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Preview: Will the Suns ride Wednesday’s momentum versus Thunder?

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Phoenix has yet to win back-to-back games. Will that change against OKC?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you were wondering how long it’s been for the Phoenix Suns since they won consecutive games, the answer is astounding. Last season, around 11 months ago to be exact, Devin Booker returned from his strained adductor and led the Suns to victories over Memphis and Sacramento.

We shall see if Booker and Co. can erase that ugly stat from existence, but it will be no easy task against a Thunder squad even without Russell Westbrook.

Unlike last meeting, though, Mikal Bridges will be starting in place of Trevor Ariza (personal reasons). Bridges has been the glue that’s held together some of the Suns’ most potent lineup combinations, and there’s no signs of the No. 10 overall pick slowing down anytime soon. And there’s a fair argument to be made that Bridges has picked up new head coach Igor Kokoskov’s system the quickest of anyone else on the roster.

If there was ever a statement game this early, round three with OKC could easily qualify.

Probable starters:

Suns - Isaiah Canaan, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton

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

Suns

OffRtg = 101.6 (29th), DefRtg = 112.4 (29th), NetRtg = -10.8 (30th)

Outside of two three-man lineups that feature Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry (minimum 55 minutes played together), the Suns have the third-most potent trio on NetRtg per stats.nba.com. Not only does that show how bright the future is for the Suns with these three already this in synch together, but it should show Phoenix’s front office and coaching staff that Bridges should keep his spot in the starting lineup if his recent play continues.

Another crazy stat involving Bridges is the following: Only four players who have played at least 15 minutes per game and guarded at least 1.5 shots on average keep their assignments below 50% efficiency. The list is short with Kawhi Leonard, Antetokounmpo, and Andrew Wiggins the only other wings who have achieved this feat alongside Bridges. The rookie out of Villanova was hyped as one of the most NBA-ready prospects, and he’s definitely proving that to be true through 14 games.

Last time Phoenix played Oklahoma City, Bridges switched like a mad man with plenty of time spent on both George and Schroder. During the Suns’ second half run, Bridges harassed Schroder and his 7’2” wingspan bothered OKC’s point guard on multiple occasions. I would expect more of the same game plan deploying Bridges in this manner from Kokoskov, and it gives them an even stronger chance to pull off the upset if his three-pointer is falling early.

I’ll continue to say this, because it’s true if this was actually the case. T.J. Warren would be getting more national attention this season if the Suns were good. He’s become a lethal three-level scorer who has maintained his above-average efficiency during the process.

By the way, over Warren’s past four games, he’s averaging 25.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks. Over this current stretch, the only other players averaging 25 points and at least one steal and block are All-Stars: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Giannis, and then the Suns’ sleeper candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year.

If the Suns want to win this one over Oklahoma City, they will have to rely on strong outings from arguably their third- and fourth-best players on the roster — Warren and Bridges.

Thunder

OffRtg = 108.2 (11th), DefRtg = 103.3 (2nd), NetRtg = +4.9 (7th)

Simply put, Phoenix was embarrassed earlier this week when they were blown out by the Thunder. The one who led the way, and obviously has to pick up more of the load with Westbrook out, Paul George scored 32 points while also chipping in eight rebounds and six assists. Until Westbrook returns, George will be chucking up around 20 shots per game while being a pest on the other end. It’s a credit to George that he’s kept up his defensive intensity while also carrying a higher usage, which made him such a hot commodity in the first place when he was in Indiana.

Whether it’s Bridges or plenty of switching from all the wings available, stopping George will have to be the Suns’ No. 1 goal tonight.

Steven Adams had his way with Ayton the last time out, which saw his bruising style wear out Phoenix’s No. 1 pick both mentally and physically. Adams will continue to be fed, especially with Ayton’s motor waning on the defensive end. OKC might try an inside-out strategy where they establish Adams’ post presence, then go bombs away from deep led by George.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan would be wise to continue their previous ideas versus the Suns. If they can get Ayton in foul trouble, it spells trouble unless Booker and Bridges are going off. Kokoskov will have to remind Ayton of this early and often in order to avoid slow starts that have drained this young roster whenever it falls behind by huge deficits.

I believe OKC’s x-factor is Schroder, though. The streaky German playmaker will have an easy matchup with a size advantage over Canaan. If his shot is going, it could warrant switching Bridges onto him while someone like Booker or Warren takes on the assignment of George.

Schroder not only had 20 points against the Suns on Nov. 12, but also added nine assists and four steals. Slowing down Schroder could be an underlying subplot to monitor if he gets going early in the first quarter.

Overall, once Westbrook and Andre Roberson get healthy, this Thunder roster will be a real threat in the Western Conference. Luckily for the Suns, they catch them down their best scorer and on-ball defender.

Prediction

I’m actually expecting another competitive game inside Talking Stick Resort Arena tonight. With Bridges inserted into the starting lineup, energy on the defensive end should be near where it was on Wednesday. Also, his spacing and on-ball defense provide a nice buffer in between Booker and Ayton, as we all know with their three-man lineup NetRtg.

The thing is, I don’t see George and Adams having subpar nights either. George will go for 30-plus again while Adams easily collects another double-double.

However, I’m predicting a Suns win. This will be a prove-it type of outing, spearheaded by their young foundation of Booker, Ayton, and Bridges.

Suns 107, Thunder 105