The Phoenix Suns are becoming the little engine that (almost) could. They played the Oklahoma City Thunder strong last night for nearly three full quarters, before succumbing to another game-changing run late in the third quarter.
"They're a really good team," P.J. Tucker said afterward. "They're already tough enough [with KD and Russ] but when their role players get making 3s and finishing it's ten times harder. I liked the way we fought tonight, we always fight them well, we play good teams well until the end, tough game."
The Suns were up 85-80 with 1:06 left in the third quarter, but less than two minutes later they'd surrendered a 15-0 run to flip the game for good. Kevin Durant scored 8 of the Thunder's 15 points in the run of scores on seven straight possessions, including three different three-point plays. Dion Waiters, Cameron Payne and Kyle Singler also scored during the run.
The Suns later pulled to within three points again, at 99-96 with 5:30 left before the Thunder finally created space with Durant and Westbrook scoring 11 of the Thunder's next 14 points to create a 9-point margin with 3 minutes to go.
Overall the Thunder were led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who scored 61 points between them, but it was the three point shooting that really decided the game. The Thunder made an astounding 15 of 33 attempts versus the Suns mere 1 for 11.
"They're a great team," Markieff Morris said. "They have two superstars and when you play a team like that you've got to try to limit their role players. Their role players got off and it's tough to beat a team like that when everybody puts points on the box."
While the Suns are starting two guys who weren't even in the regular rotation at the beginning of the season (Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker), the Thunder have depth in spades. Their bench made 6 of 10 three-point attempts and had two 11-point scorers in Enes Kanter and rookie Cameron Payne. Kyle Singler chipped in seven points as well.
The undermanned Suns got double-digit scoring from six different players to surprisingly give a tough game to the 39-14 Thunder.
"We always play them tough," Tucker said.
"If you look at our roster," Watson said of Tucker. "I'm not sure we have anyone else who can guard Kevin Durant. So PJ did a great job. He gave us his heart as usual."
Tucker had one his best games of the season while defending Kevin Durant all night long. He had 16 points (7 of 10 shooting), 5 steals and 5 rebounds.
Len had a great second quarter as the Suns put up 38 huge points to tie the game at 57-57 going into intermission. He had 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists and a steal in that quarter.
"We fought and got back in the game," Len said. "I think we did a good job scoring, we executed our plays, we shot over 50 percent for the game so we did a really good job there, setting screens and getting open. We just executed our stuff."
Len and Mirza Teletovic were hot all quarter, with Mirza making his first five shots of the game before missing 8 of his last 9.
For the game, Len finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block. Starting center Tyson Chandler added 11 points, 7 rebounds and a block.
Markieff Morris and Archie Goodwin
The Suns new leaders had good games. Morris had 23 points, 7 rebounds and three assists, while Goodwin finished with a huge 20 points, 7 assists, 4 rebound game against only 2 turnovers. If you recall, both were riding the bench along with Sonny Weems for weeks at a time before all the injuries hit. Goodwin and Morris are tight, so they now must be excited to steer the ship.
Goodwin, while still inconsistent, has been pretty good in the starting lineup acting as a point guard. As a starter, he's averaging 16 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 3.9 turnovers in 35.7 minutes a night. He's only shooting 41% on FGs, including 31% on threes, but he's got a 52.4% True Shooting % which counts the value of threes and free throws.
"That's big for Arch," Watson said of Goodwin's 20-point, 7-assist game against tough competition in Russell Westbrook.
Markieff Morris was good as well, making seven of 14 shots en route to 23 points.
Watson continued the love fest with Morris.
"He played really efficient and had a great game," Watson said. "Unfortunately he had 6 turnovers, but it's kind of tough to really go at a guy that plays with his heart and is finding his rhythm. It's hard to find your rhythm in February, when you didn't build your rhythm for an entire season, so he's building it now."
Now Watson is blaming Morris' lack of playing time on him not playing more efficiently than he is now. I'm not a big fan of blaming external forces for your own failings, so this comment/excuse is not my favorite. Morris had his own bed earlier in the season so we can't pretend otherwise. He got plenty of chances to get his rhythm before being benched, but made less than 40% of his shots and generally sucked lemons out there.
Rookie Devin Booker had a tough time scoring, missing all three threes, and made only 1 of 8 shots on the night. But he still had 4 nice assists, 3 rebounds and a great block in transition on Waiters.
Coach Watson wants the young team to embrace the process, and points to the Thunder as an example of a team that built through the draft and stuck it out until they matured into a winner.
"I was with this team (OKC) when it first started," Watson said. "And it was Russ, it was KD, and we had Jeff Green, before they traded Jeff Green. Our Phoenix Suns team reminds me a lot of this team. Sometimes, in OKC when I was there, we just didn't have enough experience to win games. But one thing that group did and the program did, was they embraced their growth, they embraced their journey. It was almost as if overnight they had this tough series with the Lakers, and that's when they arrived by getting that 8th spot and almost beating the Lakers in the first round."
Okay, that's a lot of visualization. But sometimes you need that visual to get you where you want to go. I'd like to see the Suns embrace the youth movement behind Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Bogdan Bogdanovic and next June's top pick. Maybe even Archie Goodwin now. There's no KD or Russ in there yet, but it's a process and the process needs to be followed.
"On the positive," Watson said. "I think you see our team, we're growing, we're getting better, we're not discouraged, we won't be discouraged. No matter what numbers throw out there or what happens, we understand the process and the journey."
Alex Len sees the future, but he's focused on the immediate future of just getting one more win under their belt.
"The last three or four games were close games," he said. "We're right there so coach said after the game we've just got to keep pounding and eventually we're going to break through."