On the surface, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a clearly superior team to the Phoenix Suns. Currently #2 in the Western Conference, 1/2 game behind the Spurs for #1 with a 44-17 record, the Thunder defeated the Suns by 10 on New Year's Eve and then by 11 last month. Kevin Durant is a league MVP candidate, Russell Westbrook averages over 24PPG and the Thunder have the #1 offensive rating in the league.
But these teams aren't so mismatched when we look at how they've been playing recently. Chew on this, Suns fans: Phoenix has a better record since the All-Star break (18-9) than the Thunder do (17-10). At what point does the sample size become large enough to say that the Suns are a legitimately good team? A win tonight would certainly go a long way to proving the Suns belong as a playoff team, and that they might be one the contenders won't want to face.
US Airways Center had better be rocking tonight because the Suns have played so well over the last couple of months that they've earned this critically meaningful game in mid-April. All five teams remaining on the Suns schedule have winning records and two of them are championship contenders, but the Suns are capable of beating each of them, and it starts with this test tonight.
Of course, there is danger in thin-slicing results too much. When the Suns and Thunder last met March 7th in OKC, the Suns led 84-68 midway through the third quarter before an epic Suns collapse/Thunder run clinched a 115-104 Thunder win. As Alex explained in his recap:
The Suns built the lead back up in the third quarter to a full 16 points - an 84-68 lead! - before the wheels came off and the Thunder came to life, finishing the game on a 47-20 run. Phoenix countered MVP-candidate Kevin Durant and Sixth-Man candidate James Harden with the likes of Sebastian Telfair and Michael Redd. Ugh. Double ugh. How do the Suns expect to win with that matchup going on???
A six-point Suns 4th-quarter lead turned into an 8-point Thunder lead in the blink of an eye. Poof. The Suns chances were gone. All it took was a few minutes of Durant/Harden vs. Telfair/Redd.
What to take from that game? The big lead earned early, or the late collapse? Both, of course, and an explosive team like the Thunder will have runs in it. And it wasn't just the Suns defense that was the problem, as their offense went completely stagnant down the stretch when they simply couldn't make a shot.
Key for the Suns tonight will be to stem the tide if/when the Thunder start sizzling. Slow down the pace on offense and get good shots, take it inside and draw fouls. The Thunder will score a lot, there's probably no getting around that. It will be up to the Suns to execute smoothly on offense down the stretch and make key stops on the defensive end. They will probably have to do this without the services of Grant Hill:
Alvin Gentry said Grant Hill (sore right knee) probably will not play tonight in hopes he'll play Thursday vs. the Clippers.— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) April 18, 2012
Apparently, the Suns would rather rest Hill tonight and let other players, primarily Dudley and Childress, deal with Durant, and have Hill back to guard Chris Paul tomorrow night. Note that the Suns struggled mightily with Hill out due to foul trouble in the previous meeting, so this is definitely cause for concern. They'll have to avoid Durant badly exploiting mismatches as he did in March.
In happier news:
OKC Coach Scott Brooks said Alvin Gentry is his pick for NBA Coach of the Year.— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) April 18, 2012
It will be interesting to see what kind of support Gentry gets for COY. On the one hand, will voters give much consideration to a coach of a slightly above average, fringe playoff team? But then, all of these NBA "experts" who have been bloviating all season about how the Suns were a terrible team have to give credit for the coach who turned them around, right? A playoff berth would help his cause, that's for sure.
Get fired up for this one, Suns fans! This would be a landmark win for this season's Suns.
- For more on the Suns and Thunder, check out my chat with Zorgon from Welcome to Loud City.
- Welcome to Loud City game preview: Thunder vs. Suns: The Young Stars vs. The Ragtag Gang of Old Men
- Paul Coro's Orange Slices