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Can Thunder show their might versus the Suns?

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If the Thunder can blow out anybody, it’s this team.
W. Bennett Barry

The Thunder come out of their first game extremely uncertain about the future. A narrow win against the formerly legendarily bad Philadelphia 76ers will do that to you. I know, Philly has a lot of young talent. But it’s still hard to shake the image of the Sixers as a ramshackle club.

What’s bothering the Thunder?

Oladipo really isn’t showing flashes of being an offensive creator as of yet, and struggles mightily with his long range game. Westbrook gets Oladipo the ball in perfect positions, and it’s rare that Oladipo can do anything with it. We’re only one game in, but I feel like the role of the third offensive option is going to go to Steven Adams. Adams doesn’t really have a big repertoire. Almost everything Adams puts up is a baby hook, and usually not further than 10 feet from the basket. But Adams hook is good for getting his shot off over defenders. And it does seem to be a really reliable source of offense, especially when combined with the athleticism of Westbrook.

The Thunder’s bench might be able to contribute here and there. But it’s really all about Kanter off the bench. Personally, I’m relieved that the Thunder picked up Christon as their backup PG instead of Price. There are times when Christon’s play looks really bad. Ugly bricks, wild turnovers, and out of control defense could all be used to describe Christon’s game. But when Christon’s game does work, he’s a tenacious defensive point guard with just enough of a shot to get Kanter the ball in the right place. Christon’s decision making is also top notch.

The rest of the bench are just screen setters and wings. Abrines is settling into his role nicely, having hit a fourth quarter three during the Sixer game. Singler is still out there, sometimes effective but always looking unimpressive. And Huestis appears to be back to the bench for now. Lauvergne didn’t see time in the first game, and Ilyasova should soak up the majority of minutes at backup four. I hope that every one of these guys is in the gym just hoisting up threes. (Except Lauvergne, of course.)

Of course, we still have Russ and he’s doing better than ever. Westbrook can still score at will, and spark the Thunder to offense when it’s needed. Westbrook’s experience and timeliness are going to be the glue that keep the Thunder together this season.

How are the young Suns defining themselves?

The Suns are a fast paced team, ranking as fourth in the league. Unlike the Sixers, whom the Thunder faced during the first game, the Suns are much more perimeter-oriented. Traditionally, the Suns are known for pioneering a fast, perimeter oriented offense. But with no star to lead the team in recent years, Phoenix has fallen into the NBA dungeon.

If the first game of the season was any indication, Phoenix fans are in for a season of rebuilding. The Sacramento Kings absolutely crushed the Phoenix Suns in the first half, cruising to eventual victory. The Kings were one of the league’s worst teams last year, so that doesn’t seem to bode well for the Suns.

But even in that devastating Game 1 loss, the Suns proved that they can generate offense. Phoenix spreads the floor and uses screens well. But the Suns are very turnover-prone, lacking good ball handlers outside of the point guard position. The Suns are also putrid defensively. Last year, the Suns allowed the 6th worst percentage from 2, and the league’s worst percentage from three. To make up for this, the Suns focus on defensive rebounding. Despite the Suns’ small stature outside of the center position, they rank 11th when it comes to limiting the offensive rebounds of opponents.

What type of offense did the Suns run last year? Phoenix ranked in the bottom 10 of the league when it came to isolations, drives, pick and rolls to the big, and hand-offs. So there really isn’t much offensive work from the bigs in terms of scoring. Furthermore, the Suns are hesitant to let a single player take his own shot. But the Suns are 9th when it comes to transition shots, 12th when shooting off screens, 14th when posting up, 15th when catch and shooting, and 16th in pull ups and pick and roll handler shots. So all of the early shot clock stuff is there. But if the Suns do get deep into an offensive set, they’ll tend to switch to try to use the space of the floor to their advantage. Stuff like getting one on ones near the basket, or freeing shooters with back screens.

In terms of composition, the Suns have not really changed much from last year to this year. The Suns lost rim running forward Jon Leur, as well as long range four Mirza Teletovic. In their place have come a couple of solid, low-key free agents. Jared Dudley came in from the Wizards, a traditional three and D guy who had previously played in Phoenix. Leandro Barbosa, another former Sun, is in from winning a NBA championship with the Warriors. These two veteran presences will give depth and guidance to a very young Sun squad.

By the way, the Suns are fielding two very high profile rookies this year. Dragan Bender, the fourth pick this Summer out of Maccabi Tel Aviv, is the first. Bender appears to be a project. It’s clear that Bender has the athleticism to be in the NBA, especially when you consider how coordinated and quick he is. But Bender isn’t physically advantageous in any way, so he’s not going to create shots for you. At this point, Bender’s career trajectory appears to be as a stretch four with the quickness to guard most threes.

The other high profile rookie is the #8 pick, Marquese Chriss. Chriss is out of Washington, and is a high-risk high-reward prospect. Most would agree that Chriss has the tools and athleticism to consistently score on an NBA level. But Chriss is notoriously undisciplined. Chriss fouled out of nearly half of his college games, and is a putrid defensive rebounder. Still, no one can count out the value of a 6’9” power forward who can shoot perimeter shots off the dribble.

What should we expect tonight?

The Suns, boasting a bad interior defense, won’t have much in the way to stop Adams and Kanter. The Suns ability to space the floor will certainly give the Thunder problems. But the Thunder will really be able to force a lot of Sun turnovers with their physical ballhawking guards. I think the Thunder should be able to win this one kinda easily, but this is a new era....

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Phoenix Suns 92.

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


Injuries: Cameron Payne (Out)

Time: 7:00 PM Central Daylight Time

Location: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma, NBA League Pass