The upstart Phoenix Suns are fighting to cap a miraculous season with a playoff berth. The odds are still stacked against them in the loaded Western Conference, but at least one elite team should be panicked about a potential first-round matchup with Jeff Hornacek’s fearless crew.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost just 21 games during 2013-14 despite key injuries that have shelved point guard Russell Westbrook and center Kendrick Perkins for significant stretches. Two of those losses were incurred courtesy of the Suns.
The latest—a gritty 122-115 home win for the Purple and Orange on April 6, which required plenty of late-game execution—had the makings of an easy "W". The Suns held a comfortable 80-66 lead with 7:05 remaining in the third quarter, but allowed OKC to chip away with repeated, unanswered bursts of scoring.
Despite fighting back and even taking a late 112-111 lead, the Thunder didn’t execute as well as Phoenix in crunch time and had no answer for Hornacek’s small-ball rotations.
If the desert dwellers somehow manage to earn a first-round series against Oklahoma City, they’ll certainly have no shortage of confidence after winning the regular-season series 2-1.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks searched for answers to stifle Phoenix’s uptempo offense, but the Suns were able to get anything they wanted Sunday night.
Despite the fact that Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye notched just 18 minutes each, and were noticeably absent for most of the fourth quarter, Phoenix shot 58.4 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from three-point range. Its small lineups were clicking on all cylinders with virtually zero resistance from OKC's defense.
In place of the two big men were Markieff and Marcus Morris. The former Kansas Jayhawks shot 9-of-12 from the field, finishing with 20 points and eight rebounds combined off the bench.
“They’re a very good team,” Brooks said, per Royce Young of DailyThunder.com. “Offensively, they give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they make 3s and they’re desperate right now.”
By utilizing undersized lineups that featured numerous guards and Markieff Morris at center, the Suns were able to cause serious matchup problems.
The quicker, more agile rotations forced Brooks to lean on Jeremy Lamb—a move that was met with complete frustration. As Young wrote:
Lamb played just eight minutes, and picked up five fouls. Four of them came in 14 seconds when he was trying to guard (P.J. Tucker) in the post. It was a pretty perfect example of Brooks not really have (sic) a good plan on how to handle the Suns’ odd lineups.
With Keef and Tucker able to post up down low, and the trio of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green threatening on the perimeter, the Suns were in full attack mode on offense—and Lamb wasn’t the only victim.
Westbrook picked up four personals before fouling out in the final 20 seconds. Shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka had five fouls of his own as he couldn't get in a rhythm defending the pick-and-roll. Derek Fisher was tagged with four, while Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler picked up three fouls apiece.
The Suns weren’t afraid to dribble into the teeth of OKC’s defense, which created a balanced attack coupled with long-range attempts.
Sometimes Phoenix can become enamored with three-point looks, but they forced the issue Sunday by taking the ball to the rim.
Not surprisingly, the exact same narrative played out when Phoenix dispatched OKC, 128-122, on March 6.
Playing without Plumlee (and Bledsoe) due to injuries, rookie Alex Len was forced into the starting lineup. He notched just 11 minutes before small-ball took over.
Markieff saw 30 minutes of action, Marcus played 29 and Ish Smith got a chunk of time with 20 off the bench. Those three members of the second unit combined for 41 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists.
Hornacek’s small lineups have worked extremely well against the Thunder, and there’s reason to believe OKC would see more of the same in a playoff matchup—especially if Plumlee and Frye continue to slump.
Making KD Work
The lanky small forward has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP honors, and while simply containing him as a scorer is still wishful thinking, the Suns have a weapon in their arsenal that can at least force him to compete for every basket.
P.J. Tucker, who has established himself as a tenacious defender willing to take on daunting assignments, has earned respect from his fellow Texas Longhorn.
“P.J. is my guy,” Durant said prior to March loss against Phoenix, per AZ Central’s Paul Coro. “I think I compete against him harder than anybody that I play against.”
That’s high praise from a guy who may win MVP at season’s end. Although he did pour in 38 points against the Suns on Sunday, he was burying contested jumpers throughout the night and finished a less-than-stellar 4-of-15 from beyond the arc (26.7 percent).
Again, nobody can stop KD, but Tucker can at least make him earn every point.
Unlike the Thunder, who are constantly depending upon Durant and Westbrook to display typical dominance, the Suns can dispatch opponents in a variety of ways.
That versatility was on full display March 6—when Phoenix first beat OKC after surrendering 41 first-quarter points. A career-best performance from Green led the way.
The Suns were without Bledsoe and Plumlee due to injuries. “The Green Machine” took full advantage. He drained eight three-pointers en route to a career-high 41 points.
"I was just feeling it, man," he said after the game, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "Guys were finding me in transition. I was just being real aggressive. ... I'm not afraid to take big shots. I'm not afraid to take any type of shot."
During the most recent meeting, Tucker was the man of the hour. In addition to defending KD—an unenviable task—the dogged veteran posted a career-high 22 points—11 of which were scored in the fourth quarter.
He drained corner threes, hustled for loose balls and cashed clutch free throws. He quite literally willed his team to victory by simply refusing to lose on his home floor.
Phoenix knows that Durant and Westbrook are going to score in bulk. But when their teammates fail to step up and contribute, the Thunder become overmatched by a well-rounded Suns squad.
Dragic, Bledsoe, Tucker, Green, the Morris twins—points add up quickly when they all pick their spots for double-digit outings.
Of course, above all, the Suns simply have a will to compete. They don’t back down from superior teams, which has allowed Phoenix to thrive in the underdog role all season long.
Of the Suns' five remaining games, four will be played on the road. The only matchup in the friendly confines of U.S. Airways Center will be against the Memphis Grizzlies—who have owned the Suns this season, winning all three previous affairs.
Getting to the postseason is still Phoenix's goal at the moment, but it's fair to say they'd much rather face the Thunder than the San Antonio Spurs.
Confidence, fearlessness and small-ball rotations make the Suns a nightmare matchup for OKC—and Coach Brooks hasn't had an answer for Hornacek's schemes. The Suns have been counted out all season, but don't write them off in a seven-game series with OKC.