The Phoenix Suns moved to 2-1 on Saturday with an impressive 126-104 win over the Utah Jazz. They did this without both Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, with Booker now having missed two straight with a foot issue, while Beal is yet to make his debut for the organization.
In the absence of both, it has been on Kevin Durant to shoulder almost all of the responsibility, and he has stepped up to the plate like the future Hall of Fame player that he is. His 39 points in a slim loss to the Los Angeles Lakers preceding this 26 points and seven assist performance.
After the game head coach Frank Vogel once again raved about the impact Durant is having, while also revealing he asked for extra responsibility.
That conversation was the first that coach and player had during the offseason, with Vogel revealing Durant had asked to guard the opponent’s best player when the matchup allowed for it. This goes against the conventional thinking of how to use the 35-year-old, and is a huge plus for the franchise.
Durant played the center position against the Lakers recently, and in doing so was matched up with Anthony Davis. He may not quite have gotten the best of that exchange, but there is no doubt the Suns would have been hammered if he didn’t play in that game the way in which he did.
There is also some concern as to using Durant defensively so freely, but it may be that he realizes this will be a necessity to try and win a championship. Brutish big man Jusuf Nurkic missed that Lakers game, forcing Durant to spend a lot more time at the five than he should be.
Nurkic was back for the Jazz game – which allowed Durant to guard Utah’s best player in Lauri Markkanen – who finished with 19 points in 28 minutes of action. Markkanen was a first time All-Star last season, and has come on so much with the Jazz, but Durant did a really good job of slowing him down.
Which is just as well, because with Booker and Beal missing time so far, it has been the defensive side of the ball where the team have stepped up. Three games is a tiny sample size, but to watch this group play is to see a roster that should finish around league average on the defensive end this season.
So far they rank an impressive fourth in the league (100.7), and having played both the Lakers and Golden State Warriors away from home. It is the hallmark of a coach Vogel team to get the best out of players on the defensive end, and the role players added this offseason were brought in with that in mind.
Few would have included Durant in that grouping, but the fact he has asked for the toughest assignment when the game calls for it bodes really well for the Suns. It takes some pressure off Booker, and also allows Nurkic to not have to spend as much time chasing quicker forwards around the paint either.
Obviously if Durant were to miss significant time, this plan would backfire massively. But through three games, he has had enough possessions where he has deterred opponents from shooting and getting into the paint to make us remember that he is elite on that end when he wants to be.
Using him in this way before we’ve even hit November was likely not what owner Mat Ishbia had in mind. Then again, with the roster constructed in such a way that it is extremely top heavy, this was always likely to happen.
But having one of the 25 best players ever buy into defending at a high level so early in the regular season is a huge win for coach Vogel and the Suns, because it shows that Durant has totally bought in. Being able to make a difference on that end, and still put up 25 in his sleep, is one of the reasons this organization can go all the way.