Kevin Durant faces up against Russell Westbrook

Game One Takeaways From Suns vs. Warriors on Opening Night

The Phoenix Suns opened up their season with a 108-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on opening night of the NBA slate. While both teams missed key starters, the game had a feel of intensity, but also caginess, as both teams integrate new players who will have significant impact on play style.

One of my favorite parts of the NBA and basketball at large is the variation with which teams play. It may not always be apparent without looking closer, but it’s there in droves.

We saw this showcased and highlighted in the awesome round one series between the Kings and Warriors this past spring, and got another taste last night. Ball pressure and extended defense is a must against teams that can shoot off screens and use their bigs as handoff and playmaking hubs, so we saw both squads dip into those principles.

This Suns team is different than past iterations, and a fundamental aspect of that difference is why the Warriors ended up matching Phoenix’s ball pressure; screening.

It’s part of the reason I was sold on the Jusuf Nurkic trade and immediately intrigued by what he could open up for the Suns’ and become a building block in their offense.

House of 1,000 S(creens)uns

After catching some of Phoneix’s pre-season and getting a full look on opening night, I would go out on a limb and say that the Suns are going to lead the league in screens per game.

Set screens, ghost screens, dummy screening actions, pin-downs, screeners screening for screeners; YOU get a screen and YOU get a screen and YOU get a screen!

Just watch the play that sealed the game for Phoenix.

  1. There’s that ball pressure and extended defense!
  2. Booker goes to set the screen for Eric Gordon, Steph Curry darts underneath to re-attach, and then the ball gets swung to Booker.
  3. Nurkic steps up to open up the middle of the court with a hard set screen on Kuminga, giving Booker room to operate and opening up the initial advantage in the play.
  4. Note how Gordon is setting up to screen Kevon Looney, who then works to avoid the screen entirely so he can pick up the rolling Nurkic who is a sizable threat; Booker can nail that pass to the roller if open.
  5. Curry is maintaining his show on Booker until Kuminga can get back overtop and in front of Booker, preventing a downhill drive. But, now Gordon, is one pass away and wide open on the wing as Booker swings the ball back out.

This is simple, but it’s effective. Every action has to be guarded and stifled by the Warriors.

Another example with a different result. The Warriors show two to prevent the opening for Booker after a hard Nurkic screen and then roll into space.

Booker weaves back in and Nurkic hands back to set another screen to get Booker back open. A switch is forced, the ball is swung to Josh Okogie in the corner and then Okogie dumps (then clears to the opposite side) to Nurkic on the block with a mismatch on a good, but overpowered defender in Andrew Wiggins.

Golden State brings two to the ball with Looney helping Wiggins, Nurkic kicks the ball out, Curry closes to KD, and then Grayson Allen has the wide open three. Shoutout to Okogie for the subtle backscreen on Chris Paul.

Allen misses the shot, but the spacing, the pace, the movement…. that’s what stands out. Imagine Bradley Beal back and in that same spot as Allen.

There’s real reason to be excited with what we’ve seen early from the Suns, showing what could be on the horizon as they keep putting this thing together.

As a side note, it’s been consensus over the past half decade or longer that Steph Curry is the best conditioned athlete in the NBA, which I can’t and won’t argue.

But, it might be time to talk about the player who has cemented themselves as the heir apparent; Devin Booker.

Whenever I heard the notion this summer of “how will they play with one ball,” with respect to Booker, Beal, and Durant, I found that to be a woeful misunderstanding of the trio. All three are spectacular off-ball players and movers, and Booker leads the way as a non-stop mitochondria of the Phoenix Suns and their offensive movement.

Tying that movement and versatility on and off the ball with Nurkic, the best screener he’s ever played with, and the best playmaking big he’s been around…. I love this fit.

Kevin Durant’s Usage

I’m probably most curious to see how things shake out usage-wise out of the Big 3 with respect to Durant.

Game one saw him primarily used as a secondary ball-handler/play initiator, getting to the ball as a screener himself before flowing into secondary plays.

Phoenix’s opening halfcourt set showed the good in that.

Get KD in an empty corner, flow into a pistol/hand-off action; Warriors switch to keep things in front.

Ball goes back to Booker who calls for the high pick-and-roll with Nurkic. Booker rejects and then runs Curry back into the screen; advantage created.

Nurkic shifts to screen for Durant as Booker drags two defenders downhill. Booker pitches back to KD curling down, who then hits Nurkic rolling on the pocket pass, and Nurkic scores the first points of the season for the Suns.

It cannot be undersold how vital Nurkic is as a connector and play-linker in this offense, one that is going to see a ton of switching and pressure to try and prevent some of the shooting pockets that their top three players are adept at exploiting.

We saw some different looks when the Suns went to Durant-led bench lineups. That aforementioned point on the switching is vital here. While it was just one game, the difference from Nurkic to Eubanks as the backup was stark, as Eubanks is a much different and to be fair, much less effective screener than Nurkic. Golden State had a much easier time re-attaching on and off the ball in actions involving Eubanks.

I’d really like to see those two players’ minutes intertwined to a degree, although the same can be said for Booker and Nurkic.

However, I did like to see some of the guard screens that Phoenix started to throw in later in the game.

Durant doesn’t score and never touches inside the arc, but the threat of what he brings getting downhill or open out of a screening pocket opens up this opportunity for the Suns. The Suns don’t score, so it doesn’t look pretty, but it’s the little plays like this opening up room to attack that will matter more and more as Phoenix irons things out.

The Suns dealt with some sizable lulls in their offensive flow when they got bogged down by switching, and lost their pace and movement. I have a feeling that will be a sticking point throughout the season, but an even better feeling that they’re going to find ways to make it a more consistent strength.

Do Your Job Defense

There’s two sides to every fit, and figuring out the defensive side of the ball will be key for the Suns; Game one was an enticing first step.

Nurkic has some mobility in short spurts, making him a viable defender closer to the level of the screen with the right execution.

Part of the issue in Portland was that the rotations behind him and the screen defenders themselves were not consistent. That doesn’t absolve Nurkic of his defensive limitations, but rather paints the picture that he can be capable in the right settings.

He had some nice moments playing the two man game as a defender in space, including a few plays he blew up at the rim after getting an offensive player on his hip. There were encouraging moments from the team when he played in their show and recover on Steph Curry (they did not show as a team on Chris Paul, opting to be aggressive with on-ball defenders).

The goal: get the ball out of Curry’s hands without giving him an open shot off the screen, or the opportunity to turn the corner and get into the paint.

With solid backline rotations and positioning, those pocket passes to the roller aren’t gimmes. That’s a win against the Warriors.

On the second clip, I enjoyed how Nurkic started ball-stopping Curry later in the game, a fun little jab from the Suns to dictate terms on not give Steph space.

It’s going to be key to watch how Phoenix continues to develop this over time and how they maintain and uphold consistency within those rotations. Portland started off as a top-10 defense in the league for the first month last season, playing with similar principles. The second rotations and execution become laggy, we’re having very different conversations about where the defense is at.

Playing both Nurkic and Eubanks with the same ideas at the 5, it’s going to be important to watch how they handle guards that can extend plays, something Curry did a few times last night. If the on-ball defender cannot get back in front immediately after the show from the 5, a savvy ball-handler can drag the showing big and the on-ball defender into deeper waters depending on the spacing and timing.

Again, if the backline falls asleep or is inconsistent, good guards will pick them apart with precision.

Jonathan Kuminga Impresses with Simplicity

Jonathan Kuminga finished last night playing 20 minutes with 12 points, 6 boards, and 3 combined steals and blocks. It was one of my favorite games from Kuminga as a pro.

On offense, he found points a few times attacking on a duck-in with a quick post-up and not holding the ball. Doing things with force and quickness is exactly what this staff needs and wants. He got to the line six times, a by-product of those concepts in execution.

Where I was most impressed with Kuminga was his on-ball defense and screen navigation.

Kuminga has had highlight plays and stretches showcasing his defensive potential throughout his young career. Last night was one of the most consistent defensive performances of his pro career, by my eye.

His techniques getting through and around screens have improved vastly, a sizable factor in making Kevin Durant uncomfortable last night. Even in plays where the Suns scored, he was impactful in doing his job to keep the ball in front.

There are still moments of happy feet, a little too much freneticism. But, if this is the Kuminga the Dubs are getting this season, he adds a new verve that they’ve consistently lacked behind Draymond Green in recent years. If he keeps playing defense like this, it’s going to be difficult to keep him off the court.

We're proud to have appeared in:

  • logo-SBC Americas logo
  • logo-News Channel 5 logo
  • logo-Mail Online logo
  • logo-AS logo
  • logo-Goal logo
  • logo-MSN logo
  • logo-Yahoo! logo