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Preview: Thunder vs Suns, Oklahoma City looks to bury Phoenix

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In a high-scoring, exciting rivalry, the high flying Thunder hope to outgun the sinking Suns.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a month ago, the Thunder were 23-24 after dropping four of five miserable games. The team bottomed out against the Knicks, and Kevin Durant had made what turned out to be a premature, ineffective return to the court in a depressing 85-74 loss to the Grizzlies. Phoenix, on the other hand, was 28-21, smiling down on both the Thunder and Pelicans from their cozy 8 seed chair.

The script has completely flipped since, with Phoenix going 2-7 in February, and OKC going 9-1. If the point guard exodus the Suns orchestrated at the trade deadline didn’t close the curtains on their playoff hopes, a win by OKC tonight would. A Thunder win puts Phoenix back 3.5 games from the 8 seed and clinches the season series tie-breaker, which would effectively move them to five back in the loss column with 25 games left on their schedule.

The rosters for each club are quite different as well. While the Suns dealt double Dragics, IT2, and the lesser Plumlee for Brandon Knight and retreads, the Thunder traded their way into one of the deepest rosters at the deadline. OKC is in high spirits, dancing and blasting teams even as KD misses more time. Phoenix continues to lose while their front office puts their former players on blast.

Over this stretch, the Thunder have had a fairly cake schedule, with wins over Memphis and Dallas at home the only victories against current playoff teams other than the asterisked blowout of the Blake Griffin-less Clippers. This is something of a test for the Thunder, before their schedule gets dotted with actually good teams in the near future. The Suns look like they’re toast, but they still have a deep team, a phenomenal coach, and should be desperate to keep their season alive. The Thunder are still without Durant, and have had the luxury of getting Good Russ all month. If Westbrook’s insane production slips, OKC’s role players will have to pick up the slack—something the old guard was incapable of all year, and the new guard hasn’t had to prove yet.

Similar to how the Grizzlies always manage to grind the Thunder down into rock fights, the Suns usually rope the Thunder into a frenzied race to the finish. In the last 4 games between OKC and Phoenix (dating back to last season), at least one team has scored at least 112 points in every contest. OKC has won both matchups this year, blowing Phoenix out in mid-December, then pulling out a technicals-rich overtime contest on New Year’s Eve.

"Running" and "gunning" are probably Westbrook’s two favorite words, but OKC’s roster—long on arms, short on three-point shooters—wasn’t guaranteed to win a no-defense sprint against Phoenix for most of the season. The new players, however, bring more heat from behind the arc and better passing, so I’m more confident that the Thunder make it eight straight tonight than I would have been if the game was played pre-trade deadline. The biggest question in this one is whether Russell Westbrook will push further into the MVP conversation with a monster performance on national TV--I think he will try, and there will be fireworks one way or another.

Prediction: Oklahoma City 131 Phoenix 111

2014-2015 NBA Season Game 58
Oklahoma City Thunder (32-25)
@
Phoenix Suns (29-28)
February 26th, 2015
US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ
9:30 PM CDT
TV: TNT, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma
Radio: WWLS 98.1FM OKC, AZ Sports 98.7 FM
Enemy Blog: Bright Side Of The Sun
Previous Meetings (2-0): Dec. 14 (W 112-88), Dec. 31 (W 137-134)
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (Out), Steven Adams (Out), Steve Novak (Out),
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook P Eric Bledsoe
Andre Roberson SG Brandon Knight
Kyle Singler SF P.J. Tucker
Serge Ibaka PF Markieff Morris
Enes Kanter C Alex Len