Thunder vs. Suns: Pregame Primer
Thunder (38-14, 14-9 road) vs. Suns (14-38, 10-16 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 8:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 109.8 (2nd), Suns – 99.7 (27th)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 101.7 (11th), Suns – 106.8 (29th)
I almost forgot there was a game today. My understanding was that the game on Saturday was the end all, be all to all professional basketball. People told me basketball would never be played again after Saturday. To my complete and utter surprise, eight teams filled with rebellious souls decided to compete yesterday and the NBA decided it was okay to lift its self-imposed moratorium on competitive basketball.
All kidding aside, Saturday’s game was in actuality just 1 out of 82. We likely aren’t catching the Warriors (or the Spurs, for that matter) in the standings. The game was more a gauge of where we stand and how we likely match-up against them. And, honestly, I think the Thunder match-up much better than any of the other contenders. The Warriors snuff out the Spurs’ superior ball-movement by staying at home with their man and not switching as much. But when they do switch, the Spurs can’t expose the mismatch. The Cavs likely have a mental block against the Warriors that was further enhanced this season after the “I hope it still smells like champagne” debacle in Cleveland.
The NBA, yes, the entire NBA, is looking to Oklahoma City as the team that can match-up with the Warriors the best. The Dubs have trouble defending the Thunder’s two superstars, who are offensive savants. And the Thunder have the athleticism and length to make the Warriors work for their shots on offense. The bench/depth is an issue for the Thunder, but the Thunder also exposed what is a weakness for the Warriors (interior defense/rebounding within their small-ball lineup). The absence of Festus Ezeli may have had a little bit to do with the dominance of Enes Kanter on the interior, but the insertion of Ezeli into the reserve line-up would’ve likely killed the small-ball capacity that helped them grab control of the game in the first half.
It was definitely a chess match. And while Golden State may have won the first battle, the war between these two teams this season may just be beginning. The Thunder, in defeat, probably showed why they, and no one else, have the tools to beat the supposed dynasty in the making.
This is the third and final meeting of the season between the Thunder and Suns. The Thunder have won the previous two meetings. In the first meeting, the Thunder blew the Suns out in the second half on their way to a 124-104 victory. In that game, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters combined for 40 points off the bench. In the 2nd meeting, the Thunder held on to win 110-106 in what seems to be the Thunder’s annual New Year’s Eve opponent. The game was a bit tenuous at the end as PJ Tucker and Russell Westbrook had words as the final buzzer sounded.
The Suns come into the game with a 14-38 record, having dropped 24 of their last 27 games. That swoon forced management to fire head coach Jeff Hornacek and promote assistant coach Earl Watson to the interim head coaching position. The Suns were a team teetering on thin ice and the season ending injury to Eric Bledsoe caused them to fall through the ice.
Since then, Brandon Knight has gone down with a groin injury that will likely keep him out until after the All-Star break. What was once likely the only strength on the Suns’ team now is a weakness. Rookie Devin Booker and third year SG Archie Goodwin have been handed the keys to the backcourt, and the results have been as expected: flashes of brilliance interspersed with bad defense and inconsistent play. The anomaly that is Markieff Morris continues to baffle not just the Suns, but also, the league itself. How can a guy who has the ability to put up lines like he had the other night (30 pts, 11 rebs, 6 asts) be so bad? Is his connection to his twin brother really that deep, because it sure doesn’t seem to be affecting Marcus Morris all that much.
TJ Warren was well on his way to establishing himself as a solid NBA player this season until he broke his foot at the end of January. PJ Tucker continues to be a hard nosed bully-wing defender that can hit the 3-point shot at about a 35% clip. Up front, Tyson Chandler is starting to play like he has 14 years worth of wear on his tires, and Alex Len continues to be inconsistent. Mirza Teletovic has probably been the most consistent player on the Suns this season.
3 Big Things1.Perimeter Defense
The Suns are raw, but they have a couple young gunners that can get hot from deep in quick fashion. In the past 10 games, Devin Booker has two games in which he has made 6 three pointers. On the other side, Archie Goodwin may not be as deadly from beyond the 3-point line as Booker, but he is very adept at getting in the lane and going to the foul line. In addition, Teletovic can catch fire from deep as well from the forward position. If there is one thing you don’t want a young team to do, its to catch fire from deep (Minnesota – Zach Lavine, LA Lakers – Lou Williams come to mind).2. Let-down game possibility
There is the possibility that the Thunder come into this game not really feeling it. They lost a tough battle to the defending champs on Saturday, and I’m guessing, some of the players made their way to the Super Bowl as spectators on Sunday (photographer Kevin Durant, anyone?). The Suns have lost a ton of games since the advent of 2016, and the Thunder may look at this game as a gimme. Well, we all know how those games usually end: in a dog fight where Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka all have to play over 35 minutes.3. Angry Russ
One time, Russell Westbrook looked up at the sun. He had to squint his eyes. He doesn’t like to squint his eyes. He now hates anything associated with the sun, including the Phoenix Suns. All facetiousness aside, I have no idea why Westbrook hates the Suns. It could possibly be traced back to his early career feud with Goran Dragic, his ejection from a Suns’ game last year because of Alex Len, or the constant sh!t talking that goes on between Morris, Tucker, and Westbrook. No one knows exactly why, but every time he plays the Suns, he always comes into the game with a chip on his shoulders and a Popeye scowl on his face.
Thunder Killer – Opposing player most likely to have a breakout game against the Thunder:
Devin Booker – Since December 31st, Booker has seen his minutes jump from just under 17 minutes a game to nearly 35 minutes a game. In that time, he has gotten a ton of experience on what it takes to get his jump shot off in the league. And he’s gotten quite good at it. In January and February, Booker has shot nearly 37% from 3-point territory. A lot like Zach Lavine, Booker can get going pretty easily and can rack up points in a hurry.