Ricky Rubio was the igniter of the offense early, a great sign for a guy that had a lot to deal with in January as he put together probably his worst month of the season. Rubio spaced the floor for an open three and nailed it to start the scoring off, then slashed into the paint and found Deandre Ayton for another 2.
Another Rubio jumper put the Suns up, 10-8, with about 8:00 to go.
On the Thunder side, their cohesiveness was evident right away. With Chris Paul running the show and Steven Adams anchoring the defense, everyone is able to slide into a role. That helped rookie (and ASU grad) Luguentz Dort get into a rhythm defensively against Devin Booker, and Danilo Gallinari got several open shots.
Fortunately for Phoenix, Gallinari started 2-6 from the field, which allowed the Suns to build a 14-10 by the first timeout. Mikal Bridges’ strong defense again set a great tempo for the Suns early, as he kept Shai Gilgeous-Alexander quiet.
Gallinari responded by making his next two shots, which brought him to nine points and gave Oklahoma City a lead.
Both teams switched aggressively on defense, creating awkward situations on both ends. Booker let SGA blow by him, while on the other end, Nerlens Noel fouled Booker on a drive. The one switch the Suns couldn’t get was to pull Dort away from Booker, and the rookie was incredible on defense, flashing the strength and mobility that made him such an interesting prospect coming out of ASU last year.
The Thunder also attacked the offensive glass, a Billy Donovan team trademark, and it worked. OKC got off 10 more shots than Phoenix in the first on the back of six offensive boards.
To begin the second quarter, Monty Williams went with this bizarre unit:
Well this is a unique #Suns lineup to start the second: Jerome-Carter-Tyler Johnson-Diallo-Ayton— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) February 1, 2020
That allowed the Suns to go to a 2-3 zone defense, with Ayton protecting the rim. The Suns got two steals out of it, and the look seemed to stymie OKC. An 8-2 run to open the period is just what the Suns hoped for.
Tyler Johnson in particular made an impact defensively as the Suns went into zone, grabbing both steals. He was rewarded by staying in the lineup alongside the starters minus Booker.
The Thunder responded as they do, with a run of their own. A 12-4 spurt tied the game at 39, at which point the Suns announced Dario Saric would not return with a left ankle sprain. Despite being moved out of the starting lineup, Saric was integral to the rotation, and the injury spells a lot more time for Cheick Diallo.
The boards continued to be an issue for Phoenix throughout the game, as Noel in particular out-hustled the Suns time after time. Despite that, the Suns got necessary contributions from Diallo and Ty Jerome to help the Suns survive the minutes without their starters.
OKC led at the half, 53-52.
Deandre Ayton at the half.— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) February 1, 2020
6 points, 0 rebounds, 17 minutes, 38 seconds of action. #Suns
Paul and Booker continued to duel to open the second half. That’s a battle the Suns are fine waging, but Gallinari also started to heat up, and the Suns were suddenly and finally dealing with the reality of playing the Thunder: they have too many weapons. Paul and Gallinari scored 15 of OKC’s first 17 points of the second half.
Right out of the gates, OKC led, 77-67.
Without Saric, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky or Cam Johnson, the Suns were frequently forced to play very small. To close the third quarter, they put Johnson, Jerome, Booker and Jevon Carter on the floor together.
This game solidified what avid followers of this mighty game have long known: It is a game of runs. An 11-2 bout by the Suns brought them within a point.
To close the third, Carter hit another one of his now-signature “HUH?!” threes. The Suns went into the fourth with Booker at 31 minutes played but up, 81-79.
The fourth quarter was honorarily renamed on Friday night to be called Ty Jerome Time. The rookie continued his incredible week by scoring four quick points. But I promise you that sitting here and watching it, you could have convinced me he scored a quick 40 points. It was a fun five minutes. Jerome’s the guy who brought the arena to life in a game featuring Paul, Booker and several other stars.
Then, a bunch of mistakes on both sides. Rubio turned it over on an entry pass, then Noel ran a fast break that ended with an alley-oop for Hamidou Diallo. Next time down, Booker turned it over to Dort, who then bobbled a layup and gave the ball back to Phoenix.
The Suns narrowly led, 91-90. Booker and Ayton each at 34 minutes with 5:40 to go.
If Carter’s signature three is a “HUH!?” then Oubre’s is a “WHATTTTT????”
Oubre’s first WHATTTTTT of the game came with about 4:45 to go, as he got fouled for the four-point play. After he made the free throw, the Suns went up, 97-92. On the other end, Ayton and Bridges came together to reject a shot at the rim and converted in semi-transition on an Ayton post-up.
We can’t go any longer without noting how huge Dennis Schroder was in this game. He scored five straight points at this point to tie the game at 99. Without SGA in rhythm and Paul not getting to the rim very much, Schroder answered the call. Rubio is not quick enough to defend small guards like that, and Schroder was ready to attack.
A huge Paul jumper gave OKC a 101-99 lead with a minute to go. Rubio missed a forced layup the next time down after hesitating on a three. Phoenix fouled Paul to start the free throw game. Paul made both.
Thunder up, 103-99. Timeout Suns.
Nothing to say about the Suns’ possession following the timeout except that they botched just about every chance they had at a bucket. Rubio nearly turned over the inbounds pass then missed Ayton open under the basket, then Bridges couldn’t get into the paint against Gallinari, then Booker missed two contested shots.
Despite a late Thunder turnover and another big three from Oubre, the Suns lost Booker after he used his sixth foul to stop the clock, then Oubre was called for a lane violation on his own free throw after trying to intentionally miss.
Another comeback coalesced too late. And another really tough loss.