Start time - 8:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
Oklahoma City come into the game against Phoenix undermanned but not short on confidence. The Thunder played last night against the Kings and were generally pretty solid despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the Covid protocols at the moment.
Oklahoma City played without key contributors like Josh Giddey and Tre Mann and were still able to take the game to the last few seconds of the fourth quarter. There were weaknesses in the Thunder’s performance but I thought the team showed a lot of grit in challenging circumstances.
All of that being said, the Thunder executed rather poorly last night. The bench unit which was so good against New Orleans stuttered against Sacramento. There was little in the way of fluency and Giddey’s absence was evident. Giddey’s playmaking stabilises the bench unit’s performance and keeps the reserves relatively competitive.
Without Giddey, the shot creation was quite stagnant. Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome both struggled to initiate the offense and puncture the opposing defense early in the shot clock. Oklahoma City settled for a lot of lateral passes and isolation scoring opportunities rather than using the ball’s energy to generate baskets.
The playmaking burden was placed solely on Shai’s shoulders and for the first time in quite a while, he played poorly. The Thunder were in the ascendancy in the third quarter; Sacramento looked out of their feet and simply could not get a stop defensively. It was the ideal time to strike and build the lead out to double-digits.
Oklahoma City went up by 4 and the shot selection worsened towards the last five minutes of the third quarter. Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort both started to force the action and take difficult shots that were not necessarily in the flow of the offense. Sacramento came back into the game and had all of the positive momentum going into the fourth quarter.
From that point onwards, winning the game was a challenge. The task was made even harder when the Thunder turned the ball three straight times to start the fourth. Oklahoma City fought back valiantly but it is almost impossible to win games when the team has extended scoring droughts.
On the other hand, Phoenix are riding a two game losing streak. The Suns were beaten on Christmas Day by a resurgent Golden State Warriors. Phoenix played well in that game but the game was decided by a strong final stanza from Otto Porter Jr. Porter Jr drained clutch shots late on and put the game away for the team wearing Bay Area Blue.
It was a similar sort of story for the game against Grizzlies. Phoenix again played well but their Covid absences really harmed their roster depth. DeAndre Ayton being out meant that Steven Adams was able to dominate inside and post one of his best statlines of the season. The Big Kiwi had 13 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists.
Phoenix will be looking to break that losing streak and maintain pressure on the Warriors in their battle for #1 seed in the Western Conference. Golden State have a slender lead at present and the Suns will be desperate to earn themselves a favourable match-up in Round 1 of the playoffs.
The Suns boast three former Thunder players who are attempting to win their first ring. Chris Paul was arguably Oklahoma’s first basketball superstar and he is beloved by the fanbase. Paul was an integral part of ‘The Three Amigos’ and provided us with beautiful, pleasing basketball on a nightly basis.
Paul has done in Phoenix what he did in Oklahoma City. Chris Paul has raised the level of a young, exciting team to being a team capable of winning it all. It does not matter if Chris Paul does not win a ring, he is one of the greatest point guards of his generation.
Cameron Payne was drafted by the Thunder in 2015 one spot behind his colleague in Phoenix, Devin Booker. Payne was a fan favourite in Oklahoma City for his energy and for being Russell Westbrook’s dance partner.
Cam was traded by the team to Chicago and his career seem to fall away from him. He bounced around teams, played in the G League and China before eventually being signed to Phoenix. Coach Monty Williams, a former Thunder coach, still believed in Payne’s potential and brought him to the Suns.
Cameron has repaid that trust in full and has grown into being a top-tier reserve guard off the bench. Payne’s career arc is unlike many but I am happy to see him finally get the opportunity to perform on a competitive team in an environment where the coaching staff are invested in his development.
There is a lot of shared history between the two clubs and I expect tonight’s game to be very exciting. Chris Paul will be facing two young players in Shai and Luguentz Dort that he mentored and helped grow. The storylines write themselves for this match-up.
Who wins tonight?
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