As far as wins go, Saturday’s 97-81 shellacking of the Chicago Bulls might be as sweet as they come for the Phoenix Suns in 2012-13.
The victory was the 2,000th in the history of the franchise, it snapped a five-game losing streak and a 12-game road losing streak, and more than anything, it showcased what a complete 48-minute performance looks like.
However in an 82-game season, wins like that can be rare for a struggling club like Phoenix and the time spent savoring them even rarer.
The Suns return to the friendly confines — if you can even call it that anymore — of US Airways Center further down in the standings (13 games below .500) then when they left the Valley last weekend. While more or less, Phoenix had only four or five bad quarters on their road trip, 1-3 mark on the four-game swing is nothing to celebrate.
Moral victories seem rather hollow at this point, no more so than if they continue to come against Monday night’s opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The reigning Western Conference champions come in with the league’s best record (29-8) and winners of seven straight against the Suns. Phoenix hasn’t beaten Scott Brooks and Co. since December 2010 and while it hung tough in Oklahoma City two weeks ago, the two teams couldn’t be further apart at this point in the season.
While Phoenix remains lesser than the sum of its parts (mostly collected through free agency and trades), the Thunder under the direction of general manager Sam Presti have morphed into a title-contending juggernaut.
As Lon Babby and Lance Blanks continue to search for a single franchise player, Oklahoma City already has two of them in former NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant (No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft) and two-time All-Star Russell Westbrook (No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft). But not only are the Thunder full of star power, they have a strong nucleus to surround Durant and Westbrook with the likes of Serge Ibaka (No. 24 pick in 2008 draft), Kevin Martin (acquired in a trade for James Harden, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 draft), Kendrick Perkins (acquired in a trade for Jeff Green, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2007 draft), Nick Collison (No. 12 overall pick in the 2003 draft) and Thabo Sefolosha (No. 13 overall pick in the 2006 draft acquired in a trade for a first-round pick) more than happy to play complimentary roles.
As fans in the Valley are quickly learning, the art of rebuilding as the Thunder did comes with multiple years of futility, terrific scouting prior to the draft and yes, probably a little luck. Oklahoma City has certainly had everything fall into place in recent years, and heading into Monday night’s contest they show no signs of slowing down.
The Thunder have one of the league’s fastest-paced offenses (95.1 possessions per contest), yet they make the most of every possession. They rank No. 1 in offensive efficiency (110.6 points per 100 possessions), No. 3 in effective field goal percentage (52.7 percent) and No. 3 in rebounding rate (52.3 percent). What makes them so dangerous, however, is that they are also ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency (99.8 points per 100 possessions) and No. 2 in blocked shots per game (7.1).
If Phoenix has something going for them in what looks to be a one-sided Western Conference matchup, it’s that the Thunder limp into the Valley with two of their starters — Ibaka (chest contusion) and Sefolosha (sore neck) — banged up. While Oklahoma City was without their two of its glue guys Sunday night in a four-point win at Portland, there is a good chance that at least Sefolosha will play against the Suns.
Three Keys for Phoenix.
Defend Durant. Because the Thunder are so deep and can beat opponents in numerous ways, this point often times is moot. But in order to defeat the snake, you first have to cut off its head. Oklahoma City, first and foremost, is Kevin Durant’s team. And while they’re may not be a more enjoyable star in the NBA to watch and to root for, if the Suns have any chance of pulling off their biggest win of the season, P.J Tucker will have to limit the league’s third-leading scorer (28.6 points per game). Tucker did a decent job containing Durant through the first three quarters on New Year’s Eve, but the former Naismith College Player of the Year had 10 points down the stretch as the Thunder pulled away en route to an 18-point victory.
Control the Tempo. The Suns are no longer the up-tempo squad they were during their formidable days atop the Western Conference. The Thunder are, however. Phoenix fell into that trap during the teams’ prior meeting and it came back to bite them over the final 12 minutes of play. When Oklahoma City gets an opportunity to run with their athletes, they take it and are usually effective. In their 114-96 victory over Phoenix, the Thunder went to the charity stripe 24 times and only turned the ball over on five occasions. If the Suns are able to make Monday’s game into a half-court contest, both of those numbers should take a noticeable hit.
Rinse and Repeat. Michael Beasley had one of “those games” Saturday night in Chicago. The former No. 2 overall pick was arguably the most efficient he has been all season, scoring 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Consistency has plagued Beasley during his NBA career and that trend has not stopped in Phoenix. In the four games following a 20-point performance this season, Beasley has combined to score just 34 points. Now it might be a lot to ask him to shoot 71 percent from the floor for a second consecutive game, but with Jared Dudley unavailable against the Thunder (strained right wrist), Phoenix could use some much-needed offense off its bench.