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Leaner, meaner Suns face-off with hopeful Thunder

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The Suns' three-headed Monster is rolling, but can Hornacek outwit Brooks in a game of matchup chess?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a healed ankle!!!!
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a healed ankle!!!!
William Bennett Berry

Where the Suns are at

The Suns are hot again, and the Thunder need a win now more than ever. If you haven't kept up with what's gone on in Phoenix, they managed to put together a six game win streak before falling last night in New Orleans. There are two big reasons for the surge. The more well known reason is the re-emergence of the Suns' three point guard lineup. Having the talent of Bledsoe, Dragic, and Thomas all out on the floor at once is a matchup nightmare for other teams. I mean, the Thunder were able to find huge success against the Suns last year running a lineup of Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Fisher. So you can imagine just how much more firepower the Suns' lineup has.

Anyway, the lesser known reason for the winning streak is the trade of Anthony Tolliver, leading to the tightening of the Suns rotation. Phoenix just had trouble rolling 10 man deep, and losing Tolliver leaves their lineups noticably leaner. It also increased the responsibility of other players, who have filled their roles well. Rollin J. Mason of Bright Side of the Sun does a great job explaining the increased production in his most recent Center of the Sun column.

Of course, the Suns new rotation isn't perfect. Phoenix did lose last night to the PelicansAccording to the Popcorn Machine, Jeff Hornacek didn't go to his three point guard rotation until the last 6 minutes of the game. They were able to account for a quick run, but eventually outright dominated by Tyreke Evans. Evans scored on three straight critical possessions, while a single bad possession on the Suns end was enough to doom them to a loss. In fact, the Suns had 11 successful offensive possessions over the last 6 minutes, compared to only 3 times where they came out empty handed. The simple fact is that the Suns have to either outscore you or force turnovers in order to win. It's also no coincidence that the Suns are currently averaging 16 turnovers forced on the year, but only managed to register 10 against the Pelicans last night.

How OKC will match up with PHX

Tonight, the Thunder will likely use the same strategy that allowed them to roll over the Dragic-less Suns back on December 14th. The first aspect of it will be frequent substitutions. The Suns always try to outrun their opponents, and they're going to be a bit gassed from having to travel from New Orleans last night. So if Brooks can do anything to make sure defensive assignments are met in transition, that has to be the priority. Again, this worked well back on the 14th, with Brooks rotating in 11 players during that game.

Brooks will also have to watch out for the Thunder killers: Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas. Both are capable of tearing up our defense for different reasons. Green is great at taking advantage of poor weak-side D, while Thomas is too quick for most of our guards. Despite some killer games from both Green and Thomas against the Thunder last season, Brooks was able to contain them on the 14th by matching them up with Andre Roberson and Reggie Jackson, respectively. The long wingspan of both players is great for shot defense, which is what the Thunder will need against a turnover-free Suns team.

There is one potential problem in this area, though. Coach Brooks is very inflexible in how he plays his lineups. Green likely won't start for the Suns tonight, meaning that the Thunder would normally have Morrow or Jones guarding him. Both of those players are very fond of going for steals and sometimes lose their head on D, so either matchup is a potential disaster. Starting Morrow isn't an easy solution either, since that would open up things for the two-PG lineup that Phoenix starts with.

I'm also very curious to see how Brooks will match up with Phoenix's three point guard lineup, should Hornacek decide to use it. I know Brooks has used a Westbrook-Jackson-Ish Smith lineup before, but I can't remember which game it came about, and they haven't played frequently together enough to be on the NBA's stats site. Still, I think it could be interesting, especially considering how nightmarish the prospect of having Morrow or Jones guarding Eric Bledsoe is. Really, the Thunder are just going to have to get creative if they want to match up. Brooks showed a willingness to do that back on the 14th, so I've got no worries here.

How the return of Dragic and potential return of KD affect tonight's game

As you might expect, the added presence of Goran Dragic will really make a difference for the Suns tonight. The team thrives with having multiple offensive threats on the floor, as well as excellent decision-making. I believe that Dragic is probably the best decision-maker on the team. I cite as evidence the Suns' 0-2 record without him in the lineup, the team's 20 turnovers against the Bucks without Dragic, and Dragic's 2.92 assist to turnover ratio over the past 8 games. Dragic has logged some really solid performances against the Thunder in the past. So, with the attention on Thomas and Green, I believe Dragic will exceed his averages.

At the end of the day though, the #1 thing the Thunder must do to win is take care of the ball. It's an old cliche, but they've wasted too many possessions at the end of games with bad decision making and communication. Having the voice of KD on the floor might do wonders to that end, so here's hoping that he finally makes a return tonight.

But if KD doesn't walk through that door, then the Thunder might have to rely on a bench run to pull them ahead. Surprisingly enough, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are the players we should all be looking to. Both of them were able to provide key baskets at the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter, as well as dominate the rebounding game. I'm always ragging on the Perk-Collison duo for struggling defensively, but I really do feel that they both bring a lot to the offensive end and can out-rebound their opponents when given a size advantage.

Anyway, I'm expecting a close, exciting victory. The Suns usually manage to make things interesting, even with the potential emotional windfall of a KD return.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 110, Phoenix Suns 106.

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

2014-15 NBA Season Game 33
@
18-14
(Lost 1)

15-17
(Lost 1)
December 31st, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Arizona
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (Questionable), Mitch McGary (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 15th (W 112-88)
Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe PG Russell Westbrook
Goran Dragic SG Andre Roberson
P.J. Tucker SF Kevin Durant or Perry Jones III
Markieff Morris PF Serge Ibaka
Alex Len C Steven Adams