Time: 6:00 MST
Since starting the season at 12-14, the Phoenix Suns have won six of their last seven games, thanks in part to the fantastic play of Eric Bledsoe. In that span, Bledsoe has managed to score at least 15 points in every contest, while averaging over 7 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Since the slow start, the Suns have really turned things around, and they would find themselves in the playoffs if the season ended today, but there’s still a long way to go. This year, the task of holding down a playoff spot is made exponentially more difficult by the fact that one team currently sitting outside the playoff picture may very well be one of the top two or three teams in the West: Oklahoma City.
Without superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for much of the year, the Thunder have amassed a sub-.500 record, but it would be foolish to write off Oklahoma City at this point. Games like this could prove crucial for the Suns, especially considering that the team missed the playoffs by one game last year, and with the Thunder breathing down their proverbial neck, the Suns really can’t afford to give any games away.
If the Suns are going to pull off the upset, (which seems weird to type, but is probably an accurate description of the game), they’ll need Gerald Green to return to his 2013-14 form, or at least his 2013-14 form against the Thunder. Green averaged a ridiculous 32.2 points per 40 minutes against OKC last year, while shooting 55.3% from the floor and 60.0% from three. Other than that, Alex Len and Miles Plumlee will need to provide strong minutes at the center position, especially considering that in the last game, the Suns’ allowed Oklahoma City’s big men to shoot a combined 76.5% (13-of-17) on two-point field goals.
It should be noted, that in the teams’ only meeting so far this year, the Thunder decimated the Suns, outscoring them by 22 points in the first half alone. The Suns were able to recover, going on a six-game winning streak after losing on a buzzer-beater to the Milwaukee Bucks the following night, but the margin for error is far less now, with the Suns down in the season series 0-1.
“An NBA superstar returns from injury to take on Phoenix.” That was the case when the Phoenix Suns took on the Los Angeles Lakers a few days ago, and that could very well be the case in the game today. At least that’s the buzz that has been going around on Twitter.
While the Oklahoma City has yet to change Durant’s official status, there is a legitimate chance that this game will mark the return of last year’s MVP, which would certainly make things more difficult, from the Suns’ perspective. While typically there would be a bit of an adjustment period when a player returns from injury, Durant wasted little time in returning to form earlier this season, scoring 27 points in his first game of the year, after missing the team’s first 17 games with a foot injury.
The Suns would obviously rather face the Thunder without Durant, who was on pace for another remarkable season, before picking up his latest injury. Durant comes into this game averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game this year, but his per-minute statistics are almost identical to the numbers he posted just one season ago. Additionally, a hobbled Durant has actually raised both his field goal and three-point percentage this season, despite keeping his usage rate above 31.
Durant’s percentages, coupled with his usage rate, have been, quite simply, ridiculous this year, especially considering that of the other seven NBA players with a usage rate over 30, only one has a better field goal percent OR three-point percent than the Slim Reaper, and that is DeMarcus Cousins, who is shooting 100% (1-of-1) from three. Durant also has a true shooting percentage that is at least 5% better than anyone on that list, which includes LeBron James, James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook. It’s safe to say the Suns would be better off if Durant decided he needed one more game before coming back.
Westbrook vs. Dragic
Outside of Patrick Beverly, many consider the Dragon to be one of Russell Westbrook’s biggest foes. Interestingly enough, the rivalry between the two point guards actually started when Dragic was on the Rockets, in the 2011-2012 season. Let me tell you all a story…
Westbrook and Dragic had gone at it in the first three meetings between their respective teams, with Dragic posting impressive numbers in the first two games, averaging 15.0 points, 9.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and just 1.0 turnovers per game. Westbrook, on the other hand, absolutely dominated the third contest, scoring 26 points, while racking up a team-high 8 rebounds and 4 assists.
The stage was set for a dramatic fourth meeting, and tempers started to flare early, as Dragic picked up a technical foul in the first half, after taking exception to a foul committed by Russell Westbrook. The conflict escalated as the Oklahoma City went on a late run to go up 102-91, with just two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game. The Rockets weren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, as Dragic made a shot to cut the deficit to nine. On the other side of things, Patrick Patterson rejected Russell Westbrook, before scoring on the other end, and the deficit was at seven. The Rockets would then get another stop and a score, cutting the OKC lead to just four with 1:22 remaining.
Then came the fireworks.
Goran Dragic stole the ball from Westbrook, who felt he was fouled, but the Rockets weren’t able to cut into the lead anymore, as Budinger missed a three-pointer. Coming back down the floor, Goran Dragic fouled Russell Westbrook, and the former UCLA standout reacted sharply to the contact, charging right back at Goran Dragic, causing the ref to call a technical foul with 48 seconds left in the game.
The Rockets would make the technical free throw, and Westbrook would miss one of his two free throws, keeping the margin at just four. The Rockets would then score again, cutting the lead to two, and Dragic would steal the ball from Russell Westbrook on the ensuing possession, which led to a go-ahead three by Courtney Lee with 15 seconds to go. The Rockets finished the game off, completing the improbable comeback, but that wasn’t the big story. Rather, the focus became the scuffle between Westbrook and Dragic, and what made Westbrook so mad that he picked up a technical foul in a close game with less than a minute to go.
Westbrook refused to answer questions relating to Dragic or the technical foul after the game, and right there and then the rivalry was born. Since that time, the point guards have continued to go at it, and that matchup in particular should be a lot of fun to watch. It should also be noted that the two combined for over 55 points in two of the three meetings between the teams last year.
For the third game in a row, a Suns victory (coupled with a San Antonio loss) would give them possession of the seventh seed in the loaded Western Conference, but that isn’t even the biggest piece of proverbial puzzle. Phoenix currently holds a 2.5 game lead over the Thunder for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, and a win could really help the Suns maintain that lead, especially at the end of the year.
With a victory, Phoenix would improve to 19-15, with an all-but guaranteed 20th win coming in the next game against the Philadelphia 76ers. At that point, the Suns would be on pace to finish the season at 47-35, meaning that the Thunder would have to go 32-17 (.653) just to tie the Suns. With a combined 24 games remaining against the Bulls, Cavaliers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Hawks, Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Warriors and Wizards, 11 of which are on the road, the Thunder would need to play incredibly well to jump the Suns, and that list doesn’t even account for the four remaining games the Thunder would play against Phoenix and New Orleans, three of which would be on the road.
As I mentioned, the Suns could also use this game to move up in the standings, as it seems the San Antonio Spurs are in a complete free-fall, which began when they lost to the Lakers in overtime. Counting that game, the Spurs are 3-8 in their last 11 games, with four of those losses coming at home. It’s strange to imagine, but this may be the year that San Antonio fails to make the playoffs, but regardless, I don’t think the Suns would really care all that much which team they got in over if they were to make the postseason.
I went back and forth with this a few times. There’s no denying that a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder squad would likely defeat the Phoenix Suns more often than not. However, the question of if and how Kevin Durant will play leaves a bit of uncertainty. The Thunder went just 3-4 without Durant, while the Suns managed to string together a record of 6-1 in their last seven, games, so right now, I’d give the Suns a narrow edge.
Suns 105, Thunder 104