Thunder 96, Suns 91 -- Thunder fend off Suns

The Thunder stalled the Suns' offense for the first time in a long time, limiting them to a season-low 34 second-half points. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

The Thunder stalled the Suns' offense for the first time in a long time, limiting them to a season-low 34 second-half points. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Given that the Phoenix Suns’ remaining schedule is about as tough as any team’s in the NBA, coupled with the fact that only one game separates the 2-5 spots in the West, tonight’s matchup with the Thunder was an absolute must win.

But the Oklahoma City Thunder out-hustled and out-willed the Suns for the better part of 48 minutes, and the Phoenix team that was victorious in 11 of its 12 games heading into tonight ultimately fell, 96-91.

With the loss, the Suns dropped to the No. 5 slot in the Western Conference, while the Thunder picked up the tiebreaker along the way. Phoenix needed a victory badly, with the Rockets, Nuggets (52-27) and Jazz (52-28) on tap to close out the season.

But in a playoff-like atmosphere, the Suns couldn’t get into a rhythm in the second half — in which they scored a season-low 34 points — and were trampled by an uber-active Thunder squad that collected 20 combined blocks and steals.

If you take a quick glance at the box score, it is hard to believe the Suns fell short in this one. Amare Stoudemire did his thing with 24 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks, and the Suns shot 45.3 percent from the field, in comparison to the Thunder’s 38.9 percent clip. Phoenix also edged out OKC in the battle of the boards, 46-39.

But it was the Suns’ 19 turnovers and their inability to control the paint that put their backs against the wall with only three games remaining in the regular season. The Thunder capitalized on Phoenix’s mishaps, scoring 17 points off Suns turnovers, while collecting 26 fast-break points.

Despite Phoenix’s stalled offense and poor interior defense, it still had a chance to make a push late in the game. The Suns worked the deficit to only three and had the ball with just under 50 seconds left.

Amare had been stellar all game, but instead of feeding the beast, Channing Frye opted to hoist a step-back fadeaway jumper that didn’t even draw iron, and from that point on the Suns couldn’t get within striking distance.

But the game was lost in the third quarter for the Suns. After playing a decent first half, shooting 58 percent and trailing 58-57 heading into the third quarter, the Suns laid an egg, as they managed to score only 12 points in the third.

Yes, you read that right, 12 points in 12 minutes of action for the NBA’s most efficient offense. One game after pasting 112 points on a stingy San Antonio defense, the Suns settled for jump shot after jump shot and never got into a rhythm in the second half.

“We just didn’t seem to have the emotion tonight,” Nash told The Associated Press. “We fought back and we tried to manufacture it, but it wasn’t a natural pool of emotions for our team tonight. I think that we just couldn’t quite get that electricity going.”

While the Suns were struggling to get into a flow, Durant went for 10 points in the third (just two fewer than Phoenix as a team) and reached the 30-point mark before the beginning of the fourth and final period. He finished with 35 and has now eclipsed the 30-point mark in all three meetings this season, averaging 36.3 points per contest.

But Durant wasn’t the reason for the loss tonight. The Suns shot themselves in the foot with careless turnovers and were unable to match the energy and intensity of the hungrier Thunder.

The Suns missed an opportunity to stay afloat in the top half of the Western Conference playoff picture, and it was clear how mediocre this club is without Robin Lopez. The Thunder tore up the paint, and Frye made virtual no-name Serge Ibaka — 15 points, nine rebounds, three blocks — look like an All-Star.

Although the Suns only ended up losing the offensive rebounding battle by one, the Thunder had chance after chance because of the constant energy that they played with. Stoudemire brought his defensive game tonight (four blocks), but none of the other Phoenix bigs followed suit.

Frye continued to look like a shooting guard in a big man’s body, and Jarron Collins was, well, Jarron Collins. With that said, the Suns need Lopez healthy to be a legitimate playoff contender. Not only does he bring a rebounding presence, but defensively he changes the game completely.

He gives the Suns a shot-blocking presence and allows them to gamble on the perimeter. With a legit seven-footer patrolling the paint, the Suns are able to pack it in to force jump shots, which would have been key tonight against a Thunder team that, aside from Durant, doesn’t exactly have unlimited range.

If the Suns could have gotten anything going on offense, this would have been a completely different ball game. But they finished with only three players in double figures and made their potential road to home-court advantage that much more difficult.

The Thunder were deemed the most favorable playoff opponent for the Suns in recent weeks, but after taking two of three in the season series, OKC should now strike a bit of fear into the Suns. The Thunder have played the Suns as competitively as any team in the West this season, and although they’re young, they have the talent to make a bit of a splash in the playoffs.

The Suns came into tonight as the NBA’s hottest team, but the Thunder were the ones playing like the playoffs are right around the corner. If Phoenix doesn’t bounce back from this hiccup against the Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz, it will undoubtedly be road-bound come playoff time.

And 1

Head coach Alvin Gentry has been known for leaving his bench players in deep into the game if they are playing good basketball. But tonight, when Goran Dragic and company were struggling just as badly as Nash and the starters, Gentry left the second unit out there until 4:23 remained in the fourth. Although I usually agree with Gentry’s idea of riding the hot hand, he waited a little too long in this one to re-insert Nash and Grant Hill into the lineup … The Suns actually started the game out hot, knocking down their first five shots. Jason Richardson went for 10 in the first quarter, but only managed to score two more points in the remaining three quarters.

Western Conference playoff picture

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