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Takeaways from the Thunder’s 128-101 loss to the Phoenix Suns

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The Thunder were blown out by a hungry, aggressive Suns team

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Thunder played the Phoenix Suns last night and were soundly beaten by Monty Williams’ men. Oklahoma City managed to keep the game close during the first half but then Phoenix pulled away in the second half. The Suns simply had too much talent for the Thunder on the night.

This loss can be explained away as the Thunder did not have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams or Nerlens Noel. Billy had to go deeper into his bench and play guys who have not seen many minutes over the last few games. Deonte Burton and Devon Hall both saw extended minutes.

Oklahoma City win this game with their key guys even with the Suns playing really well right now. However, there were aspects of the Thunder’s play which were not good. The Thunder fouled too much and allowed Phoenix to walk to the line for easy points at the stripe.

Darius Bazley played strongly during the game and he continued to show his growth as a basketball player. Bazley was the Thunder’s best player in the game and I thought that his scoring sustained the offense when everybody else was struggling to knock down shots.

I have to give Phoenix a lot of credit for their performance against the Thunder. The Suns’ defense was highly impressive. Jevon Carter did not have many points but his intense, aggressive style of defense was important in the Suns getting transition opportunities.

Takeaways:

Turnovers

One of the key reasons for the Thunder’s loss on Monday night was turnovers. Oklahoma City committed 19 turnovers which is pretty poor. The Suns were able to get 24 points in transition off turnovers committed by the Thunder.

Fastbreak looks are some of the most efficient looks in basketball. The offense is able to attack a defense that is not fully set up. The attacking team can exploit weaknesses in the defense to get good looks from the corner three or at the rim.

The Thunder have to limit the number of turnovers that the team commits. In the game against the Phoenix Suns, the Thunder committed too many unforced errors for my liking. There were two possessions in a row where Diallo turned the ball over on an inbounds play.

This cannot happen in the future. Oklahoma City need to value possession of the ball. Good offensive teams such as the Rockets or Clippers will be clinical on these possessions. They will take advantage of all errors. OKC have to care of the ball for the team to have any chance of making a deep playoff run.

Fouls Committed

The number of fouls being called has increased in the Bubble. It is estimated that over 10 more fouls are being called per game when compared to the pre-Bubble figures. Research conducted by Seth Partnow of The Athletic stated that there has been a spike in the number of fouls. Fouls called has increased from 41.7 fouls per game to 52.0 fouls per game.

Fouls are being called at a greater rate for two distinct reasons. There is no noise distortion from the crowd in the Bubble. Referees hear all of the contact between players and blow the whistle accordingly. The referees being able to hear in greater detail means that they have been able to identify more fouls in the Bubble.

Referees are supposed to be impartial officials but there have been times when a referee has made favourable calls for the home team. The crowd can influence the decision-making process of the referee. Referees are less scared of making big calls when there is no crowd to boo and jeer their performance.

The whistle is a lot looser and this is something the Thunder need to understand. Oklahoma City need to know that referees are calling fouls more liberally and any contact could lead to free throws.

Oklahoma City have not adapted to the loose whistle yet. The Thunder committed 23 fouls against the Suns and Phoenix were able to get 29 free throw attempts. This is a lot of free points to give away.

Thunder players have to be smarter with their hands and use their footwork to challenge shots to a greater degree. Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson both play aggressive defense which does work effectively. However, their aggression can become a weakness for the Thunder in the Bubble.

Diallo flying into defensive contests and leaving stray arms for attacking players to exploit will mean a lot of free throws for the opposing team. OKC have to work on funnelling the opposing team into inefficient shooting zones.

Roberson

Andre Roberson has played sparingly during the seeding games but he got a few more minutes against the Suns. Roberson played thirteen minutes and I thought that he looked really good in the time that he played.

Andre contributed strong defense but it was his work on the offensive end of the floor which caught my eye. Roberson took three shots from deep and made one of these looks. It is only small volume but I liked Roberson’s confidence shooting the ball. Andre did not hesitate at all on these shots.

Roberson could have easily played more than thirteen minutes against Phoenix. He did not look tired when he subbed out of the game for the final time. It does feel like the coaching staff missed an opportunity to play Roberson and work on his conditioning.

It is increasingly likely that the Thunder will play the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. Andre Roberson being able to play 20 minutes a night could be important in the Thunder’s chances of getting out of the first round. Roberson is an excellent defensive presence who will give James Harden fits.

However, we do not know if Roberson is physically capable of playing these minutes without completely exhausting himself. The game against Phoenix would have been the ideal test game. The Suns game was out of hand by the fourth quarter and there was nothing for the Thunder to lose.

Mike Muscala

Mike Muscala has not played much during the Bubble. He has only played significant minutes in the last two games due to Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams being unavailable due to injury. It is easy for a player to be disconsolate and detached from the team when they do not play regularly.

Muscala has not fallen into this trap. Mike has stayed ready with his game and has performed well as a starter for the Thunder. I did not understand the Muscala signing last year but I appreciate what Muscala brings to the Thunder.

Muscala’s deep shooting provides a steady stream of scoring from outside when the Thunder use him. Mike is a competent pick and pop player; his ability to drain looks from deep stretches the defense out.

It will be difficult for Muscala to find rotation minutes once Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel return. Adams and Noel are the two centers who have been entrenched in the rotation for the whole season. I do not see Billy making drastic adjustments to a strategy that works well.

Muscala deserves a lot of respect for his professionalism and contribution to the team effort. Muscala has stepped up to the plate when the Thunder have needed him to play extended minutes at the centre position.

Abdel Nader

Billy Donovan’s offense this season has been relatively simple in terms of off-ball movement. There is a lot of cutting and weaving as the Thunder run their sets. In the game against Phoenix, the Thunder flashed a new offensive wrinkle. The Thunder ran a curl action for Nader.

The action looked a little clunky at first. The screen cleared space for Nader to shoot but the players were slow to get into the action. It will take time for the Thunder to integrate this action into the flow of the offense but there are a lot of encouraging signs.

Nader looked comfortable taking these shots and he is a good enough shooter to take these off-balance, moving shots. It is great to see Nader working on this evolution of his game; it will make him harder to guard on the perimeter. Defensive players do not like having to chase a shooter through screens.