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Preview: Suns travel to Oklahoma City to play Westbrook-less Thunder

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Will the Suns’ nosedive to the bottom continue against the Thunder?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns’ season opener feels like it happened last season, doesn’t it? Ever since then, outside of Devin Booker taking over once more against Memphis, it’s been an awful stretch of basketball. And it’s fair to say if Booker didn’t do what he did in crunch time on both occasions, we would be discussing Phoenix having an 0-12 record.

Yeah, everything that can go wrong has over the past few weeks definitely has.

It doesn’t get any easier, though, as the Suns face Oklahoma City twice this week with a matchup against San Antonio sandwiched in between.

Will Phoenix keep it close with the Thunder, who are playing sans Russell Westbrook? I’ll try my best to predict it by analyzing both sides below.

Probable starters:

Suns - Isaiah Canaan, Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton

Thunder - Dennis Schroder, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams

Suns

OffRtg = 100.1 (30th), DefRtg = 113.0 (27th), NetRtg = minus-12.9 (30th)

Through 12 games, the Suns have lost by 20 or more points six times. That’s a disturbing trend to say the least, because 50% of the time they take the floor, Phoenix gets their doors blown off without any fight back.

Here’s the list of teams who have lost by 20-plus on multiple occasions so far this season:

Suns - 6

Wizards - 3

Knicks - 3

Timberwolves - 2

Cavaliers - 2

Bulls - 2

Outside of the Wizards, who look like their on the verge of imploding, all of the other teams on this list just simply aren’t good. Maybe Minnesota gets better replacing Jimmy Butler with Robert Covington and Dario Saric, but it’s a sobering truth about Phoenix.

Again, they will likely be one of the worst teams in the league. Instead of caring about wins and losses in March, it could be an all-out tank fest for Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. I didn’t expect to type that out so early, but it’s safe to say the Suns just are not a good team with plenty of holes still on its roster.

Inexplicably, Phoenix’s point guard hole is still bigger than ever. Canaan has quickly proved he’s not a starting-caliber PG, while Elie Okobo is not ready for consistent rotation minutes. Meanwhile, the Suns’ best option, De’Anthony Melton, is for some reason not getting run on the main roster but instead with their G League affiliate. Here’s hoping the Suns maybe panic into a point guard trade, because for the greater good of their season it has to happen soon enough.

Remember, Owner Robert Sarver said on 98.7 FM just over a month ago (right after Ryan McDonough was fired) that interim general manager James Jones’ top priority was fixing the point guard situation. Unless for some reason they thought signing Jamal Crawford was going to fix it — absolutely laughable if that’s actually the case — their backcourt situation might be progressively getting worse.

Outside of the obvious off-court gaffes, the on-court product hasn’t been much better. Not only has the effort waned less than a quarter of the way through their 82-game rigor, but head coach Igor Kokoskov is still trying to find his best rotation. The end result has been a team still looking to find their chemistry, while the coaching staff at points look puzzled about how they will fix it.

Veteran acquisitions like Ariza and Ryan Anderson have proven to not fix their culture issues mainly based around accepting defeat. Also, those vets from Houston aren’t producing either. Ariza is only shooting 37.1% from the floor entirely, while Anderson looks to have taken another step back in athleticism being a major negative on both ends.

The only bright spots have been Booker and Ayton, with some inconsistent minutes for Mikal Bridges sprinkled in there. Those three when they play together actually have the Suns’ highest 3-man lineup NetRtg. Who knows when Kokoskov will pull the trigger, likely when Ariza is moved near February’s trade deadline, but those three should be starting together in short order.

Facing two more teams likely to make the playoffs this week, the Suns will finish off their November slate playing only two teams likely worse than them — and it could even be heavily debated against Chicago and Orlando. Outside of that, it’s more tough sledding ahead where blowout losses could continue to be the norm.

It’s up to players like Booker to rally the troops together, though. Leadership is missing on this roster, and it will have to be organically built from within led by their 22-year-old guard who signed his max extension this past summer.

How soon before Jones and Sarver look to the outside to fix this? Who knows, but it won’t last long if they continue on their current path.

Thunder

OffRtg = 106.1 (19th), DefRtg = 103.6 (2nd), NetRtg = plus-2.5 (9th)

Heading into this season after re-signing Paul George, there was plenty of hype behind OKC. Not only were they keeping their dynamic duo together long-term, but they also maintained most of their nucleus around them. Continuity, an area missing in Phoenix for years, is critical for the Thunder.

When fully healthy, trotting out a starting unit of Westbrook-Roberson-George-Grant-Adams is one of the top competitors in the Western Conference. The thing is, they have already been snakebitten by the injury bug. Andre Roberson is out again, while Westbrook will be sitting for a few more weeks after his knee surgery. If there was ever a time to catch OKC lacking, this would be it because they are coming off a blowout loss at Dallas.

I wanted to focus in for a second on George, due to his style of play. If there was ever a wing for either Mikal Bridges or Josh Jackson to hopefully grow into, it’s George. His two-way functionality as an above-average three-pointer shooter and on-ball defender is the exact type of model you would place alongside Booker for him to flourish even further. So far this season, George is averaging 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.8 steals.

In a more scaled-back role, I could see Bridges eventually reaching a level or two below George. In today’s league, players like him are coveted, especially ones who are versatile enough to play multiple positions as well.

However, with Westbrook sitting out, Schroder is the true wildcard of Monday’s matchup. After starting in Atlanta for five years, Schroder has embraced his role off the bench spelling Westbrook. In only 29 minutes per game, Schroder is tallying up 16.7 points and 4.8 assists, albeit with heavy shot volume at 14.8 field goal attempts. The 25-year-old out of Germany will have his easiest head-to-head so far this season against Canaan, though. When Schroder is on some nights, he’s hard to stop.

There are plenty of matchups to focus in on, especially Ayton vs. Adams, but the one-on-one position battles at point guard and on the wing likely decide the outcome. Somehow, the Suns will have to stop George and Schroder from getting into a rhythm, or else it could quickly turn into another long night.

Prediction

Sitting at 2-10, the Suns are looking for whatever answers they can right now. Reeling off another 20-point defeat at the hands of Anthony Davis in New Orleans, another sluggish start could get this one out of hand early too.

With no Westbrook, though, I’m expecting Phoenix to show some fight and keep this close for the first three quarters. However, when it turns into winning time, I expect George to start taking over. I’ll also be bold saying both George and Booker score 30-plus points, as I expect to see them matched up against one another often.

OKC wins this one, but, again, the Suns somehow keep it close in the end.

Thunder 106, Suns 97