Technically, this is a playoff preview of what the first round 1-Seed and 8-Seed might look like in a month...
It has been a long time (not really, but it just feels that way) since the Phoenix Suns (35-25) had a quality MVP Candidate in a game with playoff relevance against another MVP Candidate. Sure, Kevin Durant is one of two candidates playing in Division I while Goran Dragic and a few others are playing in Division III, but regardless -- they are both playing for the same thing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (46-15) have the NBA's best record and have been playing very good basketball as of late after dropping three games in a row during a rough stretch.
For the Suns, they are in their rough stretch. A loss to the Clippers the other night is followed by a game against the Thunder and this will be followed by two more rough games against the Warriors and the Clippers in a return match. Each individual game becomes a playoff qualifier for the Suns right now and winning games against the better teams is a proving ground.
The athletic Thunder are going to pose a lot of challenges for the Suns with the waves of ultra athletic players that can put pressure on the defense.
Playing sound defense and not allowing the Thunder to get out in transition to use their athleticism is going to have to be a major focus for the Suns in this game. The Suns want to get out, run, and use their athleticism as well, but a track meet with the Thunder can be like challenging Usain Bolt to a foot race.
With the potential loss of Miles Plumlee (and Eric Bledsoe) for this game the Suns get a lot less athletic and will have to rely on skill, pick-and-rolls, and execution. Channing Frye and Gerald Green's shooting will be a key, but also could be fools gold as explained a little lower in the preview.
(Recent) History Lesson
0-1 Against the Thunder (103-96 PPG)
In the first loss of the season for the Suns they fought and played well against what is now the best team in the NBA right now. In that game Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 54 points and closed out the Suns who were equally carried by Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green who finished with 47 points. The game was lost in the fourth quarter as the Suns led heading in playing very well.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 98.4 PPG (1 wins)
Thunder: 110.6 PPG (11 wins)
What does 11 straight losses against one team look like? Like this. The Thunder have run off 11 straight wins over the Suns over the past four years and it has not been very competitive most nights with 8/11 games being won by double-digits...
SF - P.J. Tucker v. Perry Jones III
PF - Channing Frye v. Serge Ibaka
C - Alex Len v. Steven Adams
Potential rookie starting center battle, that is if Plumlee is ruled out, which is a "game-time decision" as of this moment. Len has showed some flashes as he gets his game legs underneath him on both ends of the floor. Same thing for Adams, but he has had an entire season to gain a rhythm while playing with two of the Top 10 players in the game. This match-up can help decide the game in terms of team depth in the paint for both teams. Whoever can stand their ground and not get into foul trouble might be able to put their finger-prints all over this game.
Interesting Stat: Three-Point Shooting
The Thunder defense is designed to give up a lot of three-point attempts (28th in the NBA), but they defend it as well as anyone (8th best percentage against in the NBA) using that against their opponents. For the Suns, they shoot a lot of threes (8th most) and shoot the ball better (2nd best percentage) than nearly every team overall. As the Suns get ready for the game good looks might not be as good against the Thunder due to their defense and length on the defensive end.