PHOENIX — It's been a long time coming for the Phoenix Suns to put together an effort that shows signs of life and suggests their title hopes are still there.
The final five minutes of a 119-117 victory over the Sacramento Kings was the first glimpse of that this season.
“I have no idea,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said when asked how Phoenix won the game. “Usually I know the flow of the game, but this time I felt like I was vague.”
I can see why.
The Suns trailed by 22 points with 8:10 left in the game and defeated the Kings.
The NBA's biggest fourth-quarter return since the bubble.
Teams that trailed by 22 or more in the fourth game have 0 wins and 1,244 losses since August 23, 2020.
— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) January 17, 2024
Phoenix (22-18) finished the game on a 23-4 run with five minutes left. At this point, several hundred fans left (and selected reporters headed downstairs to prepare for the game). With Jusuf Nurkic out and Eric Gordon in, the small-ball unit generated momentum from stops and Kings turnovers, confounding them with tremendous spacing and complete defensive switching.
Leading by 12 points with just over four minutes left, Kevin Durant hit a 3-pointer off a turnover by De'Aaron Fox, a layup by Malik Monk that was blocked by Grayson Allen, the hero of the game, and a transition dunk by Bradley Beal. created.
Durant then blocked a Fox 3, leading to a transition triple of his own. It was a nice last-minute shot on a Domantas Sabonis touch shot and a Beal turnover, but as time expired, a Monk turnover gave Gordon a 3-point lead and it was 115-1 with 1:27 left. It became 112.
All this was happening in real time. The Kings called a timeout with 4:39 left in the game, but there was no legitimate stoppage until a free throw with four minutes left in the game. Durant acknowledged that worked to the Suns' advantage.
“Especially when we had that much momentum. … For those few minutes, we kind of blitzed them in the fourth,” Durant said, explaining how the pressure they put on the Kings was a big key. I emphasized several times how it was.
Sacramento (23-17) was completely dazed and unable to mount an attack in the remaining minutes, delaying everything to kill time and unable to get a shot off. Fox, the NBA's best clutch player last year, missed a three and eight seconds later the Suns hit a wide-open corner three to Gordon to tie the game.
Fox missed another shot, this one a long two, and Durant was fouled by Sabonis on the rebound while the Suns got the bonus. It's hard to imagine Durant making both free throws to give Phoenix a two-point lead, but after Fox made a left-handed touch shot off a shoulder collision with 19 seconds left to tie the score, Durant was forced to hit the clock as the clock ran down. He got the ball at the start, but was fouled by Fox. Less than 2 seconds left.
Durant made both free throws, Monk missed the potential game-winning shot off the sideline, and in less than 10 minutes of real time, Phoenix went from its worst loss of the season to its best win of the year. I got it.
Allen made nine threes and scored a team-high 29 points, tying a franchise record for the second time in less than a month. Phoenix tried and failed to chip away at the Kings' lead several times in the third quarter, but it never got down to single digits, but they held onto that lead. That was largely thanks to Allen on a night when none of the big three did well. Durant believed the group found some kind of spark late in the third quarter and felt it carried over a little bit.
The Deandre Ayton trade becomes a Grayson Allen trade until further notice. Allen was exceptional this season as Phoenix's third-best player and did enough to keep the Suns afloat until everyone was healthy.
Vogel said Allen has exceeded expectations “in many ways.”
“He's an even better shooter than we expected, he's good on the floor and makes plays, and he'll probably be better defensively in the top games,” he said. “And these three he was extremely valuable to us.”
As the trade deadline approaches, Allen is arguably the best trade chip for Phoenix to upgrade their roster. But the Suns can't afford to deal with him under any circumstances. And saying Phoenix is available because he's on the roster emphasizes how good Allen is. Now, the conversation turns to whether the Suns can afford to keep hold of the impending free agent.
Whether this is a turning point in the season or just a temporary phenomenon, the biggest takeaway was that Phoenix temporarily turned the tables on them in the fourth quarter. The Suns were statistically the worst late-game NBA team by a wide margin, but that's the hardest part of their struggle to look like a contender given all the experience on the roster.
The comeback doesn't completely erase the worrying three-quarters that were largely the same.
Sacramento always wanted to run away, but they went into Phoenix with an extra level of intent, knowing they had an inconsistent defensive team with plenty of points to attack.
Less than eight minutes into the game, the Kings were 11 of 19 from the field, with more than half of their attempts being open or wide open. Most are from the rim or 3, including some makes off the Suns, which just can't happen. Vogel took two timeouts throughout that stretch and leaned even more into timeouts for the second consecutive game as opposed to taking one when the run got into high gear and letting his team play it out. . A “collective” type timeout that lets you see how the huddle is going.
The Kings finished the first quarter on pace for over 50 goals, with 17 goals scored and 15 assists. They scored 39 points and led by 12. As the ball continued to slip into Sacramento's hands, there was visible frustration from the fans, who shook their heads in anticipation of another disappointing night for this talented team.
Five of Phoenix's top six players have been very strong on the court this season, so it became clear over time that the Suns were in a big pinch. As expected, the Kings increased their lead to 18 points in the first few minutes of the second quarter.
Allen hit his sixth 3 of the first half to cut it to 11 points with five minutes left, and Sacramento's advantage was back to 17 points at halftime.
Phoenix had three straight stops to start the second half, and then Sacramento scored on its next five trips, with four of its five baskets coming on 3-pointers. Phoenix allowed 25 points with 20 turnovers.
The Kings reached 30 assists late in the third quarter and ended up with 34 assists. Phoenix didn't allow themselves to get carried away in this game during that time and tried to fight back by putting together a few different spurts. But Sacramento continued to fight back and only cut his lead to 10 points in the third quarter.
Durant scored 15 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. His defense against Sabonis late in the game was a big hit. Vogel said Durant was especially notable defensively during his four consecutive “exceptional” games in different assignments.
“Defensively, he was a huge contributor to the win tonight,” Vogel said.
Durant's individual defense has been inconsistent this year, especially in transition. That being said, he is a very good defender and has shown even more of that lately. He also had seven turnovers and things looked tough before the fourth quarter. It was his most notable last big rise.
One of the strange disconnects for the Suns is that they continue to avoid high tempo in the fourth quarter, even though they clearly should be playing with more pace and know it's a problem. The hope for them is that they found a breakthrough on that issue on Tuesday.
“If we still play with pace, you know what's going to happen, but we just didn't do it in the fourth,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “We slow down the pace and take away transition options. … You see how many wide-open threes we could get just by stopping and getting out and kicking the ball forward and creating space.”
“I like how fast that group played, I like how they hit more 3s,” Allen said.
Phoenix made 37 attempts and made 17 for a conversation rate of 45.9%. Allen had a lot of help with this.
Booker was 5-of-14 from the field, but had just two turnovers and racked up 11 assists, nine of which came in the second half.
He agreed that this was the win for the season, but said the next games are important and the Suns are aware of these competitions with teams that are close in the standings.
The Suns play on Wednesday. It's the last day before the wildest race on the regular season schedule. They are scheduled to fly to New Orleans on Thursday, play the Pelicans on Friday, then fly home to play back-to-back games on Sunday and Monday. From there, it will be a seven-game road trip starting with a trip to Dallas immediately following three games in four days. The Suns will go to Indiana, Orlando, Miami, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Washington.
Allen, who is in his sixth NBA season, said the 14 days he spent traveling and away from Phoenix will be the longest of his career to date. It's not a gauntlet that includes the league's elite teams, but rather a few solid teams that are over .500 in a few games. If the Suns can't find a flow, they could easily end up with 2 wins and 8 losses or 3 wins and 7 losses in 10 straight games. It's also a great time to use this time to really kick things into gear for the past two months, but how about Tuesday could serve as a potential springboard for a jump towards that? Are you thinking?
But will Tuesday ultimately be the season-shaking victory?
That is a future thing we will discuss in two weeks, not a current issue. They really needed it in many ways.
“It's still crazy that we were able to end that game the way we did,” Durant said. “We were the worst fourth-quarter team in the history of this game, but we're coming back tonight.”