PHOENIX — No matter their second three-game winning streak of the season, the Phoenix Suns are a clear underdog as they hit the road to face the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.
At the same time, history is on their side.
Even the post-Amar’e Stoudemire Suns teams have played the Western Conference’s young and rising team tough in the past year. Three of four games last season ended with the two teams within four or less points of one another, including a 113-110 Phoenix victory despite missing a chunk of its roster following the trade with Orlando.
This year, the Suns lost 107-97 to the Thunder early in the year, and that 107-point mark is the lowest scoring output Oklahoma City has dropped on Phoenix since April 9, 2010.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of the early-season loss. “They’re deep and they’ll have other guys step up. But we’ve got to do a better job this time of rebounding the basketball, we’ve got to do a good job with turnovers.
“You have to play great basketball,” he added, “you can’t go in there and be sloppy.”
Considering the recent defensive success of the Suns, that makes tonight’s game ever the more interesting. Add in the fact Oklahoma City has defended its home court to the tune of a 16-1 record so far, and the odds aren’t in Phoenix’s favor.
“They’re playing great basketball at home,” said Suns forward Grant Hill. “Historically, even last year I think we went in there undermanned and beat them, played them well there, came down to the end. Didn’t play well this season, but you know, we have confidence.”
And considering the Suns have victories this season against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, there’s reason for the team to believe it can pull off a huge upset.
“We’ll remind each other of that before tomorrow’s game,” Hill said.
Then it might be a good sign for Phoenix that Hill will play a huge factor in any upset. In that single win against the Thunder last year, the Suns’ starting forward dropped 30 points on Oklahoma City, his second-highest output of his Phoenix career. He also made Durant work for his 28 points as the All-Star and potential MVP shot 8-for-19 from the field and scored 11 points from the foul stripe.
“He’s going to shoot the ball 30 times,” Hill said when asked the toughest part about guarding Durant. “That’s pretty difficult. And that he’s 7-foot, and he’s really good.”
Three keys for Phoenix
From inside out. In the broader scheme of things, the Suns’ newfound defensive efforts will be tested less in the paint and more on the perimeter against Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden off the bench. With Hill guarding Durant, that means players like Jared Dudley and Steve Nash must take away airspace from Westbrook and Harden. And if they get beat off the dribble, the Phoenix bigs better be in the right position with the weakside rotations protecting the rim. If all goes well, worst case is that Kendrick Perkins scores a lot off jump hooks.
Mix it up. Durant is impossible to beat, and he’s a smart dude, I’m sure. But the more Phoenix mixes up its coverages — whether that be by double teams versus one-on-one coverage, or going zone for stretches — the better off the Suns will be. While the Thunder has been able to score with ease against Phoenix in the past few meetings, keeping them out of a rhythm could at least keep the game close.
Find a third option. The Suns have gotten away with ugly offensive quarters in the past three games simply because of their stellar defense. I highly doubt that’ll be enough to beat the Thunder. Even without turning the ball over, Phoenix needs to get at least its usual production from Marcin Gortat and Nash. Then, they need to work toward feeling out who has a hot hand — set plays, perhaps? — then feed that whatever fire that may be. In other words, if (fill in the blank here with Dudley, Frye, Hill, etc.) gets a couple buckets to fall, the Suns must find a way to keep getting them the rock.