While some of the NBA's more spotlighted teams took each other on for the national TV audience, the Oklahoma City Thunder had themselves a road game against the surprisingly good and surprisingly fun Phoenix Suns. As fate would have it, we had a good and fun game. The final score was 128-122, with both teams shooting percentages of 50% and greater from the floor.
Gerald Green was the name of the night, scoring a career-high 41 points on 12-of-22 shooting. That might not even be the insane part... he had 8 threes on 13 attempts! TONIGHT, HE WAS A PRIMARY COLOR. GERALD RED HOT. (Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook had 36 points and Kevin Durant had 34. Light work.)
The Suns struggled to start, with a bunch of turnovers that allowed for numerous Westbrook open-court dunks. Westbrook was explosive from the start, leading the Thunder to an early lead. However, the Suns weren't to be denied and even despite sloppy execution early, their shooters looked good. When they cleaned their act up and got those shooters more shots in the later quarters, that's when they closed the gap and claimed momentum. It took them a while with the Thunder's own hot shooting, but in a very back-and-forth fourth quarter, the Suns made the big plays to claim the lead and hold it through the finish line.
What is your initial reaction to the result?
What a game. This one is in "best NBA game of the season" territory. It's a shame that the Thunder lost, particularly on a night where the San Antonio Spurs won and closed the gap in the standings. Still, it's hard to be mad about this one. We got graced with a truly great basketball game. My heart's still beating really fast? I want to freak out about the Suns and how fun they were, but they'll get their due later on. Instead, one thing I want to touch on is that in spite of the loss, the Thunder didn't look bad.
On offense, the Thunder looked just as good as the Suns minus the ridiculously hot outside shooting and the momentum-grabbing plays. Westbrook had a great first quarter and remained consistent for most of the game. Where he faltered (namely late in the fourth quarter), KD stepped forth and kept the Thunder going. It wasn't all them, either. The bench might not get their shine with so many others in the game deserving praise, but they were good. On a night where fill-in starters Steven Adams and Perry Jones III saw only 11 minutes (the former was shelved for smaller lineups to match the Suns, while the latter dealt with early foul trouble and never settled in), nearly every substitute was consistent. The bench combined for 34 points, often holding the Thunder afloat when starters were resting.
Caron Butler had 14 points with some great three-point shooting to match the Suns, shooting 4-for-8 from three. Jeremy Lamb went 3-6 for 7 points. Nick Collison, Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson (the only one to truly struggle with his shot, and he did pick it up through other parts of his game) combined for 13 points. On a night where other stars shined brighter, it's worth recognizing still-good play from the Thunder's substitutes. They'll be very important as the team heads into the stretch run of the season without Thabo Sefolosha (sorely missed tonight) and Kendrick Perkins.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
Well, it certainly wasn't their offense. The thing is, I don't know how much they could've contained the Suns' shooters on this night. The Suns were loose with the ball early, but the shooters on their team were looking fine underneath the sloppy execution. When they stabilized after the first few minutes, those shooters started to nail their shots. While the Thunder's offense was good from the start and remained stable all night, the Suns' offense built up momentum and speed throughout the game after their slow start and eventually surpassed the Thunder. Even though the Thunder matched the Suns' scoring in the closing minutes, it was clear who was claiming the momentum.
Six of Gerald Green's threes and 30 of his 41 points came in the second half. When his hot hand tempered just a bit in the fourth quarter, Dragic and the Morris twins stepped in to catch him. Markieff Morris in particular looked great, with 13 points and decisive shot selection out of the post. Dragic was making huge plays out of isolations and pick-and-rolls late in the game, and might've been the sole factor that kept the Suns ahead in the final two minutes with his momentum-grabbing plays. I don't think I'll forget his should-be impossible double-clutch, splitting the defense, reverse and-one layup any time soon. And that was just one of the many highlight-worthy moments in this game.
There's not much the Thunder could've done against such an offensive force, but to be critical, there were times where they simply should've been more concentrated defensively. Why leave Green open in the corner when he's made a bunch of threes already? Why allow Markieff Morris the space to pull-up for jumpers in midrange when that's how he's been burning you all night? There were shots that they simply couldn't stop, such as Dragic's layup, but there were also far too many open shots allowed to a team shooting as well as they were. Close-outs, shot contesting and overall defensive awareness was not what it should've been for one of the league's best defensive teams in the Thunder. It's hard to win in the playoffs if you're giving up 52.5% shooting.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Three-point shooting in this game was a huge factor, what with Gerald Green's explosion and all. The Suns shot 15-of-27 (55.6%), consistent from long-distance all night long. The Thunder looked fine by their standards but couldn't keep pace, ultimately finishing 13-of-33 (39.4%) from downtown. That's not bad, but in a game that was dictated by offenses out-offense-ing each other, the Thunder simply couldn't match the Suns' three-point shooting.
Green going bonkers was reflective of the Suns' performance as a whole, and Marcus Morris had himself three three-pointers on four shots as well. Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye combined for five threes, and frankly, the Thunder might've been lucky that normally explosive outside shooters in Dragic and Frye didn't go for more given this game's setting. As things were, the Thunder couldn't juice enough out of their own shooters. Butler shot 4-of-8 from three, Westbrook shot 4-of-9, Durant shot 3-of-9, and Fisher and Lamb combined for 2-of-5 together. Not bad, but not enough either.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder are only a half-game up on the Spurs now, so they're at risk of falling to the second seed in the West for the first time in a long time. Still, that might not be the worst thing in the world considering just how crazy this conference is. Whether it's the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks or the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, none of them will be your average first-round warm-up. The Thunder need to bring their A-game for all of them.
Also, how interesting would it be if tonight's game was a playoff preview? I'll gladly take a Thunder-Suns first-round series. Phoenix took a good win tonight, but I don't know that they can beat the Thunder four times out of seven. As the Thunder saw tonight, however, that offense can be seriously worrisome. If we see these two face off in April, then we'll know that the Thunder had better come prepared to play.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook - 36 points (13/22 field goal shooting, 4/9 three-point shooting, 6/6 free throw shooting), 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 steals
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant - 34 points (12/24 field goal shooting, 3/9 three-point shooting, 7/7 free throw shooting), 7 rebounds, 5 assists
Thunder Blunder: Reggie Jackson - 4 points (2/8 field goal shooting), 3 rebounds, 3 assists in 18 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Gerald Green - 41 points (12/22 field goal shooting, 8/13 three-point shooting, 9/11 free throw shooting), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 1 block
Next game: vs. Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, March 9th at 2:30 PM CDT