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Kevin Durant, Devin Booker getting peek at Suns’ next era Chris Paul

Kevin Durant, Devin Booker getting peek at Suns’ next era Chris Paul

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

When Chris Paul was traded to the Phoenix Suns in 2020, the franchise had missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons and was stuck in a losing cycle marked by coaching changes and poor draft picks.

The future Hall of Fame point guard’s arrival was transformational: The Suns made the 2021 Finals, won a franchise-record 64 games in 2021-22 and moved on from Robert Sarver, their disgraced former owner, last fall. After a decade of being ignored by superstars, a disgruntled Kevin Durant successfully sought a trade from the Brooklyn Nets to the Suns in February. That type of blockbuster never happens without the years of groundwork laid by Paul’s experienced hands.

During the past two postseasons, Paul’s quality of play has strongly correlated with Phoenix’s results. The 12-time all-star came up huge in closeout wins over the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 playoffs, and he even shot a perfect 14 for 14 to eliminate the New Orleans Pelicans from last year’s first round. But when Paul ran out of gas in the 2021 Finals against the Bucks and in the second round against the Dallas Mavericks last year, the Suns quickly faltered. Not even the impressive rise of all-star guard Devin Booker could save them.

A different story unfolded this weekend. With Phoenix facing an 0-2 series deficit in the second round against Denver, Paul missed Games 3 and 4 with a groin injury. Instead of looking lost or frazzled without their floor general, the Suns kicked into high gear with a 121-114 Game 3 win on Friday and a 129-124 Game 4 victory on Sunday. Along the way, they got a glimpse at what their future might look like if they work to optimize their roster and payroll around Durant and Booker, their new superstar duo.

“We’re still learning each other,” Durant said, after finishing with 36 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Game 4. “[Booker] is always comfortable out there on any spot on the floor, and I feel like I’m the same way. The more reps we get, the better we’re going to get. But right now, I think we’re in a solid groove.”

Paul’s injury absence led Suns Coach Monty Williams to seek more offensive firepower by calling on guards Landry Shamet, T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross, even if that meant risking some defensive mistakes. Rather than maintaining a stingy rotation filled with defensive specialists around his stars, Williams allowed Durant and Booker to lead a more freewheeling approach and take advantage of the newfound space created by their complementary shooters.

The results were eye-popping: Durant, 34, and Booker, 26, combined for 86 points and 17 assists in Game 3, then followed that up with a combined 72 points and 18 assists in Game 4. The Suns’ tandem was so comfortable and so engaged that it survived a 53-point, 11-assist onslaught from Nuggets center Nikola Jokic on Sunday. That shared output rivaled Durant’s most productive days alongside Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and Booker’s scoring efficiency, passing instincts and focused demeanor make him an even more attractive and reliable long-term partner.

“We’re using each other’s gravity and learning to play off each other,” Booker said. “That’s the easiest way to do it. Let one of us be the point of attack and play from there. I wouldn’t say there’s a ceiling [on our future]. I don’t try to put any restrictions on anything I do. We’ve been going with different lineups throughout this series. It’s a lot of new for us.”

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s shot distribution took on a more modern look and its lack of depth didn’t seem quite as fatal. After making just six three-pointers in a Game 2 loss, the Suns connected on 13 three-pointers in Game 4, nearly double the Nuggets’ total.

Nikola Jokic, Suns owner Mat Ishbia get into a courtside altercation

Shamet scored 19 points and hit five three-pointers, becoming the first Suns reserve to reach double digits in this series while outscoring the Nuggets’ second unit by himself. The 26-year-old guard repeatedly delivered when Denver rushed to double-team Durant and Booker.

“Shamet gave them a third scoring option and he was a huge part of them winning this game,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “They made us pay for putting two on the ball.”

Williams’s other key shift was reducing starting center Deandre Ayton’s minutes in favor of backup Jock Landale. This adjustment paid huge dividends, as the Suns were plus-26 with Landale and minus-17 with Ayton across Games 3 and 4. Landale, a 27-year-old Australian in his second NBA season, was outmuscled at times by Jokic, but his low-usage style and mobility makes him a good fit alongside Phoenix’s stars. De-emphasizing Ayton also created more room inside and reduced the number of clunky possessions that sometimes result from force-feeding scoring opportunities to the 2018 No. 1 pick. What’s more, Landale’s steady energy stood in contrast to Ayton’s wavering interest.

Taken together, this was a case of Phoenix following best practices rather than executing an unconventional overhaul. The Suns put the ball in their best players’ hands more often, increased the space around them and put greater emphasis on the three-point shot. The approach bore similarities to Durant’s Brooklyn tenure, when the Nets constructed lethal offenses by surrounding him and Irving with floor-spacers and a mobile center in Nic Claxton.

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As this 2-2 series shifts to Denver for Tuesday’s Game 5, it remains unclear whether the Suns can get enough consistent contributions from their supporting cast to upset the top-seeded Nuggets. Regardless, Phoenix’s impromptu evolution into a faster and looser team should shape its next phase of roster building.

Paul’s fit with Durant and Booker is not a complete dealbreaker like Russell Westbrook’s doomed experience with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the veteran guard has slipped as an outside shooter and an on-ball defender. In trying to imagine how the Suns consistently compete for titles beyond this season, it’s hard to see how they can fill out a championship-worthy rotation while paying $30.8 million to Paul and $32.5 million to Ayton in 2023-24.

Remember, the Suns parted with three forwards — Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder — in the Durant trade, thinning their wing corps and compromising their frontcourt versatility. Some or all of the money owed to Paul and Ayton would be better allocated to players who could fill in those gaps and fortify the roster to withstand the grind of future postseasons, just as the Lakers turned Westbrook’s contract into D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Parting with Paul will eventually be a painful but necessary step for Phoenix to enter its next era. Whenever that happens, the “Point God” will leave the Suns a lot better than he found them.

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