After all of the positivity that came with the Phoenix Suns opening up their 2023-24 campaign with a road win over the Golden State Warriors, they were brought tumbling back down to earth on Thursday night vs the Los Angeles Lakers.
A tough 100-95 loss made even worse by the fact neither Devin Booker or Bradley Beal played due to injury. The latter yet to make his debut for the franchise, and in failing to do so taking some shine off of what had been a superb offseason for the organization.
This loss was damaging for several more key reasons, and has served to show the rest of the league the Suns’ soft underbelly early in the campaign.
Obviously this game would have been a different story had Booker played. He was the best player on the court in the win over the Warriors, and had achieved that while his toe gave him some bother. That didn’t subside, and sitting him out against the Lakers was still the smart decision to make.
With Beal it is more troubling, because he said in the days leading up to the season that he’d had a small tweak in his back, but that he was hoping to play against the Warriors. That didn’t happen, and not getting on the court at a time when they really could have done with him is not ideal.
When we think of the Suns and their “Big 3” of stars plus center Jusuf Nurkic, the nucleus of the team, both Booker and Beal would be viewed as the more durable side of the coin. Yet it is the injury-prone Nurkic, and the 35-year-old Kevin Durant, who have both been available so far.
You can guarantee they’ll miss some time eventually, and it is a worrying trend if Beal and Booker are already having to sit out games. One of the knocks against the Suns with the roster they have constructed is that drop-off between player three (Beal) and the rest of the rotation was massive.
Despite adding some capable depth and the kind of players like Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe that plenty of teams would love to have, that drop-off was painfully apparent against the Lakers. This team can only go as far as the top three take them, and so far we have seen only Durant and on one occasion Booker.
On the subject of Durant, two things happened in that Lakers loss which are also of grave concern as it pertains to him. The first is that he is continuing to take the kind of high difficult shots he always has – only they’re not quite dropping like they used to. At 39 points scored it doesn’t feel like a massive issue right now, but could this be the beginning of an eventual decline?
It is not even that Durant takes these shots, because plenty of fans would be comfortable with him taking the final shot in a game over Booker. But often when they don’t go down, it is Durant instead who either ends up on the floor or else is back a beat late on the defensive end. The Suns can’t have that if they want to win enough games to have home advantage in the postseason.
Even more worrying is the fact that Nurkic was – for the first time since being traded for Deandre Ayton – notably awful against the Lakers. So bad in fact that Durant spent some time playing the five, which after two games is exactly not where you want to have him so as to not put extra wear and tear on his body.
You can argue that Anthony Davis enjoys spending time outside of the paint more than any other big, and that is justification for Durant spending some time battling against him. The broader problem though is the fact Nurkic wasn’t playable, and with two stars missing the Suns had to have Durant play 39 minutes and score just as many points. They still lost and it is still October.
Davis had a field day in putting up 30-and-12 in the win, yet only two days previously was held scoreless in the entire second half in a loss to the Denver Nuggets. The Suns are going to have to go through Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets if they want a win a championship and early indicators are that the Nuggets won’t be sweating this matchup too much.
Yes this is only one game and yes two of the Suns’ top three players were missing. But they got 39 points out of Durant, and three role players scored in double figures. Yet they couldn’t crack 100 points and they came up short against a team that the Nuggets had manhandled and who employ a point guard in D’Angelo Russell who is erratic at best.
The potential problems for the Suns were earmarked before the season began, and to see so many of them come together in the team’s second game to derail them is a bad development. Booker will come back soon and the team will win some games, but this felt like a peek into a future scenario that now feels more likely than ever to actually happen.