If there are any Suns fans that are also Pokemon fans, they probably aren't very big fans of the Pokemon named Exeggcute. On its' own, this Pokemon is pretty awesome, since it's essentially a bunch of eggs with psychic powers. But the pun in the name only serves to remind them of how badly the Suns fail at scoring when they're given golden opportunities.
Open shots of theirs were missing all game long, but they were unbelievably bad in the fourth, shooting 39% from the floor and 17% from the three point line. You could say that the Suns were struggling because they couldn't force the break, and that's also true. The Suns were definitely stuck in the half-court and had to rely on their post play a little more than normal, but still, a near 20 point collapse is just mind-blowing.
What's more puzzling about that fourth quarter run is show Alvin Gentry didn't put in Luis Scola until the team was down by 8 with 6 minutes to go. He had 14 points in the third and basically carried the team. Heck, even throwing in Gortat at power forward would have been a good option, as Gortat and O'Neal were an effective combination in the second quarter. Leaving Morris in was a mistake, especially with Collison's back-to-back buckets that sparked a run.
Another aspect of this game is how unbelievably confident Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha were in their offensive games. These guys didn't get to 10 and 14, respectively, by shooting only when they were wide open. Nick Collison busted out some old school post moves, and at one point even channeled Kevin Martin, faking a shot and then taking a step in for an open jumper. In Sefolosha's case, the increased amount of transition really helped his game, but he was definitely more confident with his shot, and hit a few that he doesn't normally hit.
Of course, it's silly for me have gone this far into the recap without mentioning Russell Westbrook. In a game that reminded us all of Willis Reed, Westbrook received a nasty cut above his eye courtesy of Luis Scola. From my view in the stands, it was impossible to tell what happened. I could only see him from the back, and thought he might have gotten a cut on his eye that would have left him out for more than a game, breaking his games consecutively played streak. Luckily, he got stitches during half-time and was back in the game before you knew it. When he returned, he made an immediate impact, going for 17 points on over 50% shooting after a 2-7 start in the first half. It wasn't a result of a huge difference in style of play, it was just Westbrook hitting some really tough shots and oozing with confidence.
Arguably the bigger story was how Jackson played in Westbrook's absence. Westbrook generally plays around 35 minutes a game, so the minutes behind him at point guard are generally only with the second team. Jackson has only been the official backup point guard for three games and Westbrook's never been injured, so we've mostly seen him paired with Kevin Martin and Nick Collison. But when Jackson played with the starters, it was a beauty to behold. It wasn't so much his scoring ability, but just his awareness with the ball. His decision-making ability has been questioned frequently, but it seemed that he really clicked with the starters. Even though Durant took a portion of the ball-handling, he grabbed three quality assists to players who were in position to score, had a nice cut to thr basket, and straight up stole the ball from Goran Dragic on the perimeter. Tonight was only one performance, but it certainly gives the second unit a lot of hope, especially if Collison and Sefolosha can start turning it on offensively.
Overall, you can't ignore that the Thunder managed to limit themselves to 5 turnovers tonight, which might be their lowest mark of the season. I wouldn't say the lack of forced turnovers were what killed Phoenix overall, because it was a constant throughout the game. But I will say that it played a part in their inability to control the pace and get fast-break opportunities, which definitely killed them in the fourth when the Thunder started to work more within halfcourt sets.
The only negative you can really draw from tonight's game was Kevin Martin's 2-12 shooting performance. He was getting decent opportunities, but he narrowly missed a few that should've gone in, and it was clear that the Suns were focusing on him as a scorer. The increased defense on Martin might've been a blessing in disguise though, as it allowed the Thunder to distribute their scoring more evenly.
However, it does evoke two scary thoughts. 1. Is Kevin Martin really easy to shut down? We rely on him for a lot of scoring, but he's not too good in one-on-one situations, and definitely needs plays set up for him. If the opposing team can shut him down like they did tonight, will it force us to rely a bit too much on Sefolosha and Collison? 2. Why was he playing heavy minutes in the fourth? Even though the Thunder were cruising late in the game, I have no idea why he was out there bringing nothing to the table on a night where he was clearly cold. Why not leave in Sefolosha, who was having an excellent night? Or even sub in Jackson, who was killing it at the beginning of the second half? It echoes last year, when we'd have Derek Fisher on the floor late in games, offering almost nothing 75% of the time. Still, Derek Fisher did hit some extremely clutch shots in the playoffs, so who knows?
Anyway, last night was about as entertaining as a mid-season game against a lower-rung team can get. Next up are the Nets, who are batting 1.000 with new coach P.J. Carlesimo. Yes, THAT P.J. Carlesimo.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, who didn't even need to take over in the fourth this time.
Thunder Down Under: Reggie Jackson, who might be the backup point guard we need.
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Martin, who misses being open.
Thunder Plunderer: Luis Scola, who is as wily as ever. (If we could have him play power forward for us, that'd be pretty cool.)
Next Game: Versus the Brooklyn Nets, Wednesday, January 2nd, 7 PM Central Standard Time.