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Game Preview: Phoenix Suns face suddenly-struggling Thunder in another must-win game

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Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder are like prize fighters, dancing around, mirroring the other's movements. The Suns are still three games behind the Thunder for 8th place and a playoff spot, just like they were three weeks (and eight games) ago.

Both have lost their last two games, one of them a clunker, after winning four straight. There hasn't been full-game movement between these two in the standings since the first week of March.

Suns fans are, frankly, tired of it. As my dad used to say "Sh*t or get off the pot!". We want to see something happen. Anything. But meanwhile, the team is just sitting there, reading a magazine.

Finally, tonight, there will be movement. The Suns and Thunder face off in the desert as one is finally forced to land another punch.

Details

  • What: Phoenix Suns vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Where: US Airways Center, Phoenix, Arizona
  • When: 6:00 PM, one hour earlier than usual
  • TV: FoxSports Arizona
  • Radio: ArizonaSports 98.7 FM


The Thunder

Kevin Durant needs more foot surgery and is out for the season. Serge Ibaka had knee surgery and is out for the next few weeks. Energizer bunny Nick Collison and defensive specialist Andre Roberson are out with ankle sprains.

Yet the Thunder keep mostly winning because Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind, and midseason pickups Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter have been helpful offensively.

Yet while Kanter is putting up great numbers - even having a stretch of three games last week where he averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds - he is a defensive turnstile that has helped make the Thunder the 2015 version of Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets.

Kanter burned just about every bridge he could find, and even some houses for good measure, this weekend when he returned to Salt Lake City and his old stomping grounds to face the Jazz.

"The difference is, probably, I like playing basketball there (in OKC)," he said to the media when asked to compare the teams. "I never liked playing basketball before in my NBA career (all with the Jazz). I didn't bring it every night. It wasn't just a one or two game frustration. It was a three and a half year frustration."

But it gets even better.

"It's everything," he told Royce Young, of ESPN, of the difference between the teams. "The fans, the coaches, the team, the atmosphere is amazing. I've never felt anything like that before. It's so different. It wasn't just the basketball stuff. It was professionalism of the team. After I see in OKC, I see this is how NBA teams are. You know how you're like in a dream and you have a superpower and just don't want to open your eyes and end the dream? Oklahoma City's been that to me."

Wow. Now that's a blowtorch.

How did the Jazz react? By getting the win. NewsOK has a nice recap of how the game unfolded for Kanter.

Enes Kanter scored 18 points with 11 rebounds, his eighth straight double-double and 12th as a member of the Thunder. But in his first game back in Utah since the deadline deal that brought him to OKC, Kanter appeared to let a venomous crowd get the better of him. He was booed incessantly throughout the night and played to the crowd at various points, even egging it on. But he turned the ball over four times, committed five fouls and did not score a point or grab a rebound in the fourth quarter.

"He got his stats and he got the ‘L,' as always," said Jazz forward Trevor Booker, who started in place of the injured Derrick Favors.

Oh, snap.

Since trading Kanter and his 13 points and 8 rebounds away for nothing (Kendrick Perkins, who was waived, and a 2017 second round pick), the Utah Jazz have won 13 of 20 games behind the league's BEST defense - by far - and a functional offense. Rudy Gobert has led the charge, taking over Kanter's starting center role and showing the team what defense is all about.

Utah didn't even need Derrick Favors and got an ugly game from Gordon Hayward, but still won.

The Thunder will almost certainly make the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see if Enes Kanter can help them win once they get there.

Check out more on the Thunder at our SB Nation brother site Welcome to Loud City

The Suns

With the Thunder becoming an offensive juggernaut and defensive sieve since acquiring Kanter and losing Durant for good, the Suns will have to score better than usual to beat them.

On the good side, their best offensive game since the trades came against these Thunder (minus Steven Adams, who is back now to man the middle a bit). The Suns scored 117 points in that game, including 28 points from Eric Bledsoe who used Kanter's cement feet as a foil all game to get easy layups off the pick and roll.

The Suns might be wondering what could have been, but if there's anything to take away from this Suns team is that they are uniquely adept at having a clear mind for every challenge. They quickly forget bad losses, but also quickly flush the good wins too.

Who knows which Suns team will show up tonight, and whether they will take this game as a measuring stick on their quickly-failing attempt to make the playoffs.

They would certainly have a better chance with Brandon Knight back, if only to take A.J. Price's minutes and to allow Archie Goodwin to play shooting guard. But Knight is taking it slow, more concerned with his health and being 100% than trying to hobble around during a playoff push.

"Whether it's being a free agent or just in general, you want to make sure you're looking out for yourself, especially when you're 23," Knight said to Paul Coro on Saturday. "You hear a lot of guys say, 'If I could do it again, I wouldn't have rushed back from this or that. I would've took my time.' Guys say that for a reason. You have to listen to your body. I don't think I would help my teammates if I can't do certain things. Get beat here, get beat there and they'd be looking at me like, 'B-Knight, what are you doing?' I'd be like, 'I'm not 100 percent.' When I get it out there, I want to make sure I'm doing my job."

There is a lot of money at stake for Knight this summer, so you can understand why he wouldn't want to jeopardize his future by playing on a hobbled ankle for three weeks. He'd rather play like himself for two. It just sucks for the team, knowing any minutes at all could have tipped the scales against either Sacramento or Portland.

The Lineups

suns-thunder-lineups

Out on a limb

Eric Bledsoe should have one of his best games of the season tonight. He's got two triple doubles this year, and four near-misses including the last game over the Thunder (28 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists). Bledsoe seems to really get up for face-offs against a point guard considered better than him.

I'll also predict that one of Brandon Knight, Archie Goodwin or Gerald Green will have more points than Dion Waiters. Yep, that's me not only going out on a limb but jumping off it. If the Suns are going to win this game, they need an unexpected contribution from somewhere. But therein lies the problem for coach Hornacek. Two of these three will likely miss most of their shots. He'd be lucky to get a great night from one of them. Giving enough time to all three to find that hot hand is a nightly task.

Interested in playing Daily Fantasy Basketball with the chance to win money? Sign up for FanDuel here! You can bet on Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight or Markieff Morris filling the stat sheet for the Suns, but the best bet is Russell Westbrook, who puts up monster numbers every night.

Prediction

If I've learned anything this year, it's to expect the unexpected.

I'll go out and say the Suns will win this one, cutting the Thunder lead to 2 games with 8 to go, just to extend our anxiety for another week.