to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press, teams facing deficits of 22 points or more in the fourth quarter were 0-1,244 since Aug. 23, 2020. Now we can swap that zero out for a one. And it largely happened because of a weapon Vogel hadn’t really deployed yet this season.

The group of Durant, Booker, Beal, Allen and Gordon had played just five total minutes and 14 total possessions this season entering Tuesday’s game. Injuries are to blame for some of that, but Beal has now been back on the court for several weeks. The group doesn’t exactly fit Vogel’s typical defense-first coaching style. Durant is extremely slim for a center and has played the position only sparingly in his career. Booker is the second-tallest player in that lineup at 6-6. The other three players are listed at 6-4.

Nobody would mistake that unit for the 2004 Pistons, but its defensive upside is deceptive. Durant has always been an excellent help defender and supplementary rim-protector. Gordon’s strength and low center of gravity has allowed him to defend bigger players throughout his career. Having so many like-size defenders opens up switching possibilities. If everyone is a mismatch, nobody is. A group like that is rarely going to allow two field goals in five minutes, but defense isn’t the group’s primary focus.

“I knew we still had a lineup we could throw out there that they would probably keep Sabonis on the floor and make him guard 5 elite shooters,” Vogel said in explaining the decision. That was the idea. With five elite shooters on the floor, there was nowhere for Sacramento’s poor defenders, especially their slow big man, to hide. Phoenix made seven of its eight field goal attempts with that group on the floor to close the game. Sacramento had no defensive answer for Phoenix’s obscene amount of shooting.

With time, opposing teams might find one, or more likely figure out how best to exploit that group’s limited size and defensive deficiencies. No coach is going to turn to a lineup like this for 20 minutes per game, especially not Vogel. But Phoenix’s roster isn’t exactly built to play bully-ball either. Jusuf Nurkic’s slow feet make him a defensive liability against the sort of offenses Phoenix will see in the playoffs, and while he does have offensive virtues, they mean less on a team that wants Durant, Booker and Beal to control most of their possessions. Shooting is this team’s biggest strength. Nurkic doesn’t provide much of it.

Gordon and Allen offer plenty. Putting them alongside Phoenix’s three stars creates a degree of spacing few NBA teams have ever had, and just as critically, most opponents the Suns are going to see in the playoffs will have at least one defender like Sabonis that such a group could punish. The Suns may not be able to stop them, but they’re not going to be able to stop the Suns either. Do you really want to bet against Durant, Booker and Beal in a shootout?

Over 48 minutes, potentially, but in smaller samples, we saw just how lethal such an approach could be for the Suns. Small-ball may not be a feasible full-game approach for the Suns, but it’s the style that turns them into their best selves. It only took five minutes and 11 seconds for the Gordon-Allen-Durant-Booker-Beal lineup to overcome all of Phoenix’s fourth-quarter demons on Tuesday. Imagine what it can do with another few months of seasoning.

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