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Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder (44-17) at Phoenix Suns (32-29)


Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Phoenix Suns 97

PHOENIX — If the Suns make the playoffs they are really going to deserve it.

That’s because their Murderers’ Row of a finishing schedule includes home games against the current Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 seeds in the Western Conference as well as a potential elimination game in Utah.

That all starts tonight when the Suns host the second-best team in the West, the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder, a squad that has been the favorite in the conference throughout the season.

“Oklahoma City comes into town, it’s not going to be easy for us,” said Suns guard Jared Dudley. “Now we have a chance for it. Now we just have to have a better record than Houston and we’ll be fine.”

Well, not exactly with the Jazz lurking just a half game behind the Suns and the Rockets. While Phoenix battles the behemoths of the West, the Jazz play two against the LMA-less Blazers and one versus the Dwight-less Magic and Houston gets cupcakes against the Hornets (twice) and tanking Warriors as well as toughies in Dallas and Miami (if the Heat aren’t resting stars in that one).

The Suns own tiebreakers in any two-way or three-way ties amongst these teams, but they should envy the schedules for Houston and Utah. If both those teams take care of the games they should and the Rockets drop their two tough road contests, the Suns would need to go 3-2, including a win in Utah, to become a playoff team.

Therefore, the Hollinger Playoff Odds seem to make sense in that they give Phoenix a 50/50 shot of making the playoffs, the highest I remember them being all season.

If the Suns do manage to outlast the Rockets and Jazz to earn the eighth seed (a higher seed would require a collapse from Denver or Dallas), it’s very possible they will see tonight’s opponent again.

Although they trail the Spurs by a half game and would lose a tiebreaker against San Antonio, I could see the Spurs resting their stars down the stretch rather than going for a top seed since that seems to have been their M.O. all season.

The Thunder don’t have to worry as much about rest since they are led by the youthful quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. You may have heard of them.

With an average of 27.8 points per game, Durant is creeping closer to Kobe Bryant (28.1) for the league’s scoring lead. Westbrook isn’t far behind in fifth at 24.1 to go with 5.4 assists and 4.5 boards per game. Ibaka leads the league in blocks by a large margin with 3.61 per game (JaVale McGee is next at 2.27), and Harden is one of the top candidates for the Sixth Man of the Year Award as he leads the league in bench scoring (16.5 per game off the pine).

They have led the Thunder to the league’s second-best offensive efficiency rating (107.2) and the ninth-best defensive efficiency (99.7), an efficiency differential of 7.5 that trails only the Bulls and Heat league-wide.

However, since the All-Star break the Suns actually own the NBA’s second-best offense (108.5), just ahead of Oklahoma City (108.1), according to the NBA’s new stats tool.

Based on that we could be in for a shootout, but you would hardly know it if you watched the Clippers throttle the Thunder 92-77 on Monday night in OKC’s lowest scoring game of the year. The Thunder shot just 37.5 percent and got nine points on 4-for-16 shooting from Westbrook.

Oklahoma City has now lost five in a row to winning teams and five of nine overall. Perhaps they are just cruising to the finish after starting 29-7, including a pair of home wins over Phoenix.

The Suns, meanwhile, have won 11 of 13 at home and are playing their best ball of the season. Two months ago it would be reasonable to predict an easy Thunder victory, but the Suns are rolling and they know they must pull off a couple of upsets at home if they want to make the playoffs.

“This last second half we’ve really played well, especially on the road, to give ourselves a chance,” Dudley said. “We’re not there yet, but we have four home games out of all good teams and it’s going to come down to the wire.”

And 1

The Suns will induct long-time head coach John MacLeod into their Ring of Honor at halftime of tonight’s game. MacLeod will become the 13th member after racking up a 579-543 record from 1973-87, giving him the most victories in franchise history (as well as the longest tenure). Only five other coaches in NBA history have won more games with one squad.

MacLeod led the Suns to the 1976 NBA Finals as well as eight other playoff appearances. He will join Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal as the only other coaches in the team’s Ring of Honor. …

Speaking of history, Steve Nash needs 15 assists tonight to pass Oscar Robertson (9,887) for fifth on the NBA’s all-time assists list. …

The Arizona Republic reported that Grant Hill (knee) probably will miss tonight’s showdown against Durant and the Thunder. He is expected back tomorrow against the Clippers.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.