Time: 5 p.m. MST
TV: FSAZ / NBATV
It’s still early in the season, but Vegas wouldn’t bet on the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder meeting Sunday under such circumstances. A 2-0 Phoenix team opens its 2013-14 road schedule in Oklahoma City and against a Thunder squad with bruises.
To start the season, Kevin Durant and Co. held off the same Utah Jazz team Phoenix defeated Friday. In their second game the Thunder, fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves by a 100-81 final score. The Suns could be facing an irked team, or they could perhaps use the Thunder’s record as a sign the Western Conference power is beatable with Russell Westbrook missing.
Update (12:45 p.m. MST): According to Darnell Mayberry, Westbrook has been medically cleared and he will play tonight against the Suns. Suddenly, the game just got a lot tougher for Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe has had his fair share of question-marks, but his defense will surely be under the microscope, even if Westbrook is a bit rusty.
If we set an over/under on Durant shooting 45 percent, do the Suns get the under?
P.J. Tucker lives for these moments. Phoenix’s best perimeter defender is coming off a strong performance against Utah’s Gordon Hayward, even if the Jazz forward hit a game-tying three-pointer over Tucker that nearly pushed the Friday night game into overtime. Hayward shot 6-for-17 from the floor, and give Tucker the credit.
Seemingly, Tucker has played Durant tough in the past. But last season in four games against the Suns, Durant had an offensive rating of 132 points per 100 possessions, which were only bested by his ratings against Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Sacramento. The 6-foot-10 shooting guard hit 48 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. With more direction in terms of team defense, Tucker should have more help this weekend. Can the Suns hold Durant below 45 percent shooting?
It won’t be easy considering Durant is coming off a 13-point game. That said, the T-Wolves double-teaming of Durant forced the other Thunder players to beat Minnesota. They couldn’t.
Who wins the starting power forward battle?
Channing Frye kept his starting role against the Jazz despite Markieff Morris returning from his one-game suspension for his preseason elbow to Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka’s face. It’s a sign that, not only is Frye valuable as a shooter — shooting is something the Suns sorely need — but that Morris’ aptness to kill offensive flow and his general being out-of-touch hasn’t been overlooked by Jeff Hornacek.
Beyond that, Frye could pose problems for Ibaka and vice versa. Ibaka is shooting 7-for-28 through two games and, as Darnell Mayberry notes for The Oklahoman, is missing Westbrook.
Does the offense improve its ball movement, and does that lead to made threes?
We’ll likely revisit this every so often. Maybe every game. The Suns aren’t going to win many games if they can’t hit open three-pointers, or learn to trust one another. Against the Jazz, the ball stuck too often. Bledsoe found himself over-penetrating for forced shots while teams sagged in the lane and off the shooters attempting to spread the floor.
The preseason showed Phoenix could move the ball quite well at times. Yet, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic accounted for 11 of the 15 assists against Utah, when the Suns struggled to get shots. And when they did, they couldn’t knock them down. Shooting 24 percent from three-point range on the season, the Suns will need to move the ball more, and then knock down shots.
It’s likely Dragic is able to return from a right facial contusion suffered in Friday’s game. But the rotation still has question-marks, especially when considering Dionte Christmas proved his dead-eye shooting off the bench.
Jeff Hornacek on Eric Bledsoe and the team failing to agree upon a contract extension: “These guys are professional basketball players,” Hornacek said. “The contract issues come up, but they know they’re going to get their money at the end of the year. They’re going to play as hard as they can every night, and that’s what makes them great players.”