PHOENIX — Before we get to the question, just know that the answer is no. The NBA regular season is a grind, running from Halloween to April. What happens in November is important as far as establishing the right attitude and standard and everything else coaches love to preach. Still, for teams like the Phoenix Suns with championship ambitions, those qualities should be in place.
The Suns played their 11th game Wednesday, and not once have they had their “Big 3” on the court together. This was supposed to be the night. Devin Booker returned from a calf injury, set to join Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal to form perhaps the top-scoring trio in the league. If you don’t think this is a big deal, consider Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch. When asked before the game about his reaction after learning that Beal had been dealt to Phoenix over the summer, Finch said he wondered: “Why couldn’t he have stayed in the East?”
Phoenix coach Frank Vogel said Beal woke up Wednesday with “residual tightness” in his back. The Suns hoped it would loosen before the game against Minnesota, but it did not, forcing Beal to sit out for the eighth time in 11 games. With foot, ankle and calf problems, Booker also has missed eight games. Durant, 35, has been the constant, playing every night. He ranks third in the league in minutes, which is not a great development. But in November, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
So back to the question: Should fans be concerned about Phoenix’s health? The calendar says no. The Suns say no. But back issues can be tricky. After missing the season’s first seven games, Beal had played in Phoenix’s previous three contests, but he looked shaky in Sunday’s loss to Oklahoma City. Vogel said the training staff has a solid plan to get Beal back on the court. The Suns visit the Utah Jazz for games on Friday and Sunday before returning home to face the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Beal’s status likely will be day to day as the 5-6 Suns fight for consistency.
One thing was decided in Wednesday’s 133-115 win over the Timberwolves: More than anyone else, Booker is the guy Phoenix can ill afford to do without. Some players show rust when they return from injury. Booker shows fire. He doesn’t care if it’s November. He’s trying to make up for lost time. After missing most of the last three weeks, he hit his first four shots against Minnesota, setting a tone for a team that had missed him. He finished with 31 points in 26 minutes, hitting 12 of 22 from the field. It was like he had hardly been gone.
“Maybe I was expecting a little bit of wind in his lungs early on, but he looked great,” Durant said. “The pop was there. He was playing with pace. That’s what we need.”
“His leadership on our team is really invaluable,” Vogel said. “He’s leading when he’s not in uniform. In film sessions and practices, he’s our most vocal guy. He’s really taken the reins of that this year with this team. Even more so on the floor as the point guard, running the show.”
DREW DROPS THE HAMMER 🔨 https://t.co/vH6QfVAzLo pic.twitter.com/Hpa0CHs9GA
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) November 16, 2023
The Suns caught Minnesota at the right time. Off to an 8-2 start, the Timberwolves were coming off Tuesday’s emotional win at Golden State. This was the second game of a back-to-back set. Unlike the previous night, they lacked spark. Anthony Edwards, averaging 27.6 points, was a non-factor, finishing with 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Karl-Anthony Towns started fast but faded.
Phoenix had its best game of the season. Coming off the Oklahoma City loss, in which the Suns shot 2 of 21 in the fourth quarter, it was needed. Booker was Booker. Durant (31 points, 6 assists) was Durant. But the supporting cast delivered as well. Josh Okogie, who had not hit a 3 all month, missing 12 in a row, was 3 of 3 against Minnesota. Backup center Drew Eubanks had 13 points, dunking on one play, and hitting a corner 3 on another. Phoenix shot a season-high 60 percent against the NBA’s best defensive team. The Suns made 17 of 31 from 3 and had a season-low nine turnovers.
“This should be the standard, averaging 120, 130 points,” said guard Eric Gordon, noting the team’s star power. “Why not?”
The only question was Beal, who sat on the bench, wearing a white sweatshirt and gray beanie. Since the Suns acquired him from Washington in June, fans have waited for the emergence of Phoenix’s “Big 3,” wondering how Booker, Durant and Beal would play together and how opposing defenses would react. Asked about this at the team’s pregame shoot around Wednesday, Booker laughed. He said it’s been a while since the trio had played together, back during preseason, and then for only a few quarters in games that did not matter.
“We had a great training camp together,” said Booker, thinking Beal would play later that night. “Now it’s time to put it to the test.”
“It’s tough, man,” Booker said after the win. “Nobody wants to miss any games, especially when you’re the best in the game and you want to prove it every night and something’s holding you back. (Beal is) just trying to get right. He’s taking all the steps. He’s in there early every day getting his treatment. We’re going to rally behind him, keep the morale high, and make sure he’s in good spirits until we get him back on the court.”
(Top photo of Devin Booker driving against Rudy Gobert: Matt York / Associated Press)