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5 Suns things to watch for after All-Star break

Published 3 months ago • 8 min read

The All-Star break is almost over, and it's time to zoom back in on the Phoenix Suns as they enter the home stretch.

-Gerald Bourguet


5 Suns things to watch for after All-Star break

Sporting a 33-22 record, the Phoenix Suns sit fifth in the Western Conference as the season enters its home stretch.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Suns are tied in record with the sixth-place New Orleans Pelicans, 3.0 games behind the 4-seeded Denver Nuggets, 4.0 games behind the 3-seeded LA Clippers, 4.5 games behind the 2-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, and 5.5 games behind the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves.

With 27 games left on the schedule, Phoenix has time -- some, but not a ton -- to continue building chemistry and possibly make up ground in the standings. But with some of their biggest litmus tests still to come against the most difficult remaining schedule in the league, the Suns have their work cut out for them.

“When you come out of the break, then it's a sprint to the finish line," coach Frank Vogel explained. "I think that's a stretch where you really have to dive back into the work and have a few more extra practices, a few more extra shootarounds, film sessions. Details matter a little bit more. You're building that machine that's gonna help you win in the NBA playoffs, so it is a different approach.”

As the Suns embark on this final stretch before the playoffs, here are five things to keep an eye on.

1. Small-ball lineups with Royce O'Neale and Thaddeus Young

Plus/minus can be a flawed stat without the proper context, but Royce O'Neale being a +54 in his first 65 minutes as a Sun matched up perfectly with the eye test.

It didn't take long for his 3-point shooting, positional versatility, underrated passing, defensive communication and patented pump fake -- all things we highlighted beforehand! -- to shine. But a big focus for Phoenix coming out of the break will revolve around integrating O'Neale on both ends.

After the Suns' last win over the Detroit Pistons, Vogel specifically mentioned how building cohesion between the Big 3, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and O'Neale would be a point of emphasis.

"Growing our small-ball lineups and continuing to just build that cohesion with all three of our captains out there, and our key role players -- Grayson, Eric, Nurk, and obviously Royce O'Neale has been a huge addition for us," Vogel said. "He really excels at the little things and is a great talker. We feel his physicality out there, and he was a +37 tonight. So seeing him play, just getting him incorporated with our core guys is a big part of what we're looking at post-break.”

As Vogel mentioned, how the Suns utilize O'Neale in small-ball lineups will be key. At 6-foot-6, he gives them additional size and versatility on the wing, and he's more than capable of playing up a position as a 4. Phoenix only got a look at three small-ball lineups with Kevin Durant at the 5 and O'Neale at the 4 before the break, but in those 12 minutes, the Suns were a +20.

Building on those lineups will be vital. Perhaps just as important, the five lineups that included O'Neale and Durant but did not include Devin Booker were a +34 in 28 minutes. That -- along with Bradley Beal's progress in those second and fourth-quarter stints without Book -- would be huge in stabilizing one of Phoenix's greatest weaknesses.

It doesn't just have to be Durant manning the 5 in those small-ball lineups, however. On Tuesday, the Suns made the Thaddeus Young signing official, and he'll offer even more optionality and small-ball versatility (again, our dive into Young's game was all over this!).

The Suns still have one open roster spot for either a buyout target or Saben Lee, and it remains to be seen how adding two rotational pieces like O'Neale and Young affects the minutes of guys like Allen, Gordon, Josh Okogie, Bol Bol and Drew Eubanks. Vogel needs to try out as many configurations as possible before the postseason, which is why it might be good to experiment with O'Neale in the starting lineup.

But for now, suffice it to say that O'Neale and Young's passing, basketball IQ and knack for generating steals will be welcome additions for this team.

2. Winning the turnover differential

Speaking of generating steals and deflections, that would be useful for a team that ranks 14th in steals, 12th in deflections and 27th in turnovers! O'Neale and Young will help there, and it's a pivotal area for improvement that Vogel and the Suns are acutely aware of.

“As a team, we talk a lot about how we turn the ball over too much, but we also don't force enough turnovers," Vogel explained. "So the turnover differential is something that we're looking at as a team that we want to be strong in the final X amount of games.”

So far this season, Phoenix is averaging 14.5 turnovers per game in wins, and 15.5 turnovers per game in losses. It's pretty clear where the Suns' sweet spot is when it comes to taking care of the ball:

  • Record with 10 or fewer turnovers: 7-2 (.778 win percentage)
  • Record with 11 or fewer turnovers: 9-4 (.692)
  • Record with 12 or fewer turnovers: 14-7 (.667)
  • Record with 13 or fewer turnovers: 16-9 (.640)
  • Record with 14 or fewer turnovers: 18-12 (.600)
  • Record with 15+ turnovers: 15-10 (.600)
  • Record with 16+ turnovers: 12-8 (.600)
  • Record with 17+ turnovers: 8-6 (.571)
  • Record with 18+ turnovers: 5-5 (.500)

Pretty much every NBA team has a worse record when they commit more turnovers. But for a high-powered Suns offense that needs more reps together and can really only be stopped by their own mistakes, cutting down on turnovers -- and generating more on the other end -- is crucial.

3. Pushing the pace

The Suns entered the season talking about how they wanted to faster, allowing their Big 3 to attack mismatches in transition. That strategy made sense, given the firepower on their roster and the fact that Chris Paul was gone.

For most of the season, those words felt empty, as the Suns were still one of the slowest teams in the league. Part of it was due to injuries for the Big 3, part of it was because of the team's rampant turnover issues, and part of it was because their defense needed to get enough stops in order to get out in transition.

With more reps for the fully healthy roster, the defense started to jell, the turnovers came down (a bit), the offense built more chemistry and the pace heightened. Since their seven-game road trip started on Jan. 24, the Suns have played at a pace of 102.67, which ranks third in the NBA over that span. Before the road trip, Phoenix's pace was 98.37, ranking 25th.

It's been a small sample size over the last month, but sustaining that pace would be a big help for Phoenix's dynamic offensive attack -- especially since Durant, Booker, Allen, Eubanks and Nassir Little all rank in the 89th percentile or better in points per possession on fast breaks.

4. Defensive progress

The Suns' season is a tale of two halves: The offensive end vs. the defensive end, yes, but more literally, the first chunk of the season leading up to that Christmas beatdown vs. everything that came afterward.

In the Suns' first 29 games, they were the NBA's 19th-ranked defense, with a defensive rating of 115.4. In the 26 games since then, they're eighth in the league in defensive rating at 113.5. That's progress!

Adding O'Neale and Young to the mix may come with some temporary setbacks as everyone gets acclimated and the rotations change, but those two are intelligent, multi-positional defenders who communicate and generate steals. The question is whether the Suns can limit opponents' production in the paint and their 3-point attack at the same time.

In those first 29 games, the Suns did a decent job guarding the 3-point line, ranking 16th in opponent 3-point percentage (36.5 percent), but struggled to keep them out of the lane, ranking 20th in opponent points in the paint (52.1 per game). Vogel wanted his team to crack down on paint defense, and over the next 26 games, they ranked 10th in opponent points in the paint (49.6). The trade-off, though, was giving up more efficient looks from deep, as they dipped to 19th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.3 percent).

Striking the right balance between the two, while also doing a better job of limiting opponent points off turnovers and second-chance points, would go a long way in building on Phoenix's defensive progress.

5. Can everyone stay healthy?

Remember that whole "tale of two seasons" thing? The Big 3 played a grand total of two games together over the Suns' first 29 games, when they started off with a 14-15 record. Over the last 26 games, the Big 3 have played 20 games together, and it's no coincidence they're 19-7 over that span, with a top-three offense and a top-eight defense.

So once again, we're back to the biggest question from the start of the season: Can the Big 3 stay healthy? Durant has only missed seven games, but he's only 10 away from being disqualified from NBA awards due to the new 65-game minimum. Booker has already missed 10 games, and thanks to an early ejection against the Pistons, he can only miss six more before being disqualified.

Beal was disqualified long ago, but his availability is more important than awards season. He tweaked his hamstring right before All-Star Weekend and opted to reset his broken nose over the break, but he should be available right out of the gate against Dallas on Thursday.

The Suns only have 27 more opportunities to build reps with their full rotation, but if they can stay healthy, that'll put them at 49 games together for the Big 3. That would chip away at the continuity disadvantage Phoenix will face come playoff time, and the Suns are confident in what they're building toward.

“Our togetherness has grown, being more of a unit, guys understanding their roles and what they bring to the team," Durant said. "I think around this time, when you start to figure that out, that's always good. I like where our record is, being 11 games over .500.

"So that's a good milestone to have going into the break, and for the most part, everybody's healthy. Brad got a couple of tweaks, and hopefully he can get back right after All-Star break, but I like how consistently we've played games together the last month or so. And that's only gonna bode well for us going forward."


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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"I like how consistently we've played games together the last month or so. And that's only gonna bode well for us going forward."

 

Kevin Durant · on the Suns


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