Time: 7:00 PM Central Standard Time
Place: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), ESPN 103.3 KESN-FM
The Phoenix Suns are in OKC tonight for their second meeting of the season. The first time out, the Thunder had little trouble in dispatching the Suns, and for a time during this season it appeared that Phoenix would be lottery bound. Because of this, it is important to recognize who the Suns were then is not who they are now.
The Suns earlier this season were a team that struggled to get defensive stops, did not rebound well, and lost to the likes of the Raptors and Hornets. That was then. Now, the Suns are a team that is learning how to defend better and this new identity is enabling to win games that were previously out of reach. Specifically, the Suns have taken down the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Clippers in the past few weeks, holding all of them under 100 points. The Suns' rebounding efforts have greatly helped their overall defensive scheme. For example, against the big rebounding Kings, the Suns outrebounded them 53-49, with Marcin Gortat collecting 17 by himself. With Gortat and center Channing Frye, the Suns have two big, active players who can provide the Suns with second chance points that can keep them in the game by giving ageless Steve Nash and his bundles of Vitamin Water energy additional opportunities.
I think the game will turn on three facets:
- The Thunder have proven that they can be one of the best rebounding teams in the league. However, they only exhibit this focus in spurts. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Kevin Durant must keep Gortat, Frye, and Grant Hill off the boards. Offensive rebounding is the great neutralizer when there is a disparity in talent.
- Defensively, the Thunder need to defend the Suns' pick and roll similarly to how they stopped Dallas at the end of Monday night's game. I am sure that it is tempting for the Thunder to try to go over screens that are set for Nash because he is the best pure shooter in the game (54% from the floor, 40% from 3-point range) and can settle behind screens and shoot. Russell Westbrook in particular has a tendency to run over the top of screens, which often leaves him flailing at mid-court while the ball handler dives to the rim. However, I think that the Thunder would be better served by committing to switches on these screens, because Nash is at his most effective when he has his big men like Gortat rolling to the rim for layups. Nash wants the roller. The Thunder have to prevent it.
- Kevin Durant has to play a better offensive game against the Suns' other paleolithic man, Grant Hill. In the past Hill has done a remarkable job staying in front of Durant and challenging his jumpers. Hill has the length and defensive intelligence to challenge Durant's game. Durant must show much greater discretion on when he puts the ball on the floor and know where he is in relation to the double-teams.
Prediction: Thunder 99, Suns 94