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.