Suns Pregame: Young Phoenix Suns Reminiscent Of OKC’s Past

Dec 14, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 14, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

One can’t help but see the parallels between where the young Phoenix Suns are now and where the Oklahoma City Thunder were a few years ago.

Heading into a highly anticipated matchup between two teams fighting for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff spots, the Suns have taken their fair share of lumps over the past few weeks. They traded away one-third of the 15-man roster at the trade deadline, including fan favorite Goran Dragic, but brought in the younger Brandon Knight to pair with Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt.

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Phoenix has posted a 2-8 record over its last 10 games and currently sits 2.5 games behind the Thunder for the West’s final playoff spot. OKC, on the other hand, looks to climb the standings and could be as dangerous as anyone to come out of the West despite a myriad of early injury problems.

With Bledsoe (25), Knight (23), Markieff Morris (25) and Alex Len (21) comprising a young core, the fact that the Suns are even competing for a playoff spot in the loaded West says something about their future. But making a serious run at the postseason has always been the goal.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek was quick to label communication as one area where this young, new-look Suns team could stand to improve.

“With Brandon Knight in there, he’s probably one of our better guys for talking,” Hornacek said. “Our guys don’t talk a lot and that’s one of his emphases is when we had our meeting about defense, he said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to talk more, we’ve got to communicate,’ so hopefully that carries forward.

“We try to tell the guys, ‘Say anything. Say something, say there’s a good-looking chick in the first row, just say something, please.'”

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks isn’t known for his X’s and O’s, but he has been a great cultivator of young talent. Brooks talked about Alex Len’s second season in the league and compared it to the way his own team cultivated their young talent over the years.

“I think he’s improving, I think he’s having a solid year,” Brooks said. “All [Phoenix’s] young players, we’ve had our share of them and you want them to get better every year and during that year you want them to get better every month. I think he’s having success month-by-month, but he’s going to be good.”

Hornacek said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen the 21-year-old Len do now that he’s been able to stay healthy.

“Like we say almost every day, you see things he does that…it amazes me. At 21 years old that he is getting these things already.”

With the Thunder riding a seven-game win streak and OKC’s new additions — Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler — fitting in well, the Suns will need their young players to show a sense of urgency if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

A win would pull the Suns within 1.5 games of the Thunder for the eighth spot, but a loss would drop them to 3.5 games back.

“There always seem to be a few teams that don’t make it that are really good that just had a tough break here and there and they could’ve been in the playoffs but that’s just the way the West is,” Brooks said. “You have to be able play high-level basketball every night, there’s no night off.”

In the category of players who don’t take nights off, MVP candidate Russell Westbrook is Phoenix’s biggest concern tonight. Westbrook is averaging 29.5 points, 10.1 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game for the month of February and is coming off a triple-double in 28 minutes against the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night.

Early in his career, Westbrook struggled with his consistency and his turnovers, much like Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe has over the last two seasons. Brooks said developing the young talent varies from player to player and coach to coach.

“I think there are different ways to coach different players and you have to figure out what’s the best way,” he said. “I knew Russell (Westbrook) had the special skill set and I got to see him every day, his work ethic, his determination.”

Phoenix doesn’t have a Russell Westbrook or a Kevin Durant-caliber player on its roster, but with youngsters T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin also fighting for minutes on the wing for the Suns, the future is still bright for a team that’s still searching for consistency, defense, rebounding…and perhaps, finally, something other than a slow start.

“We stress it all the time,” Hornacek said. “We stressed it yesterday and we were down 8-0, so yeah, we’ll stress it again! Why not?”

Phoenix’s current core might not pose as formidable a threat as that Durant-Westbrook-James Harden trio once did, but Brooks said patience pays off for the players willing to work hard enough to get to where they want to be.

“I think the NBA is in a good place with a lot of good players and a lot of good teams,” he said “It’s not just a point guard league, it’s a good player league, you don’t make this without being a good player.”

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