Preview: Suns (34-23) at Thunder (33-21)

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Suns 104, Thunder 102



PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are certainly riding high, as they’ve been victorious in eight of their last 10 games, while showcasing a team defense and rebounding ability that has forever been missing from Planet Orange. But they will have their work cut out for them tonight when they take on the Thunder in Oklahoma City in a battle for sole possession of 5th place in the Western Conference.

Two-time MVP Steve Nash has opted to skip the road trip to OKC due to ongoing back and abdominal pains, handing Goran Dragic the keys to the engine. Dragic will start only his third career game, but his ability to defend should help the Suns maintain their superb defense that has limited their last two opponents to an average of 84 points per game — not to mention a second-half average of 32 points allowed over the last two contests.

But the Thunder are playing about as well as any team in the NBA right now, as they boast the league’s longest win streak of nine games. And those nine games haven’t exactly been a walk in the park, with hard-fought wins over Denver, Dallas, Portland, Atlanta and New Orleans included in the bunch.

“Oklahoma City’s turning into one of the best teams in the league,” Nash said. “Kevin Durant is turning into one of the best players in the league. They found out how to win, and they’re a bunch of winners right now.”

Dragic is clearly an upgrade from Nash on the defensive end, which should bode well if the Suns hope to contain Russell Westbrook — who posted 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists when the Thunder defeated the Suns in Phoenix during late December. Westbrook is coming off a triple-double on Sunday and is averaging 20.6 points, 9.5 assists and 7.4 rebounds in the last eight games.

“They’re playing well — a lot of talk about Kevin Durant, but I think Westbrook is a guy that’s really igniting their fire there,” Amare Stoudemire said. “We’ve got a chance to move up in the ranks, so we’ve just got to go take care of business.”

While limiting Westbrook’s effectiveness will be huge for Phoenix, you can’t talk about the Thunder without praising Durant. He has been an absolute machine, as he’s scored 25 points or more in 28 consecutive games. Talk about consistency. That is the longest such streak since Michael Jordan went for 40 games in the 1986-87 season.

Durant, who pasted 38 on the Suns the last time these two teams squared off, is going to get his points no matter what, but if the Suns can limit the Jeff Greens, James Hardens and Westbrooks, they could very well find themselves sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference.

But in order for that to happen the Suns need to continue “lock down” on defense as they have been doing for the last couple of weeks.

“I think when we defend like that we’re tough to stop because we already know that we can score points on the other end, and when we come down and play like we did in the second half on the defensive end, we could be one of the top teams in the league,” Stoudemire said after the Kings win.

In addition to that defensive effort, Phoenix has also upped the ante on the glass.

The Suns currently rank 4th in the NBA in rebounding during the month of February, as they’ve averaged 45.4 rebounds per game, including 12.3 offensive rebounds per contest — good enough for third-best in the league. STAT is a huge reason why, as he’s averaged 23.9 points and 11.6 rebounds in the month of February. Amare has only played three games in the last nine in which he didn’t reach the double-digit rebounding plateau.

But the Suns will need more than just Amare to show up in OKC, especially without Nash in the lineup. Yes the Thunder are playing like one of the best teams in the NBA right now, but Phoenix hasn’t been far off. If the Suns can continue to rebound and defend, they have a great chance of capturing their ninth win in 11 games.

Nash’s bid for Team Canada

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