Don’t look now, but the Thunder played a fringe playoff contender on the road the way a top-four seed should in taking care of business Wednesday night in Phoenix. One night after nearly letting Golden State steal a game at the end of a long home stand in Oklahoma City, the Thunder slowly put its foot on the neck of the Suns and increased the pressure until it put the game away in the fourth quarter.
OKC kept Phoenix at arm’s length most of the night before pulling away for an eventual 116-98 win in the Valley of the Sun. Until the final frame, the Thunder didn’t really ever threaten to run away with it, but it never quite seemed out of control either. It was a steady stream of three-, five- seven-point leads that occasionally got a little closer. Phoenix took a couple of slim leads. But it always seemed to be a matter of time before Oklahoma City imposed its will, and then before you knew it some chubby guy named Garret Siler who I had never heard of was in the game for the Suns, embodying the white flag raised by Alvin Gentry.
It was definitely a nice change of pace from Tuesday night, when the Thunder played a similar game against Golden State for three quarters but never put the game away. And we all know what happened in the final 13 seconds against the Warriors. But Oklahoma City seemed determined not to let that happen again. Both teams in Phoenix were coming off the front end of back-to-backs, so no team had that go-to excuse, and OKC just played like it wanted to win, perhaps even just to get the bad taste out of its mouth after Tuesday. Whatever it was, the attitude was the one that you’d like to see at this time of year. The Thunder were playing an inferior team on the road, and the game was never in doubt.
Phoenix got the effort that Oklahoma City fans have come to expect from Vince Carter, who played with purpose yet again against the Thunder and finished with 28 points on 11-16 shooting. But other than that, Jared Dudley was the only other Suns player in double figures with 16. Steve Nash was limping a little with his nagging injury and took only four shots. And the rest of the Phoenix roster was just flat-out unimpressive tonight. For a team that still at least has a shot at the last playoff spot, it was kind of a lame effort. They never really gave the crowd a reason to get into it, and so it never did. Only seven fast break points … that’s just not very Suns-like.
The Thunder, on the other hand, got solid efforts across the board. James Harden was aggressive and tied with Kevin Durant for a team-high 22 points. Durant, for his part, shot 8-18 but it felt a little better than that because of the way he scored and when he scored. The step-back jumpers with a hand in his face that he went to a few times tonight are the kinds of shots that sap a defender’s confidence. Three other Oklahoma City players joined them in double-figures and only Nate Robinson, who saw game action for the second time in a Thunder uniform when he entered in garbage time, didn’t score for the good guys. Seeing 22 assists show up on the stat sheet was nice, and seeing three blocks each from Durant and Serge Ibaka was also fun.
All in all, it was as satisfying as a win could be for a game that Oklahoma City should definitely win. Fifty wins with eight games to play!
- Was that Kendrick Perkins’ first dunk with the Thunder when he scored OKC’s third basket on a break in the first quarter? I can’t remember another one, unless it was a putback or something. Perk had six of Oklahoma City’s first 10 points. That probably won’t happen too often.
- Wow. Steve Nash was dropping some serious F-bombs on the refs when he didn’t get a call in the first quarter. He clearly said, “Eff you, snitch!” or something along those lines. Pretty out of character, right? Either that or I don’t watch enough Phoenix basketball, which is possible.
- Nick Collison had a pretty major ankle wrap on his left leg when he came off the bench early. Looked like some sort of warm compress that he had to strip off before he got on the court. He must really need to baby that thing to be able to play right now. He was limping ever-so-slightly on the court.
- Nice stat flashed by the FSO crew in the first quarter: Eric Maynor had 23 assists in the six-game home stand and only two turnovers. That’s just nuts. That really helps OKC keep the turnovers from the point guard position to a reasonable level even though Westbrook leads the NBA in that category. His style is obviously totally different from Westbrook’s, but he’s still incredibly effective in his own way. It’s kind of like in football when the No. 2 running back is the “change of pace guy.” Throwing a different look at the defense really keeps it off balance.
- Why does Carter play so well against OKC? He had a sick reverse dunk in the second quarter that he created with a nice spin move near the baseline, and I knew what we were in for after that. How often does he really do that anymore? Carter really bothers me for some reason, so it makes it even worse for me that he plays like he does against the Thunder.
- Ten Thunderers scored by the five-minute mark of the second quarter when Collison got a bucket. That’s the kind of ball-sharing I like to see after a relatively static, if effective, home stand when it comes to ball movement.
- I really liked the aggressiveness Harden showed. Eight free throw attempts in the first half alone. When he’s getting to the rim, he’s at his best. He got fouled on every two-point attempt he took until the halfway mark of the fourth quarter.
- Did Marcin Gortat look like even more of a freak show than usual with the broken nose/black eye combo or what?
- I dig that Collison’s charge taken tonight immediately followed a turnover by him.
- We all know that Russell Westbrook is fast, but it really seemed like his speed was on display tonight. Being guarded by Nash probably helps that a little … but Westbrook was really knifing into the lane, and was mostly in control. I never get tired of watching that.
- For once, I think Harden was actually knocked to the floor on a 3-point shot as opposed to falling while trying to sell or create the illusion of a foul. Carter basically threw a forearm into him and knocked him over late in the third quarter on what should have been a shot at a potential four-point play. But Harden didn’t get the call. Maybe his reputation has caught up to him?
- I thought the Thunder might be in big trouble early in the game when Perkins and Collison caught two quick fouls each in the first half or so of the first quarter. Sure, the Suns play small a lot, but with Cole Aldrich in Tulsa and Byron Mullens in a suit, a couple of Nazr Mohammed fouls soon thereafter could have meant the Thunder had to play long stretches of small ball when it might not want to. But thankfully, it didn’t come back to haunt OKC. Perkins continued to stay in foul trouble throughout the game, but the other guys were able to stay relatively clean and Scott Brooks didn’t have to limit his lineups too much.
- I would like to take this opportunity to admonish the state of Arizona for not using daylight saving time like most of the rest of America. Arizona is always on Mountain Standard Time, meaning that it’s effectively on Pacific time during DST. So when Oklahoma City plays late-season games in Phoenix, we all have to be a little extra bleary-eyed in the morning. Just one extra night a year of staying up late on a weeknight that we don’t need.
- Sick block in the fourth quarter by Westbrook on Gortat. Gortat was going up for a layup when Westbrook flew in from behind and pinned the ball against the backboard. I love seeing a guard get up on a center like that.
- Phoenix tried to employ a Hack-a-Perk technique when they trailed by a lot for the first time late in the game. Perkins nailed the first free throw and missed the next, and the Suns followed it up with a charge on their end before going right back to intentionally fouling Perk. Brian Davis didn’t like it, saying, “Be a man. Play your game.” Perkins sank both free throws on the second trip to the line, Durant responded with a nasty block … and the Suns went right back to fouling Perkins despite the obvious bad karma. Two more made freebies from Perk led to the Suns finally abandoning the tactic. Way to go, Perk!
- Ken Mauer got mad at Aaron Brooks in the final stages of the game and chucked him, along with Zabian Dowdell. *Shrug.
- Ibaka has now scored at least 12 points in seven of his last eight games. That is a seriously good sign. He’s showing some nice flashes around the rim and the jumper is falling. He had 15 tonight on 6-13 shooting.
Now the Thunder gets only one day of rest before another big game. The Trail Blazers are going to be hungry for a win, both because of the seeding importance and the Thunder’s win on Sunday. The crowd will be hyped. The playoffs are coming.
Up next: Friday at Portland.