Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Phoenix Suns 97 — Defensive roller coaster continues


After an incredibly impressive defensive performance last night in New Orleans, the Phoenix Suns crash landed hard in Oklahoma City. Though the score ended up as only a 10-point differential, the game definitely looked and felt like a blowout.

Coming off their first win of the season, the Suns faced a back-to-back for the first time this year. The wear and tear of two games in a row showed, especially on older veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill. The pair shot just 5-for-18 from the floor.

“Well, I think it hurts guys like Grant (Hill) and Steve (Nash) obviously,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We have to power through that. It is going to be a short season and we’re going to play a lot of back-to-backs. Tonight, we just couldn’t get it done.”

Oklahoma City, on the other hand, looked incredibly fresh coming off its thrilling last-second victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night in this 107-97 victory. The Thunder shot lights out for most of the game. Through the first three quarters, they shot better than 60 percent from the floor. They made just six shots in the fourth quarter, however, bringing their total percentage for the game to 53 percent.

The Suns’ defense was woeful in several areas. The most staggering lapse was in the paint where the Thunder scored 54 of their 107 points. Though they recorded seven blocks, the Suns were unable to protect the rim all night. Whether it was Russell Westbrook’s ability to get into the paint at will and cause disruption or the interchangeable nature of Oklahoma City’s roster allowing them to pull Gortat and Frye away from the hoop, the Suns’ big men were nowhere to be found as the Thunder threw down dunk after dunk.

The Suns were also abysmal in transition. They scored only five points all night on the run, while giving up 21, many of them uncontested dunks.

The final area where the defense was less than adequate was along the perimeter. The Thunder shot 8-for-16 from beyond the arc through the first three quarters (9-for-22 for the game). Many of these makes came on open looks because of lapses by the Suns’ perimeter defenders.

With 7:47 left in the second quarter, Daequan Cook connected on a wide-open 3-point off a pick and roll with lefty James Harden that put the Thunder up 42-31. Both Shannon Brown and Josh Childress went with Harden, leaving Cook wide open at the top of the key. On the wings, both Shannon Brown and Grant Hill gave up 3’s because they failed to close out after Thunder players simply exchanged places along the perimeter without even the benefit of a screen. It is evident the Suns need to communicate more on the defensive end if they are to prevent teams, especially good teams like Oklahoma City, from scoring at will.

For the Suns, the shooting woes for the starters continued. As I mentioned before, it was not a strong shooting night for Hill and Nash. Channing Frye’s slump also continued as he went only 1-for-6 in 19 minutes.

Their biggest struggle was from beyond the arc where the Suns were only 8-of-26. The Thunder will be happy with their defensive performance as Phoenix shot less than 40 percent from the field, but the defensive MVP of the night was the front of the rim. The Suns came up short on more than half of their misses, showing that their legs were not ready for their second game in two nights. Their tired legs also hurt them on the boards where the long, energetic Thunder bested the Suns 37-24. The sole bright spot from the rebounding statistics was that the Thunder managed only eight offensive boards, which was a far cry from the 24 the Hornets grabbed Friday in New Orleans.

Despite the dismal offensive effort through three quarters, after which the Suns were down 89-67, there were a few signs of life from the Phoenix bench in the fourth quarter. Markieff Morris connected on three shots from beyond the arc, including an “I heard him call it” bank shot as the shot clock was winding down. He also converted a three-point play on a strong take inside. He really seems to be getting comfortable on the offensive end, which is something the Suns will desperately need moving forward.

“Anytime I get a chance to get into the game, I try to play hard,” Morris said. “The game to me is not over until it is over, so I try to play as hard as possible.”

Ronnie Price was definitely aggressive each time he was on the court. He racked up five points and two hard fouls, one on Westbrook and one on Harden. His physical, attacking style is a good change of pace for Phoenix when Nash goes to the bench. Hakim Warrick also led the team in scoring, along with Morris, for the second game in a row, coming off the bench to score 15 points in 24 minutes.

The Suns won’t have much to celebrate tonight coming off this convincing loss to the younger, hungrier Thunder, but perhaps they can turn it around in 2012. They’ll get their shot Monday night when they host the Warriors in Phoenix.