Tuesday night was a long time coming for the Phoenix Suns, as they came all the way back from 22 points down in the fourth-quarter to record a 119-117 win over the Sacramento Kings. An opponent who has given them trouble in the past with their mix of offensive fluidity, youth and ability to play through their center in Domantas Sabonis.
Kevin Durant was at his best down the stretch of this one - and although it was Grayson Allen's 29 points that kept the team afloat earlier in the game when nobody else had it going - it was Durant who closed the book on this one. His four 3-pointers coming when they were needed most, while his perfect 9-of-9 performance from the free-throw line carried the Suns over the finish line.
Durant played as a center for much of the fourth-quarter, and it is clear he will be used in this way once the postseason begins.
At 35-years-old, the scary part about not having a ton of depth at the center position heading into the season was just how much Durant was going to have to go inside and bang with bigger opponents each and every night. But then Jusuf Nurkic proved he could stay out on the court, and his ability to start almost every game this season alleviated those concerns.
So much so that it seems like everybody forgot that - although head coach Frank Vogel surely doesn't want to call on Durant in this way often during the regular season - he still can and will once the playoffs get underway. The Suns still need to actually ensure they make it to the postseason proper, but the win over the Kings felt like a turning point in the season for this group.
Durant had a favorable matchup in the form of Sabonis for the fourth-quarter, and when former Suns lottery pick Alex Len was out there for example, it was Chimezie Metu who was more often than not tasked with going man-to-man on the defensive end with him. So it is fair to point out that Durant versus the likes of Nikola Jokic and even Anthony Davis over a seven game series is a different story.
But Durant at the five unlocks the best version of this Suns roster, and it might even do so at both ends of the court. Moving Nurkic to the bench and Durant in his place allowed coach Vogel to play both the streaking Allen, but also Eric Gordon. Those two combined for a whopping 36 points from deep, with Allen carrying the bulk of the scoring with nine made 3-pointers.
With two sharpshooters flanking the offensive talents of Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, the Kings had to pick their poison and paid the price. This season they rank 17th in defensive rating (115.9), and while that looks like a number that the Suns could pick on, and they did, they're only one spot above them with a rating of 115.4.
It will be interesting to see if that number trends in the right direction if Durant plays more minutes in the middle. He certainly had an impact on that end, while both Booker and Beal had steals and deflections defensively that helped turn the tide in this particular game.
The Kings aren't exactly the blueprint on how to win at the highest level, but that doesn't mean the Suns can't steal what has made them successful and make it even better. Last season the Kings had the best offensive rating in league history, at 118.6. This was built on the unreal passing of Sabonis, with the elite point guard De'Aaron Fox and shooters like Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter around him.
Can't the Suns do exactly the same with Durant as the center? His passing may be a level below that of Sabonis, but his scoring ability is among the best in the league. In place of Fox, Durant has both Booker and Beal to work with, while Allen and Gordon aren't bad secondary shooters. There aren't many opponents out West who can slow that down when it is in full flow, and coach Vogel knows this.
Which is why Durant may not appear as the center too much more during the regular season, save for some stretches where they need to eat into a deficit or else to ramp up this lineup as the postseason approaches. Durant was already part of maybe the most devastating lineup of all-time when he was with the Golden State Warriors.
There's no reason why he can't replicate that, only this time he will have a different role. One where the offense revolves around his play in the middle. Best of all, this gives the Suns a different way to hurt opponents - potentially their best method of doing so - which will be invaluable over a long series against whoever they face down the road.