What: Oklahoma City Thunder (29-20) at Phoenix Suns (20-27)
When: 7 p.m. MST
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
The basketball gods will have a good laugh tonight as the Thunder visit Phoenix, pitting Devin Booker against the player whose late rise up All-Star ballots is in part to blame for Booker’s snub. Yes, Chris Paul will take the floor at Talking Stick Resort Arena tonight in a game that could be a little more meaningful for Booker.
Most importantly, Oklahoma City is one of the only playoff challengers against which the Suns have not played many games. The Thunder’s Dec. 20 drubbing of the Suns at home is the only meeting between these teams, meaning the Suns still have a chance at winning the season series. These two teams being tied at season’s end seems unlikely now, but it’s impossible to know what will happen at the trade deadline and beyond. Securing a win Friday night and again on April 1 in Oklahoma could boost the Suns’ playoff chances significantly.
No. 10 in the Western Conference
110.2 ORtg (18th) - 111.0 DRtg (18th) = minus-0.9 netRtg (15th)
Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton
The biggest story coming out of Tuesday’s victory in Dallas, aside from the sheer magnitude of the beatdown, was Ayton’s dominance. Against a downsized Mavericks squad regrouping from an injury to starting center Dwight Powell, the Suns made a point of getting Ayton the ball inside. The results were impressive.
Now, Dallas’ starting 5, Kristaps Porzingis, is actually a decent matchup for Ayton. Defending Porzingis pick and pops is more natural for Ayton than some bigs, and Porzingis is a player over whom Ayton holds a true strength advantage. Playing the Thunder will give Ayton no such advantages.
Oklahoma City starts Steven Adams at the 5 and brings in Nerlens Noel to back him up. Ayton called Adams’ skill set a “full package,” which sums it up nicely. In prior meetings, Adams took it to Ayton physically, but they haven’t faced off since last season (Ayton was still suspended the last time these teams met). You can also bet assistant coach Mark Bryant has some tips Ayton can use against Adams, a player whose development Bryant had a major role in.
“(Bryant) is teaching me, I think, all the same things he taught Adams,” Ayton said at shootaround. “Obviously, Adams is super big and strong, and I’m not there yet, but I could develop, so it’s good to learn now.”
Looking at the bigger picture, this will also be Round Two for the Suns’ new starting lineup, with Bridges at the 4 from the start. It worked brilliantly as a means of confusing Luka Doncic, and I would guess Bridges will start out defending Danilo Gallinari tonight.
Oklahoma City Thunder
No. 7 in the Western Conference
111.1 ORtg (15th) - 108.6 DRtg (12th) = plus-2.5 netRtg (13th)
Projected starters: Paul, Luguentz Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, Adams
Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to how the Thunder are winning with an rookie undrafted free agent in their starting lineup. Their wing rotation includes a late first-round pick who skipped college (Darius Bazley) and the No. 45 pick in 2018 (Hamidou Diallo). Again: your guess is as good as mine.
Most noteworthy from the Thunder’s perspective is Paul’s ability to direct traffic and get the most out of everyone on the floor, Gallinari’s continued two-way excellence, and the three-guard lineup they employ frequently in large part thanks to a step forward from Dennis Schroder in terms of efficiency. That’s not to mention Gilgeous-Alexander, already one of the game’s biggest matchup problems in the second year of his career.
All those weapons make Monty Williams worry about one-on-one defense. “They had big time direct drives against us when we played against them,” he said. That’s where the Suns have to hope their lineup change comes in handy. If Bridges can compete against Gallinari and Rubio can hold up on Paul, a more reasonable athletic matchup for the Spaniard, the Suns will defend better on Friday night than they did back in December.
“(Bridges) is a versatile defender, you can put him on a number of guys,” Williams said. “The effect is Devin and Kelly at times don’t have to guard those guys as much, and it frees them up to conserve a little bit of their energy to score.”
If the Suns can indeed use their new starting unit to play the game on their terms, I expect a much closer game than the Dec. 20 blowout. That said, the Suns have struggled mightily to maintain momentum after a strong road trip once they arrive back in Phoenix, and the Thunder are a better team overall.
Thunder 115, Suns 110