Bad news for Suns fans with Oklahoma City coming to town for a Thursday night showdown on TNT; Russell Westbrook is feeling himself right now. In the four games since the All-Star break, three of which have been without Kevin Durant, Westbrook is averaging 27 points per game, 7.8 rebounds, and 11.8 assists. He is shooting nearly 50% from the field in that span (49.3%) and most terrifying of all he is playing the same destructive defense he has always played. The Thunder have won nine out of ten games in February and in that time Westbrook has averaged 29.5 points (!) 8.5 rebounds (!!) and 10.1 assists (!!!) per game en route to capturing our hearts and minds. Whether it is out of fear or admiration pretty much everyone loves Russ right now.
At this point there is very little left to say about Westbrook other than he is without a doubt carrying a team through a period of time in which they should be in full panic mode. Kevin Durant has dealt with chronic foot problems stemming from a nagging fracture earlier in the season, and just underwent minor surgery to get the problem fixed again. Nobody knows how much rest Durant will need or if the Thunder will give it to him. Nobody knows when this problem will just go away and let Durant have his brilliant career back. Nobody knows if the Thunder will get a healthy shot this season in the playoffs. Yet nobody seems to be in panic mode. The KD story gets very little attention in the 24/7 sports cycle, and the Thunder have received the Media Consensus Seal of Prediction for the eighth seed or higher in the playoffs.
Averaging a near triple double and almost thirty points is impressive, but Westbrook’s most impressive feat this season has to be his ability to take our minds off of Durant and the injuries that have plagued him. Westbrook is having a moment that should remind us the difference between Russ and a guy like Kyrie Irving. There is nothing wrong with Kyrie, and the Cavaliers would surely be worse off without him, but LeBron is what makes the clock tick in Cleveland, plain and simple. In the last three weeks we have learned that although KD makes the Thunder better, and they have no shot of winning a championship without him, he might not be the only one making the Thunder tick. Russell Westbrook is running the Thunder right now, and they are making a push for the playoffs just in time.
Suns vs Thunder tonight at 8:30pm on TNT!
What Vegas Thinks: So you’re saying there’s a chance? (Suns +5, O/U 217)
Vegas no longer thinks Phoenix has much of a chance at making the playoffs, seeing as the Thunder have had their championship odds jump from 22/1 a month ago to 13/2 this weekend. Part of the spike is clearly a result of the Thunder being heavy favorites for the playoff chase now over New Orleans and Phoenix. Per the NBA rules you must make the playoffs in order to compete for an NBA championship, and thus the Thunder making the playoffs at all would be a boon for their championship odds. The Thunder have jumped from having the 7th best odds to win the championship to having the 3rd best odds during a run of games that involved their best player getting foot surgery and being pronounced out for the third time this season. Not even Vegas is worried about OKC so long as Russ is there.
That being said, being five point underdogs isn't half bad for Phoenix. Vegas clearly remembered the thriller the Suns and Thunder played last game and recognize this matchup could go either way, especially considering home court advantage for the Suns. One thing Vegas doesn’t respect, however, is the Suns defense. If the Suns defense is to be taken seriously they will have to do better than stifling a Denver Nuggets team who can’t buy a win at home. The casinos have this game’s over/under for total points scored set at a mighty high 217, higher than Golden State vs Cleveland! Vegas Predicts: Thunder 111 Suns 106
What the National Media Thinks: Back-to-Back MVP? Sort of...
Russell Westbrook has been garnering plenty of MVP love as a result of his aforementioned break through. Although Westbrook missed almost the entire first month of the season and has not yet put up the raw numbers of Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, and James Harden, he has launched himself into the debate for the MVP. Carrying your team to victory with 30 points per game and nearly a triple double without the reigning MVP because of nagging injuries is a good way to get some love regardless of advanced metrics or team record. You don’t have to look very far to find the case for Westbrook online, as writing about his candidacy is definitely en vogue. Sadly for Westbrook it would appear the longer Kevin Durant is out the better his own candidacy for MVP looks. Still, it is incredible to think the Thunder have a reigning MVP resting his foot and a potential MVP taking over and carrying them in his absence and this is less than three years after trading a different frontrunner in the MVP race to a conference rival. Life isn’t fair.
The game is on TNT tonight and boy, does Charles Barkley not like what the Suns have done lately. During the All-Star break Charles first described the Suns as "stuck" before they traded Goran Dragic and a horde of other players/assets. Charles described the Suns deadline moves as "an overreaction," "desperate," and "confusing." If the Suns don’t play well tonight Charles will probably have a rather blunt eulogy for their season during the postgame.
What the OKC media thinks: WESTBROOK FOR MVP
The OKC fans have been nervous for nearly all of this season with injuries plaguing their stars and the playoffs becoming a race instead of a cake walk, but they seem to have taken a short rest to launch #RUSS4MVP. SB Nation brother blog Welcome to Loud City seems much more focused on their rising star than their injured idol and the mood on the site is upbeat given the team’s recent success. Thunder fans clearly will not be satisfied with simply making the playoffs, and Durant’s injury is terrifying because it keeps popping up, but with the Thunder going on a roll and quickly securing poll position for the playoff chase it seems right for fans of the team to breathe easy for a second.
Welcome to Loud City generally puts up their previews late if they preview the game at all, so it won’t be covered here. Hopefully the Suns can grab a win tonight and put some pressure on a team and fan base getting more comfortable with their lead every day!