Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder (31-17) at Phoenix Suns (23-24)

Oklahoma City Thunder 111, Phoenix Suns 107

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PHOENIX — Earlier this week Alvin Gentry challenged his team to reach the elusive .500 mark by the All-Star break.

If the Suns can knock off the Oklahoma City Thunder in Friday night’s showdown, they will have gotten there by homestand’s end.

On one hand returning to the 50-50 mark means nothing more than improving one more half game in the standings, but to a Phoenix Suns team fighting an uphill ever since making the Orlando trade it means a little more.

It would represent a return to respectability and provide the punctuation on a solid 12-game stretch that would include a five-game winning streak and a four-game run sandwiched around a three-game losing streak with road wins over bad teams and home victories against good teams highlighting the stretch.

The Suns have just once been one game below .500 since the Orlando acquisitions joined the roster, after beating Washington on Jan. 21, and they have not been a .500 team since surprising this very Oklahoma City Thunder team on the road with an undermanned roster the day after pulling off their blockbuster deal with the Magic.

“We’ve got Oklahoma City coming in, a chance to get to .500,” said Jared Dudley, underscoring the importance of that feat. “They’re coming in with a little revenge because we got them up there, but we’ve got to keep this consistency going.”

I’ve always felt it was a bit ridiculous to talk about how many games the Suns are behind Portland before they got to .500 (although I did it anyway). Once you reach .500 in this Western Conference with only seven rock solid teams, then you can start doing some legitimate scoreboard watching.

I also feel like it would be big mentally for this basketball team. It’s been an uphill battle ever since they stumbled against the Clippers, 76ers and Kings all in one week, and a win like this to finish off a great 12-game stretch would put them in a good mental place going forward.

But it’s not going to be easy against a very solid Oklahoma City team that leads the Northwest Division and boasts a pair of All-Stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Durant leads the NBA in scoring by a wide margin at 29.3 per game and with his size, length and lethal shooting touch he is generally unstoppable. A mix of Grant Hill and Josh Childress “held” him to 28 points on 8-for-19 shooting in their only previous meeting, and the Suns would be happy if Durant, who shoots 47.2 percents, misfires that often in this one.

It will be interesting to see if Nash has any extra juice for this one after being snubbed for the All-Star team in favor of Westbrook. Nash would never publicly admit to such a thing, but privately you’ve got to think he would love to show this young gun he hasn’t exactly passed him in the point guard hierarchy even if he did in the eyes of the coaches.

Westbrook has been fantastic this season, averaging 22.4 points and 8.5 assists per game, and his explosiveness makes him almost unguardable as well when he has a full head of steam heading toward the rim. He’s a pure athlete whereas Nash is more of a surgeon executing every read and making the game so much easier for his teammates and then finishing plays with his precision shooting, so the contrast in styles should make this one fun.

The last time the Suns had a chance at .500 they played well for three quarters and then fell apart in the fourth against Detroit, starting a mini-tailspin down to four games below.

If the Suns can beat a very strong Oklahoma City team to finally return to .500 this time around, it would be an important step on their way to playoff contention

“We’re trying to climb back in this race, and now’s the perfect time, home games, we can’t let that slide,” Dudley said.

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