Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
The All-Star break is over and it is time to return to Thunder basketball. The Thunder’s first game back is against one of the toughest teams in the league, the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have been a winning machine all season that has not faltered one step despite being without Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton for portions of the season.
Phoenix are a deep, well-coached roster who have legitimate designs on making the NBA Finals. Chris Paul reached his first Finals last season but the Suns ultimately fell at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Since then, Phoenix have made moves with the postseason in mind. There has not been large upheaval and James Jones has not swung for the fences. The Suns’ front office have acquired two quality role players that addressed their weaknesses on the wing and at center. Torrey Craig is a dependable, tough 3&D wing who can soak minutes off the bench.
Craig replaces Nader in the rotation and is more of a known quantity. Nader can be inconsistent at times which is not always conducive to a playoff setting; poor performances can swing series.
Adding JaVale McGee has brought strong interior defense and championship experience to Phoenix. Last season, the Suns’ performances were noticeably worse with Ayton off the floor, Dario Saric was rather suspect defending the rim. McGee’s play means that Coach Monty Williams can have a good rim protector on the floor for all 48 minutes.
The Suns are clearly gearing up for the postseason and I would not be surprised to see Coach Williams get funky with his lineups in preparation for the playoffs. Phoenix have a firm grip on the #1 seed and therefore have the luxury to get creative.
Coach Mark Daigneault has a completely different task on his hands for the last third of the season, Coach has to figure out how to play Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey in a manner that maximises both of their abilities.
We have seen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey both perform very well this season. Before his ankle sprain, Gilgeous-Alexander was rounding into form and looking like the player he was last season.
Since Shai’s injury, Giddey has emerged as the lead creator and has grown in confidence game on game. Josh has shown that he is more than willing to organise the offense and deliver his teammates the ball in good scoring positions. He has accumulated three triple-doubles in a row and his case for the ROY is only improving.
When Giddey has ran the show by himself, he has been great. When Shai has ran the show by himself, he has been great. The two players working together to get the best out each other has not happened enough this season.
From what we have seen out of both players, I would be happy to put the ball in Giddey’s hands more and have Shai play off the ball. Giddey’s offensive value is driven by his creation for others; sticking Josh in the corner means that he is passive on that offensive possession.
On the other hand, Gilgeous-Alexander is a very good in the secondary creator role. During ‘The Three Amigos’ season, Chris Paul or Dennis Schroder would collapse the defense and Gilgeous-Alexander would feast on the out of position defense. Shai’s balance and loping strides means that he is difficult stop when he is curling around screens and going downhill.
Gilgeous-Alexander is also an excellent shooter off the catch and commands gravity from the defense. Shai draws defenders away the painted area and creates space inside for Giddey to drive into.
The fit between Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey will never be perfect but Coach Mark Daigneault can find ways to play to his guards’ strengths. Staggering their minutes so that they both have the opportunity to lead the offense makes plenty of sense. In the minutes they must play together, Shai playing off the ball more will get him easier looks while also giving Josh Giddey a chance to pad his assist totals.
Given that this is Shai’s first game back from injury, I will be very curious to see how the two players fit next to each other. Phoenix is a team that has found postseason success through lineups involving Chris Paul and Devin Booker. There may be something to learn from Coach Williams’ management of this dynamic for Coach Daigneault.