Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Phoenix Suns 97 — Playoff push Hardened

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns opened tonight’s game on fire, racing out to a very early 13-point advantage in which they seemingly could do no wrong.

Then James Harden checked in and restored order to your regularly scheduled Suns beat down.

Not long after the bearded one entered, the Thunder scored the final 16 points of the period (10 coming from the former Devil himself) and he proceeded to eviscerate the Suns throughout a damaging 109-97 loss.

“I think that game — I’m not going to say it was won or lost — but in that first quarter when you’re up 14 or 15, you’ve got to keep that same lead,” Jared Dudley said. “They closed that gap real quick in the first quarter and never looked back. ”

They closed the gap because of Harden, and they never allowed Phoenix to take another lead of more than a couple points because of Harden.

The likely Sixth Man of the Year poured in a career-high 40 points on 12-for-17 shooting and he also drilled five treys, hit all 11 of his free throws, pulled down seven rebounds and swiped four steals. In doing so he became the first reserve in over two years to explode for 40 in an NBA game.

If that wasn’t enough the Thunder gained a game-high 26 points in his 36 minutes of court time (meaning the Suns won by 14 during the 12 minutes he sat).

“Harden can obviously attack the basket,” Dudley said. “He’s got a little Ginobili in him, where he puts the ball out, gets to the free throw line, he initiates contact and they did a real good job on offensive rebounds, kicking it to him, getting his three-point shot going, and once he gets his three-point shot, he got his confidence and it seemed like the ball kept finding him with his energy.

“But it was definitely a tough task for us — the pick and rolls, he was splitting. I mean, there was nothing we did well on the pick-and-roll coverage when it came to him.”

Added Steve Nash, “He was feeling it tonight and we weren’t tough enough on him. When he’s feeling it he can make you pay in different ways.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant played a typical KD game with 29 points on 10-for-20 shooting, 11 boards and five assists.

The Harden-Durant duo made up for a so-so game from Russell Westbrook (15-6-5, 6-for-16 shooting) and Serge Ibaka (9-3 in 18 minutes).

To drill a bit deeper, according to the NBA’s new stats tool, the Thunder gained 26 points in the 29 minutes in which Durant and Harden shared the floor, so the Suns had no answers when they were together after doing a solid job on KD to open the game.

Overall the Suns yielded a defensive rating of 110.1 (marginally better than what OKC’s averages), but that won’t get it done when you produce an offensive rating of 97.9.

Phoenix did get good news out of Dallas, where the Mavericks handed the Rockets their fifth straight loss (all against contenders for the final spots out West). That means the Suns remain tied with the Rockets (with the tiebreaker) but they now trail the Jazz by a half game for the final playoff spot by virtue of their road blowout of the Tank Blazers.

The Suns and Jazz, however, are even in the loss column and will face off next Tuesday in a showdown that I expect to determine the eighth seed.

The Nuggets lost but that hardly matters unless you believe the Suns can make up three games on Denver with four to play.

So long as the Rockets drop one more (which I find likely considering their losing streak and a pending trip to Miami on Sunday), the Suns are in so long as they win three of four with one of those victories coming in Utah.

As for tonight, Gentry chided his team for failing to come up with many 50/50 balls, saying that was “the most disturbing thing” about the game.

“For us it was about 20/80 tonight,” he said. “We have to come up with some of those balls and we just didn’t.”

The Suns’ coach also was not pleased with the play of his bigs. His biggest gripe had to do with the ease through which Harden and Durant were able to knife through the Suns’ defense and get to the cup, but he was also talking about Marcin Gortat’s offensive performance.

Gortat missed 10-of-12 shots, many of them bunnies right around the lane that just rolled off.

“I just didn’t think we had a presence offensively or defensively with our bigs,” Gentry said. “We have got to have more of a presence from our big guys. That’s finishing at the basket, rebounding the basketball, defending our goal and being a basket protector. We just didn’t get very much out of that tonight.”

Added Gortat on his offensive game, “I don’t have an explanation for that, I’ve just got to finish those plays. Today for some reason I guess I was just relaxed too much. I had great looks, and I’ve just got to make them.”

The Suns still had their chances as they trailed by just three before Derek Fisher (really strange to see him in a Thunder jersey, by the way) drilled a jumper at the third-quarter buzzer.

But the Thunder hit the Suns with a run to open the fourth that ballooned the lead to 15 on a Harden trey (what else tonight?) that effectively ended the game with seven minutes to go.

“I felt we had a real good chance there, and then it just slipped from four to 14 real quick, and that was kind of the game,” Nash said. “Not enough tonight throughout.”

Overall it was hardly a devastating loss albeit a disappointing one. We know the Thunder are a few tiers above the Suns and if Harden’s going to pour in an efficient 40 off the bench, the Suns don’t have much of a shot.

The Suns needed to win three of these last five, and this was arguably the toughest one left considering San Antonio will likely sit starters in the finale.

Phoenix still controls its own destiny and likely can still do so even with one more loss. The margin for error became slimmer, but the Suns still must be pleased with where they are with four games to go after all they overcame to get to this point.

“We’ve got to just go for broke right now,” Nash said. “We have nothing to lose. I mean we put ourselves in a position to get in the playoffs and we have to go out there and enjoy it, attack and if the shots don’t fall, it’s one thing, but we got to go for it.

“We’ve got to go for broke and have fun with it and embrace this opportunity.”

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

Tags: James Harden

  • PennyAnd1

    Damn Gortat, trying to force things again & again & again… Hill come back soon!

  • Serek

    By Odin’s beard, who was guarding that man?

    By the way, “40 from a reserve” is kind of cheating, since he came from the bench but played 36 minutes – just like Gortat last year.

    Marcin should go for the shots around the rim, at the very least to get fouled while at it. Until he gets consistent from mid-range, the defense will be happy to leave him there and shoot his grounded fadeways.

    This game was lost by the defense though.

  • Fan in Chi Town

    forget dragic, lets go after harden to run the point if nash doesnt re-sign

  • grover

    Anyone want to reopen the thread from earlier in the year about “Gortat for All Stars”?

  • A-ROCK

    Gortat was having a good game in the 1st quarter while they were ahead ….. he was all SMILES!
    That smile sure did turn into a frown once he started missing those easy shots!

    A stud would have kept on keeping on till his shot came back, he is no stud he is a buster!

    The Suns need to start driving more to the basket instead of trying to make it a jumpshot game.

    Tell me if I’m wrong but the suns have never stayed hot shooting throughout 4 quarters, so that is a easy cover for the oppisition.

    Until the suns start driving to the basket the other teams are not going to respect them and they will be stuck taking jumpers and getting abused on the boards. It’s a shame when Childress is taking open 3s with a open lane to the basket.

    The team just seems to have no basketball IQ,
    or it’s just the way Nash plays the players have to shoot once they get the pass to insure an assist!?

    It’s just ugly!!

  • JZ

    I agree with Fan in Chi. Save the money for when Harden becomes unrestricted next off season. He’s going to be the one that will beat the suns by himself if they face them in the playoff…If they make it. Jazz completely beat up Portland yesterday and will do it again next week for 2 easy wins. Suns need to end this with a 4 game winning streak and beat the Jazz in the process to qualify. Harden seemed to be too good for any of the wing players to defend when paired with Westbrook and Durant.

  • steve

    @grover – Marcin still has a PER of 21.2 with a 16/10. He’s averaging 1.5 blocks per game and shooting 56% from the field.

    Bynum has obviously separated himself… but other than that, what center in the West are you going to say is definitively better than Gortat? Al Jefferson? Tim Duncan (if he counts as a center for the all-star ballot)?

    Marcin is not without his faults. No one is going to say he’s a flawless championship cornerstone. However, I don’t know if you can make a convincing argument that anyone in the West is definitively better than Marcin other than Andrew Bynum.

    On another note, for those who weren’t on the “the Suns need an elite 2″ train earlier… who doesn’t think James Harden would instantly change this franchise for the better? He is an upgrade of epic proportions over Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley (and I’m not just saying that because of this one game, although it is a fairly good example of what the man can do). He’s going to be a top 3 2-guard in the NBA for another 5-8 years, I think. And I think the Suns would be foolish if they do not do everything in their power to get him back to the Valley of the Sun through a trade or through FA.

  • A_ROCK

    the guy above me is as wishy washy as a laundry mat.

    One moment he likes a player the next minute he doesn’t.

    I’d take a couple guys over Gortat, that is like an open question I could go on for days.
    For that guy to be paired with Nash feeding him too….. who wouldn’t I take over Gortat, as long as the can jump and dunk through contact Gortat is gone.

  • grover

    I don’t see how you could watch Gortat over the last month and think he has any business at the All Star game unless he buys a ticket.

    I don’t think you’d find a coach or GM out there who wouldn’t take Gasol over Gortat. Jefferson and Duncan are more reliable and dominant as well, though I do struggle to call them centers (actually I do call Duncan a center, but he refuses the title himself… Jefferson does seem more like a PF). For a team willing to play small ball, even David Lee has more impact on the game than Gortat. All of these guys also lack a guard like Nash spoon feeding them easy buckets to prop up their PER (and imagine how good Gortats PER would look if he didn’t blow bunnies like last night). I’m not even sure Perkins or Pekovic aren’t in a similar class as Gortat. If Cousins isn’t arrested or kicked off his team he could easily become better as well.

    You may be right there is a short list of guys obviously and painfully better than Gortat, but there are several that are better at a hybrid PF/C position and several others that are right in that same “good but not great” bucket. I like Gortat as no better than the third option on a good team, but no way does he belong as an all star.

  • steve

    The argument that Nash is the one boosting Gortat’s numbers artificially isn’t very well-grounded…

    Gortat has posted PER’s of 19.8, 17.0, 13.9, 17.8, and now 21.2. The 21.2 is higher than it ever has been… but having three years over 17 when he received nothing but garbage time and was not encouraged to develop any sort of an offensive game is pretty impressive.

    WS48′s of .158, .202, .151, .152, .174. He has never been anywhere near average according to win shares. In fact, those numbers would make him a top 10 center in the league EASILY (more like top 6).

    Like I said, there isn’t any way you can make a convincing argument that anyone besides Bynum is obviously better than Marcin. Statistically speaking, even before his days with Nash, Gortat was still producing at a high rate, and there isn’t much of a reason to believe he wouldn’t excelled like he is in Phoenix if a man named Dwight Howard hadn’t been in front of him.

    If it was so easy to put up crazy numbers as a center with Nash, then why hasn’t Lopez ever done it? Even in those “amazing” 2010 playoffs Lopez was still just an 18.3 PER with a .160 WS48… Gortat’s career numbers even without Nash and only playing garbage time. Shaq’s all-star season with Phoenix? 22.3 PER, .166 WS48, 17.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.1 bpg… Is that really THAT much better than Gortat’s numbers this season? Is it even better at all?

    Listen, guys, I’m not saying Gortat is without fault. All I’m asking is that you present anything reasonable with something factual to back it up besides bullcrap arguments like “any GM would take X over Gortat,” or “Player Y would do just as well as Gortat if he had Nash feeding him.”

    It’s extremely easy to see that even before Phoenix, Gortat was a guy who was capable of much more than what he was able to acheive in Orlando. It’s also extremely easy to see that there isn’t a player in the West outside of Andrew Bynum who unquestionably gets better results at the 5-spot than Marcin Gortat. He’s obviously flawed. He’s soft, he has bad hands, and he’s a pretty weak defender and not a terribly efficient rebounder either. But you’re going to have to come up with something better than pure opinion or conjecture.

    I spit out facts. You came back with opinion. I spit out facts again. Your move… wanna back up your so-far baseless claims with something a little more concrete than, “I have personally spoken to every GM in the league, and it was 29 to 1 that Marc Gasol is better than Marcin?”

  • GoSuns

    Steve isnt wish washy, his comments about gortat have beenconsistent throughourt the season and iI agree with him, iI wouldnt want any of the guys ypu suggested.grover over gortat hes got just as much upside if not more than most of those guys besides cousins and is a better center than all of those guys execept maybe gasol, this is his second year starting and he keeps makung strides

  • steve

    Oh, and since Gasol was mentioned, here are some numbers. This is the guy you think is clearly better than Marcin. 14.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 47.9 fg%, 17.9 PER, .158 WS48.

    Gortat’s line again: 15.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 55.9 fg%, 21.2 PER, .174 WS48

    You’d take Gasol over Gortat? Their P36 comparison..

    Gasol: 14.2/8.9/3.1 (apg)/1.8 (bpg)
    Gortat: 17.5/11.0/1.0 (apg)/1.7 (bpg)

    Yeah, Gasol is CLEARLY better than Marcin. Clearly. Especially when you consider the fact that he shoots 10% worse from the field.

    My argument here isn’t that Marcin is clearly better than Gasol. However, it’s painfully obvious that Marcin’s production is better and his efficiency numbers are better. Even counting the supposed Nash-factor, it’s highly unlikely that Gortat would perform worse than Gasol currently is AND Gasol would perform better than Gortat currently is if their situations were flip-flopped (Gortat in Memphis, Gasol in Phoenix). Fyi, I’ll admit that last bit is an OPINION. I think it’s easy to see how I arrived at that conclusion though. Care to back up your opinions with anything factual?

  • grover

    Here are two facts: 1) the coaches that vote for all star reserves did not pick Gortat, nor did you see any NBA analysts or even Gentry claiming what a travesty it was Gortat was not picked. 2) GMs have never seen fit to award Gortat a contract as lucrative as many other centers in the West. No, a high salary doesn’t mean a player is great, but a low salary does mean 30 GMs have taken a look and none thought the player was deserving of more.

  • steve

    What were the Suns at the ASB? 12-19? Has any #2 player from a 12-19 team ever made an all-star team? There was no way he was going to make it with that kind of a team record as the team’s obvious #2, no matter what his stats were.

    Gortat got $6-7M per because Dallas wanted to steal him away from Orlando before he had played any significant minutes in the NBA. He had averaged something like 6mpg and 12mpg in his first two seasons. He had done NOTHING yet besides show brief flashes of potential, and he got $7M per hurled his way… keep in mind he was the 57th pick (or somewhere near that) a couple years prior to that. 57th picks are more likely to be out of the NBA in 2-3 than handed a $30M+ contract, especially when they are entirely unproven. OBVIOUSLY the Mavs gurus saw something in him, and I’d say they’re among the best in the league at evaluating talent.

    Fyi, I’m sure I sound very contentious, and I just want to point out that if I were forced to pick centers from the West as a GM, here’s how I would rank them:

    1. Bynum
    2. Duncan
    3. Marc Gasol
    4. Gortat
    5. Jefferson

    6 and on… who really cares. There isn’t much quality beyond that. Pekovic is good, not great. I might be missing one or two guys worth mentioning, but whatever.

    I would actually put Gasol ahead of Gortat as well, but it’s definitely not an obvious choice, in my mind. I think Gortat has far more upside, but I tend to favor perimeter shooters and passers, and Gasol does both of those things better than Gortat. I can definitely see why someone would want Gortat over Gasol though. He’s more mobile/agile, he’s a better rebounder, and he seems to be better at finishing at the rim (even though he’s a total softy). If those things suit your needs better than Gasol’s skillset, why wouldn’t Gortat be a better option?

    Back to the salary argument. The next time Gortat is due for a contract, he’ll get over $10M, I would bet. Jefferson makes $14M. Gasol makes $13M. Nene makes $13M. Chandler makes $13M. That type of money is coming Marcin’s way.

  • Tony

    It’s my turn to get into this discussion regarding Gortat. Look Steve, you can throw up meaningless statistics all you want, but they only go so far in qualifying a player’s abilities. Gortat has the athletecism and skill to be an elite center, but what he lacks, and what separates players like Kobe, LB, Durant, even Nash in his prime, is the mental part of the game. Gortat does not have the mental makeup to take his game to another level. Watching last night, he was bullied by Perkins! Gortat is soft and when things start going poorly or the pressure is turned up the opposition, he crumbles. I’ve seen it all year. He could put up 20 points through the first three quarters and then, during the 4th quarter, he’ll crack and play soft.

    Gortat is a good player no doubt but he’s not better than Gasol and he’s not a top-5 center. He suffers from Frye’s similar problem, in that both guys are not only fighting against their opponents but they are fighting within themselves as self-doubt creeps into their heads more and more when things start going badly or they start missing shots. This inevitably leads to them overthinking even more which subsequently makes them play even worse.

    Unfortunately, the mental part of the game is the toughest to improve upon and Gortat is already 28, so it’s not likely he’s a rookie or in in his early 20s, in which case we could hope maturity would help his confidence. This is the best of Gortat we will see and while he’s a good player, he’s not a leader and should not be a focal point in the Suns rebuilding plans.

  • Tony

    Although the Suns loss last night was frustrating, I loved the moment, during half-time, when Sarver was introduced and the boos starting reigning down upon him!! I could tell just by the way he was sitting, that he looked very uncomfortable and was clearly nervous about the kind of reaction he would get when he was introduced. It was funny how McCoy very quickly moved on after introducing Sarver too. Had he waited another several moments, I bet the boos and chants for Jerry C to come back would have literally “raised the roof.” Sarver is such a clown!

  • steve

    It never ceases to make me chuckle when you refer to stats as “meaningless,” then roll off your own opinion as if it’s right. Good stuff.

    I’ll be more than happy to field a reasonable argument that Gortat is less of a player than any other center in the West besides Bynum, but so far I’m not convinced that “reasonable” position has been argued yet, although grover has definitely put a lot of useful opinions and conjecture out there (and I mean that in a good way, not a bad way. I appreciate your input, grover. It’s always a refreshing alternative to the more “methodical” approach I tend to favor).

  • .

    Wouldn’t mind getting Al Jefferson or David Lee for Gortat.

  • Tony


    I realize you know very little about basketball, which is probably why you feel compelled to always resort to statistics, which are inherently misleading, to validate your arguments, but even you must admit that in 4th quarters and big big pressure games, Gortat crumbles. He’s done this the entire season and it’s even more obvious by the fact that Gentry usually gives Lopez big minutes in the 4th. There’s a reason he does that. If Gortat is as good as you make him out to be, why does Gentry consistently do this?

    Make no mistake about it, I would love to see Gortat prove me wrong and show that he can be dominant in 4th quarters and in big games. Tonight would be a perfect start as the Suns have to win this game.

  • Scott

    I’d have to side with steve in that Gortat’s not all that bad; we just wish he was better.

    It’s also nice to see other people wonder how good Harden would be on the Suns.

    Fans are concerned about Gortat’s play mainly because he can’t carry the team. If Harden (or another top quality SG) was with the Suns, that need would likely disappear.

  • steve

    Haha, oh, Tony. Always the comedian.

    About Gortat shying away from the big moment, I agree with you. I mentioned that emphatically after Gortat got destroyed by Dwight Howard a few weeks back. Gortat is not a closer, and he’s not properly utilized as one in the 4th either. PnR doesn’t work the same in the last 6min of the 4th as it does for the first 42 minutes of a game. Anyways, yes, Gortat needs to get better in the clutch (he also needs to improve his FT shooting, which is just par (maybe a little substandard) for big men.

  • PennyAnd1

    Gortat is just plain dumb. I don’t know how anyone cannot see. The guy kills momentum by trying to do much with the ball playing out of his game. Give the ball to shooters when you are being defended, jam the ball when you are near the rim, go closer to the rim when nobody is there, textbook basic stuff. Damn this guy is dumb. And what’s worse, is when he tries to do much in offense his defense is nowhere to be found because he carries his offensive woes in the defensive end. I don’t know how you guys cannot see that. And as for @Steve, you should know by now that stats don’t really tell the whole story. It’s the important and crucial plays that count. He will never be an allstar. I agree with what his teammates said when they say that he is only one of the top center in the league when playing besides Steve Nash.

    @Fan In Chi Town
    I agree, Harden needs to be in Phoenix. He is the scorer Suns definitely needs, if Gordon is not available. He is probably better than Gordon anyways.

    Playoff is slipping out their hands. Someone needs to go in Gortat’s ears and tell him to quit playing around and get f****n’ serious.

  • steve

    well, it’s impossible to argue with those who place their own thoughts and opinions before mathematical truths. i give up on this one.

  • Grover

    You and I have gone around this flag pole before and we’re pretty close in opinion despite multiple paragraphs of arguing. Ideally we should use stats to challenge the opinions we formed by watching a player and conversely watch a player to challenge what the stats suggest. Even when doing that, reasonable people disagree and often because they aren’t answering exactly the same question (e.g., is “MVP” the one who is most valuable to his team or most valuable to any team, in which case it’s almost more like the most dominant player?).

    That said, I think saying basketball stats are “mathematical truths” is overstating the case a tad. The formula itself might be pure math, but using the stat to say anything about a player’s value or quality especially in relation to another player is just another version of an opinion.

    Back to the story… Best centers in the West: I don’t think you and I are far off… only differ on how much distance is in between your #3 and 4. One idea though… Pau Gasol. He’s not currently a center, though he played center while at Memphis and still does for LA when Bynum is out of the game. I’d argue (with zero facts at all!) with him in the mix in order it would go
    1 Bynum
    2 Pau Gasol
    3 Duncan
    4 Marc Gasol
    5 Gortat
    6 Jefferson

    In my opinion, there is a decent gap between Duncan and Fat Gasol. I’d put Fat Gasol above Gortat despite the PER based primarily on my view of their basketball IQ. Simply put, I’d trust Gasol more than Gortat to make the right decision in critical situations. Very small gap, however. Gortat should be better than Gortat as he clearly is faster and more athletic, but I don’t think he is as polished.

    One more that I struggle with is where to put Kendrick Perkins. He’s not a scorer, but is a force on defense and brings an obvious toughness to a team. I’d choose Perkins as high as #4 on the list above depending on who he was matched up with. I think he’s in a perfect situation where he is surrounded by offensive savants and I fits the situation better in OKC that either Gasol or Gortat would.

    Side note – if I were OKC I’d think about trading Ibaka as he and Perkins are too similar… In their shoes I’d rather have a stiff like Lopez or Mahinmi who is big and clogs the middle to give Perkins a breather and spend my money on a Harden extension.

  • steve

    Ha, we are close indeed, because I would have that same exact order if we included Pau as a center, with a big dropoff after Duncan.

    And you’re right that it’s an overstatement to call stats “truth.” I wasn’t trying to refer to stuff like PER, which is a statistical system (rooted in biology, actually, which is about as far away from the truth as you could possibly get). I was kind of referencing a bunch of things from all over the place (including things I’ve heard that aren’t even in this thread). For instance, Tony insisted once that Gortat is an awful shooter… when the hard numbers (aka facts, not statistical interpretations) indicate he’s actually one of the better shooting bigs in the league from the mid-range. Or people who say he can’t finish, even though the hard numbers indicate he shoots a higher percentage near the rim than almost anyone in the league. Could he be better in both of those areas? Of course… but if he were, we’d be talking about having a Tim Duncan-a franchise cornerstone-and not just a “good” piece to put around the true star of a team.

    Anyway, a lot of words to say I agree with you, for the most part, especially on the overall ranking of C’s in the Western Conference.