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Rumbling Thunder advance on setting Suns

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With the Thunder streaking and the Suns choking, this looks like an easy win. But last year's numbers say differently....

This is a pretty accurate visualization of what trying to guard a Suns three point attempt looks like.
This is a pretty accurate visualization of what trying to guard a Suns three point attempt looks like.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Who are the Phoenix Suns? I liked this description from Rollin J. Mason, written about a week ago for Bright Side of the Sun:

To recap, the Suns are a foul-happy, defensively adept, fast-scoring, short-tempered collection of talented freaks that doesn't always blend well and have the misfortune of playing in one of the most competitive conferences in NBA history, but perhaps most importantly they have at least two very valuable young prospects.

In other words, they're one of the most fun teams to watch on the entire planet. Led by a trio of extremely talented point guards in Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas, the Phoenix Suns will run just about any opponent out of the gym. A quick-fire offense combined with lots of passing, simple plays, and excellent shooting has been the Suns benchmark for years. But this version of the Suns features some truly unique talent, with high fliers like Gerald Green and legitimate post talent like Alex Len.

The result is a team that tends to trip over their own feet. The Suns have lost 4 straight, and they've done it in heroically silly fashion. A Friday night loss to the Pistons was pretty much rock bottom for Phoenix, as the team struggled to rebound and defend in the paint. What's even worse is that they allowed the Pistons to pile on 30 points in the fourth quarter. Yeesh. Contrast that with Phoenix' loss to Houston, which saw the Suns narrow the margin to four after being down 19 at the half. Perhaps the most disheartening loss came to the Clippers, which saw Blake Griffin drop in a three at the buzzer in overtime.

Such is life as a Suns fan. The team is competitive and exciting one night, moribund the next, and sublime the night after that. There's really no telling where they'll land.

Last year, the Suns's exciting brand of basketball was able to post a 2-1 record against the Thunder, despite the Thunder generally being considered the better team. The Suns accomplished this through a phenomenon known as Gerald Green. In his last two games against the Thunder last year, Green has scored 65 points on 19 of 33 shooting, including 13 of 20 from three. There's also this phenomenon known ad P.J. Tucker, who managed to score a career high 26 against the Thunder during the two teams' last matchup. Part of this is just hot shooting, but part of it was a definite sign of the Thunder's bad transition defense last year.

There's more bad news. Know that guy, Isaiah Thomas? He's gone 18 of 36 in his last two games against Oklahoma City, scoring 62 points in the process. Those games were while with the Sacramento Kings, but his matchup advantage remains the same. The Thunder are simply not very good at containing quick guards, and will struggle to keep a man on him all night. Honestly, I'd really like to see Ish Smith playing some D if the going gets tough.

So, what's going to go on tonight? Really, I'm clueless. The Suns are a team that appears to have OKC's number, but are in the midst of a complete cold streak. Meanwhile, OKC's roster has changed a bit since last year, so it's definitely possible that this year's team will be more adept at covering their defensive holes.

From a coaching perspective, lineups are going to be absolutely essential in a game like this. The Thunder could elect to go big with a lineup of Perkins and Collison off the bench. That might seem logical, since it would give the Thunder a mismatch to exploit at power forward and the advantage in the paint. But the Suns would also be able to rain threes, so it might make most sense to put in Perry Jones III as a stretch four. That raises another set of questions, though. Is losing the paint advantage worth it? Can PJIII score on the level we saw earlier this season?

Then, there's the issue of Kendrick Perkins. His screens are invaluable, but how much can the Thunder gain from having him plod up and down the court in a game like this? Alex Len could set a career high just getting hustle points, and that would be mega-embarrassing. Still, Brooks is going to try it, and if the Thunder can't cover for Perk's weaknesses, it could break them early.

Then, there's the issue of Kevin Durant. KD's been on a 30 minute restriction since his return, and is constantly working on an exercise bicycle while out of the game. Durant certainly hasn't been bad, but he's definitely seen his usage and stats take a slight dip. This puts more of the onus on Westbrook to control the pace, which could send this game spiraling out of control.

The Thunder will also have to watch out for crazy lineups that could be thrown at them from Phoenix's end. Generally, Jeff Hornacek will play some portion of the game with both Mason Plumlee and Alex Len on the bench, effectively leaving the Suns without a post player. When this happens, I'm going to be really worried about OKC's perimeter defense. Anthony Morrow and Jeremy Lamb definitely love to troll for steals and apply pressure to the middle of the floor. They're going to give up open shots at some point. It's pretty much the type of thing that absolutely destroyed the Thunder against the Suns last year.

Personally, there's one lineup matchup I'm looking for. I can't wait until the Thunder and Suns are playing four point guards at once. It's not often that two teams are so egregiously stacked at one position, and it will be extremely exciting to see what these teams can do with two talented ballhandlers on both ends of the floor. I don't think it will present a specific advantage to one team or the other, though.

In the end, tonight's game is a definite wake-up call for the Thunder. If they can beat old demons and win tonight, then they'll be well on their way to controlling their own destiny come playoff time. But if OKC starts buckling now and dropping winnable games, then it's still a very real possibility that the Peake will be dark come May. (Knock on wood.)

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 113, Phoenix Suns 111.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 24
(Lost 4)

(Won 5)
December 14th, 2014
The US Airways Center, Phoenix, Arizona
6:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Arizona
Injury Report: Both teams are fully healthy.
Last Year's Matchups: Nov 3 (W 103-96), Mar 6 (L 122-128), Apr 6 (L 115-122)
Probable Starters
Goran Dragic PG Russell Westbrook
Eric Bledsoe SG Andre Roberson
P.J. Tucker SF Kevin Durant
Markieff Morris PF Serge Ibaka
Miles Plumlee C Steven Adams