PHOENIX — It has been a long wait for the Phoenix Suns to show signs of life and put together an effort that suggested there’s still some hope left for title aspirations.
The last five minutes of a 119-117 stunner over the Sacramento Kings was our first glimpse of that this season.
“I have no clue,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said when asked how Phoenix won the game. “I usually know how the game is flowing but it felt like this was a blur.”
You can see why.
Suns were down 22 with 8:10 left and beat the Kings.
Biggest fourth-quarter comeback in the NBA since the bubble.
Teams facing deficits of 22 or more in the fourth were 0-1,244 since Aug. 23, 2020.
— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) January 17, 2024
Phoenix (22-18) closed the game on a 23-4 run in the remaining five minutes on the clock, a time on the clock when hundreds of fans exited (and a select reporter headed downstairs to get ready for postgame). A small-ball unit with Jusuf Nurkic out and Eric Gordon in was able to create momentum off stops and Kings turnovers to get on the move with absurd spacing and full switching defensively that stumped them.
Down 12 with a little over four minutes to go, Kevin Durant drilled a 3-pointer off a De’Aaron Fox turnover and a blocked Malik Monk layup by Grayson Allen, the hero of the game, generated a transition dunk for Bradley Beal.
Durant then blocked a Fox 3, leading to his own transition triple. A Domantas Sabonis touch shot and Beal turnover signaled this was a good last-ditch effort that ran out of time before a Monk turnover got Gordon a 3 to make it 115-112 at 1:27 to go.
All of this was happening in real time. The Kings called a timeout with 4:39 left and then there wasn’t a legitimate break in the action until free throws four minutes of game time later. Durant confirmed that worked to the Suns’ advantage.
“Especially when you got momentum like that. … We kind of blitzed them there in the fourth for those minutes,” Durant said, emphasizing a few times how the pressure they put on the Kings was a huge key.
Sacramento (23-17), completely in a haze and unable to get on the run in crunch time, slowed everything down to kill clock and couldn’t hit shots. Fox was the NBA’s best clutch player last year but missed a 3, one the Suns turned into a wide-open corner 3 for Gordon eight seconds later to tie it.
Fox missed another shot, this one a long two, and Durant was fouled by Sabonis on the rebound while the Suns were in the bonus. Durant made both free throws to improbably put Phoenix ahead by two, and after Fox got to his left-handed touch shot off a shoulder bump to tie it with 19 seconds remaining, Durant got the ball with the clock winding down and was fouled by Fox with under two seconds to go.
Durant made both free throws, Monk missed the potential game-winner off a sideline out of bounds and less than 10 real-time minutes later, Phoenix had went from one of its worst losses of the season to its best victory of the year.
Allen hit a franchise-record-tying nine 3s for the second time in less than a month, scoring a team-high 29 points. Phoenix unsuccessfully tried to chip away at the Kings’ lead a few times in the third quarter, never getting it down to single digits but keeping itself in it. That was in large part thanks to Allen on a night none of the Big 3 had it going. Durant credited the group at the end of the third quarter for finding some type of spark that he felt carried over a bit.
The Deandre Ayton trade is now the Grayson Allen trade until further notice. Allen has been exceptional this season as Phoenix’s third-best player and provided enough for the Suns to remain afloat while everyone got healthy.
Vogel said Allen has exceeded expectations in “a lot of ways.”
“He’s an even better shooter than we anticipated, he’s better at putting it on the floor and making plays and he’s probably better defensively guarding top matchups,” he said. “And those three things have been invaluable for us.”
With the trade deadline approaching, Allen is easily Phoenix’s best trade chip to upgrade the roster. But the Suns, under no circumstances, can afford to deal him. And saying that with the spots on the roster Phoenix could address emphasizes how good Allen has been. Now, the conversation shifts to if the Suns can afford to keep the impending free agent.
Whether this is a turning point in the season or a flash in the pan, Phoenix getting the fourth-quarter monkey briefly off its back is the biggest takeaway. The Suns have statistically been the worst NBA team in the closing period by a significant margin, the most difficult part to understand within their struggles to look like a contender given all the experience on the roster.
The comeback doesn’t fully erase a concerning three quarters that was more of the same.
Sacramento always wants to run but it came into Phoenix with an extra level of intent, knowing it had an inconsistent defensive team loaded with scoring it could pounce on.
Less than eight minutes in, the Kings were 11-of-19 from the field and over half of the attempts were either open or wide open. Most were at the rim or from 3, including a few off Suns makes that simply can’t happen. Vogel took two timeouts across that stretch, leaning more into that for the second straight game as opposed to taking one when a run really develops and letting his guys play through it. The “get it together” type of timeouts where you know how that huddle is.
The Kings finished the first quarter with 15 assists on 17 made baskets, pacing themselves for 50-plus. They put up 39 points to lead by a dozen. As the ball continued to go in for Sacramento, the visible frustration from fans was noticeable, shaking of heads at the indication Tuesday was going to be another one of those nights it doesn’t click together for this hyper-talented team.
Phoenix is very good this season when five of its six top players are on the court, so when those minutes went south, you knew the Suns were in big trouble. As expected, the Kings grew their lead to 18 a few minutes into the second quarter.
Allen knocked down his sixth 3 of the first half to cut it down to 11 with five minutes remaining before Sacramento got its advantage back to 17 at halftime.
Phoenix got three straight stops to begin the second half before Sacramento scored on its next five trips, and four of the five baskets were 3-pointers. That once again came with the starters in. Phoenix gave up 25 points off 20 turnovers.
The Kings reached 30 assists late in the third quarter and ended up with 34. Phoenix did not allow this game to get carried away in that period and put together a few different spurts to try to come back. Sacramento, however, kept responding and only let the scoring difference get as low as 10 in the third quarter before the comeback.
Durant scored 15 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. His defense on Sabonis late was big time. Vogel called it the fourth straight “exceptional” game Durant has had defensively, most notably with the different assignments.
“Defensively, he was a big part of this win tonight,” Vogel said.
Durant’s individual defense has been inconsistent this year, particularly in transition. With that said, he is a very, very good defender and has shown that a lot more lately. He also had seven turnovers and was looking at a rough showing before the fourth quarter. It was a big surge at the end most notably for him.
One of the stranger disconnects for the Suns is how they clearly should play with more pace and know it’s a problem yet keep avoiding a high tempo in those fourth quarters. The hope for them is they found their breakthrough in regards to that issue on Tuesday.
“We see what happens when we still play with pace and it’s just something we haven’t been doing in the fourth,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “We slow down and take away our transition options. … You seen how many wide-open 3s we got just by getting a stop and getting out, kicking the ball ahead and spacing out.”
“I like how fast we played with that group, I like that we got up a lot more 3s,” Allen said.
Phoenix attempted 37 and made 17 for a 45.9% conversation rate, aided greatly by Allen.
Booker was 5-for-14 from the field but reached 11 assists on just two turnovers, with nine of those dimes coming in the second half.
He agreed this was the win of the season while noting the next game up is important and the Suns are aware of these contests against teams close in the standings.
The Suns will take in Wednesday because it’s their last day before hopping on the wildest ride of the regular season schedule. They will fly to New Orleans on Thursday to face the Pelicans on Friday before jetting back home to play a back-to-back on Sunday and Monday. From there, it’s a seven-game road trip beginning with a trip to Dallas right after the three games in four days. It’ll take the Suns to Indiana, Orlando, Miami, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Washington.
The 14 days spent traveling or away from Phoenix is a period of time Allen in his sixth NBA season said will be the longest of his career thus far. It’s not a gauntlet that includes the elite teams in the league but a handful of solid ones a few games over .500. It’s a 10-game stretch that is easy to go 2-8 or 3-7 over if the Suns aren’t able to find a flow. There’s also a great opportunity to use this time to kick things into gear ahead of the last two months, and how’s Tuesday look for serving as a potential launching pad for soaring to that?
But will Tuesday ultimately be the victory that swung the season?
That’s for future us to discuss in two weeks and not the point in the present. These guys just really needed it, in a multitude of ways.
“Still crazy that we ended up finishing that game the way we did,” Durant said. “We’ve been the worst fourth quarter team in it felt like the history of the game and tonight we come back.”