Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Phoenix Suns 96 — Tough loss in Westbrook’s return


The Suns led at the end of every quarter except the one that mattered. Phoenix suffered its first loss of the year, falling 103-96 in Oklahoma City. Losing a very winnable game was made worse by the fact that Goran Dragic left the game in the third quarter with what appeared to be a severe left ankle sprain. We will have more on Dragic’s injury as information becomes available. What is known now is that Dragic was immediately ruled out from returning and was ushered back to the training room after grimacing for few minutes while the trainers worked on him on the bench.

The Suns played valiantly in the wake of Dragic’s injury. They rallied around each other and played the Thunder tougher than they have in any of the last few seasons, and they held their own for three quarters against one of the better teams in the Western Conference. Phoenix was ultimately done in when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook entered the game with just under eight minutes to play and turned a six point Phoenix lead into an eight point deficit in almost no time. In the end, Phoenix lost its 11th consecutive game against the Thunder.

Eric Bledsoe stepped up in a big way, leading the Suns with 26 points (7-of-17 from the floor) and 14 assists. Bledsoe did most of his damage in the second half after Dragic went down, dropping 20 points after halftime. Without Dragic on the court, the Suns lacked some offensive creativity, but Bledsoe kept the Suns close and the offense potent by penetrating to the hoop seemingly at will. Down the stretch, the Thunder had no one who could stay in front of Bledsoe. He looked more like Westbrook than Westbrook.

That said, the Thunder point guard was effective in his debut. He had all the speed, quickness and aggressiveness we’ve come to expect from him. His only real shortcoming was an inability to finish contested plays at the rim. He seemed to be just a few inches short on his jump on a few drives, including a brutal missed dunk. He looked to be about 90 percent of his former self, but that can hardly be held against him in his first game back after nearly five months away from the court.

Also stepping up for the Suns was Gerald Green. Green found his shooting touch hitting five of his 10 attempts from downtown (21 points overall). He also led the Suns on the glass with eight boards. Green hit a clutch three deep in the left hand corner that cut the Thunder lead to two with under a minute to play. After a pair of Westbrook free throws, the Suns ran the same play, but Green stepped on the out of bounds line after the catch. That turnover, Phoenix’s 23rd of the game, sealed the win for OKC. For further analysis of the Suns first road game of the season, let’s reflect back on Kevin Zimmerman’s three preview questions.

If we set an over/under on Durant shooting 45 percent, do the Suns get the under?

The short answer is no. Durant had 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting. But I don’t put that stellar line on P.J. Tucker. In the past, the Thunder could be counted on to run a ton of isolation plays for KD, leading to a 1-on-1 battle with his primary defender. In the case of the Suns, this meant Durant locking horns with P.J. Tucker. As we discussed in the preview, Tucker relishes the opportunity to guard stars like Durant, but he didn’t really get much of a chance to in this game. Most of Durant’s points came in transition or off of ball reversal. The Suns played strong team defense for most of this game. The Thunder responded with much improved ball movement. The few times Durant did attack in isolation, he drew contact in the paint and went to the free throw line. This wasn’t really the type of battle we were expecting. But this is the kind of game elite scorers can have – 31 relatively quiet points.

Who wins the starting power forward battle?

Channing Frye made a statement in this game. The former Wildcat is definitively back. He dropped 19 points and hit 3-of-8 shots from beyond the arc. Frye came out hot, hitting his first three jumpers, all of which were wide open because Serge Ibaka refused to follow him out to the perimeter. The Suns would have continued to exploit that matchup, but Miles Plumlee was caught in early foul trouble which sent him to the bench and forced Frye into the center role when Markieff Morris came on. Morris didn’t play well in this one. He looked lost on offense and the Suns were hapless both offensively and defensively in the minutes Kieff and his brother Marcus were on the floor together. Frye, on the other hand, looked confident both beyond the arc and in the paint. He caught the ball down low with his back to the basket on a few occasions and was able to get buckets. Frye played 34 minutes on the night and there’s no denying the Suns look better at both ends of the floor when Channing is playing at the 4.

Does the offense improve its ball movement, and does that lead to made threes?

Yes to the first questions, yes to the second question, and a third yes for good measure. The Suns were lethal from downtown in this game hitting 14 of their 37 attempts, a mark which would have been much better if not for a very cold fourth quarter as the game was slipping away. As I mentioned, Frye and Green combined for eight triples, and P.J. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe each had a pair. Tucker is getting better and better every game at being a threat from the corner. Both of his makes came off of Bledsoe penetrate-and-kicks. If he can keep his confidence up, that shot will be a huge weapon for the Suns moving forward. Channing Frye, as he always has, is more effective shooting from the wings and the top of the key than the corner. The Suns moved the ball around the perimeter really well in this game and Frye knocked down the shots. Gerald Green was effective from every spot along the arc – when he set his feet. Green has a tendency, especially in transition, to rise up to shoot before he’s settled. That causes him to fade in the air one way or the other and affect his shot negatively. In this game, he made every single three-point attempt he took when his feet were set. If he can continue to hit like this, he’ll keep Archie Goodwin at bay and solidify his spot in the wing rotation.

And 1

  1. Alex Len and Archie Goodwin were both DNP-CD’s tonight. Slava Kravtsov filled in as backup center behind Plumlee. Len and Goodwin not getting into the game tells me two things about Hornacek. First, he wanted to win this game pretty badly. Second, he couldn’t trust rookies in a game in which the teams were never separated by double digits — though Hornacek held Len out because of ankle soreness, according to Paul Coro. Len has looked very raw and very shaky so far. Goodwin has been aggressive in his minutes, but not necessarily effective enough to play in a tight game, especially on a night when Gerald Green is on fire.
  2. After two straight impressive double-doubles to start his Phoenix Suns’ career, Miles Plumlee was held scoreless and frustrated by a very big and very physical Oklahoma City front line. OKC dominated the Suns in paint scoring 46 – 18. The combination of big body Kendrick Perkins and the endless penetration of Durant and Westbrook overwhelmed Plumlee who played only 24 minutes because of foul trouble. Miles was sorely missed on the boards and on offense.
  3. Ish Smith is crazy fast. If Dragic is out for any length of time, Smith will definitely see more minutes as the backup point guard. His speed is a great change of pace off the bench. He leads the break really well, gets his hands in passing lanes and doesn’t seem at all afraid of the moment. The Suns chose well when the whittled their backup point guard corps down this offseason.