The Phoenix Suns played their best basketball of the season for 32 minutes before succumbing to an epic performance by the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 115-104 loss Wednesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Suns led by 16 points with four minutes left in the third quarter. They had all the momentum and looked as though they had caught the Thunder flat-footed.
Instead, Oklahoma City employed an Ali-esque Rope-A-Dope and closed out the game on a 47-20 run behind 91 points from the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Phoenix’s failure to extend their three game winning streak despite their big lead overshadowed Marcin Gortat’s career night.
The Polish Machine had a career high 28 points to go along with 11 rebounds. He looked nearly unstoppable in the first half, especially in transition. Marcin was able to get to the rim in transition several times in the first two quarters, including a thunderous dunk off a bounce pass from Grant Hill. Gortat may have taken one or two extra steps on the play, but the referees and the crowd were too stunned to protest.
Marcin also got it done on the defensive end, blocking three shots and drawing an impressive four charges. Those charges and his ability to get up and down the floor like he was a member of the SSOL Suns are solid proof that Gortat might have the quickest feet of any center in the NBA. His performance tonight was a statement to the rest of the league that he is truly one of the most talented big men in the game.
Unfortunately for the Suns, Gortat’s big night wasn’t enough to match the scoring explosion of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. For Durant, it looked like it might be another quiet performance like the one he had against Phoenix on New Year’s Eve. Grant Hill held the reigning scoring champ to just 10 points in the first half despite being in foul trouble. Hill sat after picking up his third foul and a technical for arguing midway through the second quarter.
Harden and Westbrook both stepped up in the scoring department however, helping the Thunder close the quarter on 10-2 run. They would repeat that end of the quarter run in the third to cut the Suns’ 16-point lead to just four. Oklahoma City maintained that momentum to start the fourth quarter. James Harden and Kevin Durant came out looking for blood as they scored the first 14 points for the Thunder, who took a 98-91 lead and never looked back. The true knockout punch came after Durant fouled Jared Dudley on a rebound. Dudley knocked down both free throws to cut the lead to eight while Durant protested to the referees.
On the other end, Durant demanded the ball at the top of the key with Grant Hill guarding him closely. Hill bodied him up, but their feet got tied up and Grant went flying backwards as Durant hit the jumper and screamed exuberantly. Despite scoring 31 points (10-27 from the floor) Durant had to work for nearly every bucket, as Hill and the Suns keyed on him the entire game. For Westbrook and Harden, their 30’s came much easier. With both players the Suns failed to close out on three-point attempts and were unable to keep either of them out of the lane.
“We probably could have weathered the 30 points from Durant but we can’t do 30 from another guy,” Suns’ coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com.
Although the Thunder’s trio shot 29 free throws between them Phoenix actually took two more shots from the charity stripe than Oklahoma City. The Suns missed nine of those free throws, which is extremely tough to swallow for a team that lost by 11 points.
So who or what is to blame for the meltdown? There are three clear answers. The first is Serge Ibaka. The second is Alvin Gentry. The third and final is Father Time. Let’s start with the Thunder’s big man. Ibaka had 20 rebounds on the night. That’s a huge stat figure on its own, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider that 13 of those boards came in the final 16 minutes of the game. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the middle. While he was credited with only three blocks, he altered at least 10 Phoenix shots. He was especially effective against Gortat in the fourth. Despite Marcin’s career high, he arguably should have had 35+ points considering the number of opportunities he got at the rim. Steve Nash was consistently able to get the ball in Gortat’s hands in the lane off of pick-and-roll or ball reversal, but Marcin was far more effective scoring in transition than he in the half court sets when Ibaka could set his feet. The fact of the matter is that Gortat probably goes for close to 40 against nearly any other defender in the league.
Serge also had his jumper going as he added 18 points to his impressive haul on the boards. This was key for the Thunder as the Suns defended the rim well for much of the contest. Because Ibaka was able to step out and hit his jumper, it eventually pulled the Suns’ big men further from the basket and allowed the Thunder to dominate the paint in the latter stages of the game.
The next facet of the game that has to be addressed is coach Gentry. Anyone watching this game knew the Thunder were going to go on a run at some point. As time wound down in the third, the starters were clearly getting tired. Nash missed a technical free throw, and even though Phoenix was still up 12 points with a little over two minutes to play, it was clear the team needed a timeout if only to mitigate the loss of momentum. Instead, Harden busted the zone with a three ball, the Suns scored no points on their next three possessions (2 TO’s and a missed shot by Nash), and the Thunder cut the lead down to two in just over a minute of play. We all know how the rest played out.
I don’t know if Gentry could have held back the eventual Thunder flood, but that sequence was clearly the turning point in the game, and one can only wonder what the final score might have been if the Suns had gone into the fourth up by double digits. “I thought we played great for three quarters,” said Gentry. “And then we struggled offensively in the fourth. You gotta be able to do it for 48 minutes.”
The other glaring tactical error was going to a small lineup late in the third and early in the fourth. The Suns had bested the Thunder handily on the boards for the first 32 minutes of the game because the pairing of Frye and Gortat was able to hold their own against Perkins, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, and Ibaka. Gentry had Shannon Brown in the lineup instead of Channing Frye, which allowed Oklahoma City to do two things. First, there was nobody to keep Ibaka off the glass, which is how he was able to record 13 boards in 16 minutes. Second, it allowed Ibaka to remain near the rim on defense and cut off the Suns’ path to the basket. I understand that Gentry was responding to Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ decision to go small in crunch-time with Westbrook, Durant, Harden, Ibaka, and Royal Ivey, but his decision to follow suit as opposed to bringing in Channing to stretch the defense and pound the glass may have been the difference down the stretch.
Finally, as we do so often here, we must pay tribute to Father Time. The Suns have played valiantly since returning from the All-Star break. Their three-game winning streak had given fans hope and players confidence that maybe the playoffs weren’t out of the question. They continued this impressive run of play through the first half and most of the third quarter, but then it all caught up with them. Despite the fact the team had some much needed days off before this game, the starters played so hard in the first half that a second half letdown seemed inevitable in hindsight.
The Suns looked like Rocky for much of tonight. Every time the Thunder made a run to close the gap, Phoenix came right back and got the lead up to double digits again. Right up until the Thunder knocked them out that is. Once Durant scored on an incredible double crossover move to put the Thunder up 91-90, it was apparent that the Suns were more Rocky Balboa than original Rocky. The game was over at that point, even if the Suns didn’t know it yet. The starters came back on very short rest, but it was clear they didn’t have the energy to keep it tight with Oklahoma City all the way to the finish. To the Suns and coach Gentry’s credit, they never threw in the towel, but the Thunder were just too strong to let Phoenix back into it.
For Phoenix, the way they lost this game is a microcosm for their season. Several times this year, the Suns have put together a small winning streak that has made fans believe the team had the potential to salvage the year and make a run. Recently those streaks have ended with tough losses (Golden State Feb. 22, Houston Feb. 9, Dallas and Toronto Jan. 23-24). The Suns can be competitive and quality on any given night, but they have lacked the strength and stamina to play their best on a consistent basis. The Suns probably have another run or two in them this season, but unfortunately those runs will only hurt their draft pick. That’s what it has come to for Steve Nash and the Suns.
- Steve Nash recorded 13 assists in the first half. He recorded none in the second. As I mentioned before, had Gortat been able to finish more consistently, Nash wouldn’t have gotten shut out in the dime department late in the game.
- The Suns played solid defense, holding the Thunder to just 44 percent shooting from the floor and only 8-of-26 from beyond the arc. Most of Oklahoma City’s threes, however, came against the Suns zone which was effective in helping Phoenix win the rebounding battle (48-44), but left the Thunder’s shooters open at crucial points in the game. The zone also did little to stop Russell Westbrook from getting into the lane, but that could be attributed to Nash’s inability to stay in front of the much quicker and much younger Westbrook.
- The Suns actually did well on the offensive glass. They pulled down 16, four of which were grabbed by Jared Dudley who had three putbacks from the weakside.
- Channing Frye’s jump shot looked solid after being in a slump for the last two games. He went 5 of 9 from the field and hit two from downtown.
- James Harden was the only Thunder bench player to score. The former Sun Devil’s 30 points were a career high. The rest of the bench took only seven shots total.
- The victory was Oklahoma City’s 14th home win in a row. They’ve only lost at home once all season.