Photo Credits: Coby Van Loan/OKC Thunder
Chris Paul’s departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder over the offseason set the dominos in place for a complete rebuild for the 2020-21 season. For Paul and his newfound teammates with the Phoenix Suns, they have playoff aspirations right in front of their minds. The Suns game against the Thunder was supposed to put them back into the win column after losing their previous two, but their night was soured by the up-and-coming Oklahoma City squad, being burnt 102-97.
Phoenix played the game without their leading scorer Devin Booker, but getting the shots to fall early was no issue. Phoenix started the night on a 13-6 run, and bolstered their lead to 15 at 32-17 at the first quarters close. Phoenix found their strides early through the three ball, knocking down six of their eleven long-distance shots, while Oklahoma City’s first quarter was a near polar opposite.
Oklahoma City begun the first quarter launching nine of their first ten shots from the three-point arch, but only managed to knock down two attempts. The Thunder never adapted to the Suns pace-and-space play in the onset of the night, and the same can be said with their style of play. All eleven of the Thunder’s active players stepped foot on the hardwood in the first quarter of Wednesday’s game. These rapid changes of scenery resulted in a great of urgency and rash decision making from the Thunder. Never being able to settle in on the pace of the game, seven first quarter turnovers were calculated from their 11-man rotation, and just three assists were tallied by the quarters end.
The Suns continued their onslaught of points amassing a 17-point lead in the infant stages of the second quarter. That was when Thunder head coach Mark Daigneualt shifted his focus to keeping rotations in check. After falling into their cosmic 17-point void, only six players played for the blue the rest of the quarter. Daigneualt’s rotational structure orbited around one to two penetrators with the rest of the roster composed of sharpshooters. Their first lineup of Theo Maledon, Luguentz Dort, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley, and Al Horford provided a great deal of options isolating in Bazley and Maledon, while having their teammates being used as attention grabbers and marksman for three. This lineup dissolved the Suns lead to ten and their lone subsitution of Pokusevski for Shai Gilegous-Alexander blew the gaskets off the lead. Oklahoma City’s high tempo offense lead to a 24-4 run (on 10-18 shooting) to close the quarter and capture the lead 45-42 by half. Phoenix held little resistance against the Thunder, shooting just 3-21 (14%) , and 0-11 from three (0%) since claiming their 17-point lead.
Oklahoma City retained their prowess on the offensive end, corralling a 13-point lead with 8 minutes to go in the quarter. Phoenix locked their satellites onto the perimeter in the third, and got the lid off the basket, hitting a three after missing 16 tries in a row. This one basket enabled the Suns to cruise onto an 18-0 run to capture a five point lead in the third, just to be reclaimed by Oklahoma City with an 11-2 run to close the quarter.
The Thunder were holding onto dear life to kick off the fourth quarter, possessing a miniscule 2-point 73-71 lead. Oklahoma City relied on their pass first offense to create their offense early, but an intergalactic fourth quarter performance from former Thunder guard Chris Paul left this game in the air. Paul racked up 15 points in the final period, including 9 in a row to give the Thunder a run for their money. Paul’s former pupil Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rose up to tumultuous task of going head-to-head with the 9-time All Star in the closing minutes of the game, and he did not disappoint. The 22-year-old helped formulate a 7-0 run in the final three minutes to close the game, and put the game to rest after hitting four clutch free-throws in the final 20 seconds of the contest.
For the Pheonix Suns, they had many bright spots for their team. Chris Paul assumed Devin Booker’s scoring duties, posting a season-high 32 points (12-21 FG) off of his signature pull-up midranges and fouling hijinks’. Paul didn’t notch his average of 9 assists for the game (only posting 5), but he did alienate the defensive pressure for his teammates. Forwards Jae Crowder and ex-Thunder player Abdel Nader dropped 17 and 12 points respectively, but no true second option led to their demise. Deandre Ayton, underachieved for the Suns on Wednesday, dropping a statline of 14 rebounds and just 5 points off 2-7 shooting.
The return of big man Al Horford played a major factor in the Thunder’s win. Horford returned off his six-game hiatus to drop 21 points (8-12 FG), 11 rebounds, two assists, and an impressive three blocks across 30 minutes. Horford was left wide open off of Ayton’s commitment to staying inside, and made the Suns pay, going a perfect 5-5 from three-point land. His ineptness on defense led to Ayton’s struggles and why the Suns only chipped in 36 points in the paint. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s magnificent play netted him 21 points (6-18), 7 rebounds, and 8 assists in his 31 minutes of play. SGA took a backseat role in scoring the ball during the team’s second quarter push, but it ended up buying the guard coveted floor-space when attacking in the late-game. Gilgeous-Alexander’s 22 drives to the basket opened up beautiful passes, including a behind-the-back bounce pass to Theo Maledon in the third quarter. The three other members of the starting unit provided double-digit scoring with Dort, Maledon and Bazely providing 14, 11, and 10 points sequentially, with Hamidou Diallo providing 10 of his own off the bench.
With this win, Oklahoma City (8-9) will have the opportunity to break at an even .500 record when they return home to face off the new look Brooklyn Nets on Friday.