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Phoenix Suns’ Big 3 torches Pacers for 5th straight win

PHOENIX — The acclimation process has passed, and now the rest of the regular season is about how well the Phoenix Suns learn to play with each other.

One of the biggest feeling-out situations is how to use pace. Sunday’s 117-110 win over the Indiana Pacers was a great example of that.

The Pacers (24-19) are a prime suspect of a good team that is also particularly ill-equipped to defend the Suns (24-18) from a matchup perspective. The newly-acquired Pascal Siakam has long been an impactful defender and wing Aaron Nesmith gets quite scrappy but that’s only two guys and neither are up there in terms of ideal on-ball defenders to limit the Big 3. Someone like Bruce Brown is a better match for marking both Bradley Beal and Devin Booker but Indiana included him as a part of the trade package for Siakam.

That problem was on display throughout.

The Suns’ marquee trio all reached 15-plus points in the first half, combining for 52 at halftime after 57 the game prior against the New Orleans Pelicans. It ended up at a total of 91 (58.5% shooting), matching Friday’s 91 (57.4%) when Booker put up 52. Now that this group has had two-plus weeks to play together, we’re beginning to see the domination from them that figured to be the main story of the Suns’ regular season.

This was especially apparent with Kevin Durant.

He made 12 of his first 16 shots before the fourth quarter even got underway, when he contributed eight of his 40 points at the start of the period to stabilize the Suns on his own and keep Indiana a few possessions out of it. That was in his small-ball 5 role to match the Pacers’ minutes without center Myles Turner and allowed Booker to check back in with the game still in Phoenix’s control.

The delicate balance with especially Durant cooking is how to keep the pace in an OK spot, so that if there’s some drop-off and missed shots, there’s still a rhythm. To be clear, Phoenix should absolutely slow it down and only feature Durant when he’s flowing like he was on Sunday.

He was in his mid-post isolation spots on Nesmith, a smaller physical body we’ve seen opponents successfully at times use on Durant.

Phoenix after going up nine turned it over two straight times. Then Booker went at Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard too, a smaller guard-type he normally bullies, missing four straight shots while Durant failed to see one go down as well.

The instinct to still run actions and sets when Durant is feeling it, however, has to be developed to snap the team out of it. If there’s anywhere within the Suns’ play where they miss a “traditional point guard,” it’s there.

With that said, Phoenix can occasionally exploit its strengths the best when the movement is more sedated. That’s how it goes in the postseason anyway. And it won on Sunday because it did just that.

Now down two with 3:20 remaining and with another small lineup after Jusuf Nurkic fouled out, the Suns ran a bit of motion out of a timeout but ultimately the play still paused with Durant attacking Nesmith. The ball rotations off the extra attention led to Durant himself getting it back for an open catch-and-shoot 3.

On its next two possessions following Booker getting one point at the foul line off a turnover, Beal received a ghost screen from Grayson Allen to trigger a switch to put Buddy Hield on Beal, a matchup Beal scored on twice around the rim. Siakam, the original defender on Beal, then denied the switch a third time down, only for Allen himself to score on Hield.

It was Booker’s turn to seek out Hield the next time down, and when Hield declined the switch a second instance during the possession, Booker found an on-the-move Allen who penetrated and generated a ball rotation to let Beal attack a closeout to score at the rim. Beal scored in the key on all three of those trips.

“He’s got a different downhill thrust than anybody on our team,” Vogel said of Beal.

The six consecutive trips Phoenix got points out of created a five-point gap with 45 seconds remaining, enough to hold on with a nice bit of crunch-time execution.

“They are unstoppable getting to their spots and if we can give them space to get downhill, it just makes our team even more dynamic,” Durant said of Beal and Booker attacking the switch.

“Yeah, great,” Vogel said of how it looked. “I think there was still some cutting that we can do to open up some more space but Grayson was able to get through on some of those pick-and-pop re-drives, get some great looks for us.”

Would Vogel suggest cutting too to help with the pace when it gets to a crawl of sorts when Durant isolates?

“Cutting and just understanding how they’re going to react and how they’re going to respond to him getting hot,” Vogel said.

Pacers star point guard Tyrese Haliburton was out Sunday after making his return from a five-game absence with Indiana taking caution in regards to his left hamstring strain. Its offensive rating drops from an incredible 125.3 when he’s on the court to a fine 114.3 when he’s not. Haliburton is in the discussion for the true most valuable player of the league, meaning how much differently (and worse) a team is without one player. If he played on Sunday, the Pacers would have had the firepower to get many more than 110 points.

Durant had his best game since coming back from a right hamstring injury at the start of the new year, reaching 40 points without a free-throw attempt. That’s only the 16th time that has happened in NBA history, per Stathead. Vogel noted the Suns thought there were a handful of moments when Durant was fouled and that they will be sending some clips to the league in order to get reviewed. Durant grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots as well.

Booker was 4-for-16 after he opened the game 5-of-8 and was still pretty darn good. He ended up with 26 points, six rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two turnovers.

This has a case as Beal’s best Suns performance thus far, just because his usage was in third banana territory and he still managed 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting. There are going to be plenty of evenings over the next couple of months when Durant is rolling and Booker by default still has the ball a ton as the point guard, so Beal remaining productive for those fixtures would be huge.

Bench points were 55-9 Pacers. The Big 3 can do some seriously heavy lifting but that is a deficit that will lose Phoenix some playoff games if its reserves cannot begin contributing.

Phoenix has now won 10 of its last 13 games, including five straight, and is 7-2 in games featuring the Big 3 since Beal’s return from an ankle sprain in late December. The Suns are now tied with the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth and final automatic playoff spot in the Western Conference. They also match the Pelicans’ 18 losses in fifth.

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