Suns finish road trip with a game against the stentorian Thunder

Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The Phoenix Suns cap off a three game, four night road trip with a daunting matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. After two close losses to start the trip, and four in the last five games, the Suns strive to discover a winning formula amidst the recent struggles.

When: Monday, December 31, 2012, 6:00 PM local time (8:00 EST)

Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Watch/Listen: TV: FSAZ, Radio: 620 KTAR

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Last Meeting:

The most recent meeting between the teams was last season on April 18th. The Thunder won that game, and dealt a severe blow to the Suns playoff aspirations, in Phoenix 109-97. Some guy named James Harden scored 40 points on 12-17 shooting, 5-8 from three and 11-11 from the line. I think he plays for Houston now. Jared Dudley led the Suns in scoring with 21 points.

Coincidentally, the Suns played at Oklahoma City last New Year's Eve and lost 107-97. There's nothing like the schedule makers doing us a solid by continuing the tradition of ringing in the New Year by giving us another crack at the Thunder.

Team Bios:

Oklahoma City Thunder: 23-6

Points per game: 105.7 (1st) Points allowed: 96.7 (T-12th)

Oklahoma City does just about everything exceptionally well. They lead the league in scoring. They are second in point differential (+9.0). They are fifth in rebounding differential (+4.0). They are fourth in field goal percentage (47.7%). They are second in three point field goal percentage (40.2%). They shoot 84.6% from the free throw line (first) as a team. They are second in free throws attempted per game (27.6). They are second in opponent field goal percentage (42.6%). They are good.

After starting off 6-3, the Thunder has gone 17-3 over their last 20 games. Their "worst" loss of the season was a 108-100 loss at Boston on November 23rd. That is the only loss to a team with a losing record for the Thunder. Despite this early season success, the Thunder still trails the Los Angeles Clippers by percentage points in the standings. The Thunder's last game was a 124-94 drubbing of the Houston Rockets.

The Thunder is led by all-everything superstar Kevin Durant. Durant is averaging 28.4 points (third in the NBA) and 8.1 rebounds and is currently pacing to join the elite ranks of the 50/40/90 club with averages of 51.6/43.6/90.3. Some guy named Steve Nash pulled off the feat four times (and missed it by shooting .899 from the line another year). Durant also appears to be heating up as over his last five games he has exceeded those gaudy shooting numbers while averaging 34.6 points per game.

Durant is the obvious #1 on the Thunder, but Russell Westbrook is a pretty serviceable #2. Despite fairly miserable shooting numbers, Westbrook still averages 21.4 points (6th in NBA), 8.7 assists (5th in NBA) and 2.14 steals (4th in NBA). No other player in the NBA is top 10 in those three categories.

New addition Kevin Martin is chipping in with 15.9 points per game and blistering 46.7% shooting from three point range. Serge Ibaka contributes 14.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks (2nd in NBA).

Did I mention these guys are good?

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Phoenix Suns: 11-20

Points per game: 97.4 (13th) Points allowed: 101.0 (26th)

Injuries: Goran Dragic played Saturday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but it was evident that he has not completely recovered from the spill in the game against the New York Knicks. Jermaine O'Neal missed Saturday's game and is day-to-day suffering from back spasms.

While the Thunder is good at just about everything, the Suns are not. The Suns are a middle of the pack team offensively, ranking 13th in scoring, 13th in field goal percentage (44.9%) and 25th in three point field goal percentage (33.7%). The Suns are 16th in ORtg and 15th in eFG% for those of you who prefer those metrics.

What has plagued the Suns, though, and derailed this season is an inadequately insufficient defensive effort. The Suns are 29th in opponent field goal percentage (47%) and 30th in opponent three point field goal percentage (40.4%). They are 27th and 28th in DRtg and opponent eFG%, respectively. The Suns are also 27th in the league in rebounding differential (-3.8). The Suns aren't very good.

While the Suns have a paucity of legitimate strengths, they do take care of the ball and force turnovers. The Suns commit the fourth fewest turnovers (13.4) and force the seventh most (15.4). This differential is the fifth best in the league.

The Suns come in licking their wounds after back-to-back road losses at Indiana and Minnesota, and five consecutive losses overall. Late game execution has plagued the Suns in four of the five losses. When they score they can't defend. When they can defend they can't score. When they need a big play they make a mental mistake. When they need a stop they can't get one. The Suns seem to be able to find interesting new ways to lose every night.

Phoenix enters the game in 14th place in the Western Conference (yes, the Kings are now 13th) touting a streak of eight consecutive losses on the road. The Suns have also been outrebounded in eight consecutive games. A ninth straight road loss would be the Suns longest such streak since 1988. The Suns only victories on the road this season (2-13) are against Charlotte (7-23) and Cleveland (7-25).

Did I mention the Suns aren't very good?

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What To Watch For:

Russell Westbrook: Westbrook has struggled (more than usual) to shoot the ball at an efficient rate. Since it is a given that Westbrook will continue to jack up shots regardless of the results, I would like to see Gentry switch up defenders early and often to keep a fresh body on Westbrook and try to get him flustered. Westbrook shooting over 50% from the field probably spells doom for the Suns.

OKC From 3 vs. A Lack Of Suns D: The Thunder is second in the league in three point shooting. The Suns are dead last at defending the shot. This sounds like déjà vu all over again...

Quick Start: The Suns disturbing trend of falling behind, crawling and scraping back and then falling just short is deflating. Why do the Suns come out of the gates so listless? To illustrate the Suns absence of vim to start games, they are yielding 55.6 points in the first half during the current five game losing streak, but only 45.6 points in the second half. If the light switch is off in the first half tonight the Thunder is a team that is probably good enough to annihilate the Suns and eliminate any chance at a Suns comeback.

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Notes/Stats:

The Suns didn't have a 30 point scorer through the first 28 games this season. Now they have had two (Dudley with 36 and Scola with 33) in the last three games.

The four turnovers the Suns committed Saturday against Minnesota were tied for the second lowest total in franchise history. The franchise record of three was actually set April 7th of this year in 125-105 victory against the LA Lakers. The Suns tied the previous record of four against Denver on January 17th, 1995.

The Suns have played the 17th most difficult, or 14th easiest, schedule to this point. It's going to get more parlous in the coming days as the combined record of the Suns next 10 opponents is 172-112, including seven teams with winning records, with the Philadelphia 76ers at home looking like the most winnable game.

Oklahoma City has won six straight games against the Suns.

The Suns are 8-7 against teams with losing records and 3-13 against teams with winning records.

The Suns 11-20 start through 31 games is their worst start since the 1996-97 season.

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The Final Word(s):

Hopefully this game will serve as a respite from the crepuscular morbidity this season has devolved into. After a 7-8 start, the Suns have proceeded to go 4-12 and essentially annulled any hope of competing for a playoff spot.

It's hard to envision a scenario where the Suns win this game. Phoenix blowing out the Thunder doesn't seem plausible and even if Phoenix can keep it close it seems likely they will invent some befuddling new way to implode in the closing minutes/seconds.

But... watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be entertaining and... the Suns have to crack back into the win column at some point so... Go Suns!

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