When: 7:00 PM, Wednesday night
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: Bally Sports AZ
Listen: 98.7 FM
What’s at stake
You can expect the sellout crowd to be LOUD in Kevin Durant’s first home game since joining the Phoenix Suns last month. Scoring 26.7 points per game on 69% shooting, he’s helped them win three straight road games including a thrilling Sunday win over the Dallas Mavericks. Durant had his best game in a Suns uni, putting up 36 points including the last four of the game and grabbing the pivotal rebound in a 130-126 Suns win.
Every game matters from here on out. Now the Suns get to play four of their next five at home, and 10 of their last 17 at home overall, as they try to climb up the West ladder. They are 2.5 games back of the Kings and Grizzlies for 2nd in West, with 17 games to go in the regular season.
The Thunder are in a tough spot right now — or a great one, depending on how you look at it.
On one hand, they are one of five teams within one of each other for 9th-13th in the West. One small winning streak can you get you a play-in spot. But only two of these five teams will nab the 9th and 10th seeds, and succeeding only means you get a winner-take-all chance to defeat the 7-8 seeds for the right to play a seven-game series against the best of the West.
On the other hand, they are a half-game from 13th in the 15-team Western Conference. One small losing streak can cement a top-6 chance at winning the Draft Lottery and taking a generational talent in Victor Wembanyama, or a future All-Star talent in Scoot Henderson.
We’ll see which direction the Thunder want to go very soon, as they play the Suns two times in the next 10 days.
Last Thunder-Suns matchup
You might recall the Suns beat the Thunder handily in Phoenix in their last home game almost two weeks ago. But that game was without any 2023 All-Stars. KD had not yet joined the active roster, and first-time All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was out with a minor injury. The Suns won 124-115. Booker led the Suns with a minutes-controlled 25 points, while Isaiah Joe set a career-high with 28.
That was a second-night-of-a-back-to-back for the Thunder against a well-rested Suns team — exactly the way it’s happening again. The Thunder beat Golden State at home last night, then jumped on a plane for Phoenix.
Key matchup (almost)
It also means we don’t get to see SGA this time either.
Neither Jalen Williams (right wrist sprain) nor Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (injury management) will travel to Phoenix for the Thunder's second night of a back-to-back.— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) March 7, 2023
SGA has been phenomenal this year, increasing his previous career high in scoring by almost 7 points (31.2 vs. 24.5) while taking only one more shot from the field and maintaining his assists (5.7 vs. 5.9).
Last night SGA in a win over the Warriors (yay!), the league’s 5th leading scorer posted his 36th 30-point game in only 56 games played this year. That’s the second most 30-point games by any player in the league. He’s the only real scoring threat on the very young Thunder, which makes this all the more astounding that he’s been able to lead them to a playoff position at age 24.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on leading the Thunder’s revival: “I’m lucky. Not a lot of guys get an opportunity to put their fingerprints on what an NBA basketball team looks like.”— Brandon Rahbar (@BrandonRahbar) March 8, 2023
You might equate Shai’s rise with that of Devin Booker, who was also the only scorer on a rebuilding team. In fact, their 5th seasons are very similar (though Book was a year younger). Both had toiled in awful losing seasons, both helped their team get close to .500 in year five (2019-20 for Book) with a lot of promise for the future, and both made their first All-Star game that 5th year.
Let’s see if the Thunder’s Sam Presti can do what the Suns’ James Jones did the following offseason. For year 6, Booker got an All-Star running mate in Chris Paul, made the Finals and set a playoff scoring record for one’s first playoff appearance at age 24 (602 points, which was 80 points greater than the next closest in NBA history).
Too bad we won’t see SGA tonight.
What to watch
The Suns scoring distribution.
Their third leading scorer since KD joined the lineup is not Deandre Ayton or even Chris Paul. Surprisingly, it’s Josh Okogie at 12.7 points per game. He’s getting a pile of open corner threes on the back side of defenses focused on the Suns other four guys.
What’s a little interesting, if only to watch how it evolves, is how Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have taken such back seats on shots since KD/Book have been unleased. Ayton is taking 6 fewer shots per game, while Paul is taking 3 fewer. I am hoping that stabilizes a little bit, tilting back toward the norm of 14 and 11, respectively.
Certainly, there are scheme changes the Suns can make to get Paul and Ayton more involved. I’d rather see those two as the 3rd and 4th leading scorers than Okogie.
In related news...
Bad shooting (small sample size alert!)
I’m sure you noticed Okogie’s 0-8 on threes in Sunday’s win over Dallas, but all the non-Book/KD three-point shooters have been missing a ton of shots so far.
Players not named Durant or Booker with 3+ three-point attempts per game over last 3 games are collectively making less than 30% of them. Nearly all of those were wide open.
- Josh Okogie: 25% (5 of 20)
- Cameron Payne: 30% (3 of 10)
- Torrey Craig: 30% (3 of 10)
- Chris Paul: 31% (5 for 16)
Open corner threes are usually the easiest to make, just take a look at these same guys over the rest of the season.
- Okogie: 36% (37 of 105)
- Payne: 39% (47 of 121)
- Craig: 41% (74 of 179)
- Paul: 41% (57 of 139)
Might not seem like a lot but 30% to 40% is the difference between bad at shooting and good at shooting. In real terms, it’s costing the Suns 6-9 points per game.
The Suns have won 3 straight and 15 of 20 overall, despite all the roster changes and injury returns around the trade deadline and All-Star break.
The Thunder have won their last three — a pair over the suddenly tanking Jazz and then last night’s home win over the Warriors — after losing five straight.
With the Thunder once again coming to Phoenix short-handed. Combine that with Kevin Durant Debut night, I’d expect the Suns will come away with their 4th straight win.
“They can’t wait,” Durant said of Suns fans anticipating his home debut in a Suns uni.
I’m guessing this is an easy 130-115 win.