The Phoenix Suns had a 20 point lead.
And then they didn't.
"The tale of two halves," coach Hornacek said after the game. "We were good in the first half, we really moved the ball. Then for whatever reason, it looked like we ran out of gas. We weren't getting up and down the court. We had turnovers and they were getting easy baskets."
And what was obvious to the fans was obvious to the players as well.
"Once we got down, we just folded," P.J. Tucker said.
"I don't know if the guys felt demoralized when that happened," Hornacek said of the third quarter turnovers. "But you‘ve got to keep playing."
The Suns shot out of the gate on fire, with Markieff Morris scoring the team's first 11 points and making the Thunder look really bad on defense.
The boys in purple and orange built a 20-point lead, capped by a fast break with Marcus Morris on the finish. Or, attempted finish. He was shoved really hard by Russell Westbrook, who was assessed only a common foul when it looked like a flagrant was coming.
The Suns mustered 62 first half points, at times looking like a real, solid offense with Knight back in the rotation. Knight was cutting into the lane, splitting defenders and finding open guys for shots. The Suns made four of their first eight three-point attempts and were shooting better than 60% as they built the 20-point lead.
But after Westbrook was only given a common foul, D.J. Augustin drew a foul call on bad three-point attempt that was clearly blocked by Brandon Knight. But Augustin got the free throws and very quickly the Thunder had pulled back to within 12. By the end of the half, the lead had been whittled down to 8 on the back of Russell Westbrook, who scored their last 16 points of the second quarter as the Thunder put up 20 in the final 5 minutes of the quarter. That was the first run by the Thunder.
The third quarter didn't have any big runs by either team, but the Thunder set a new tone with spirited defense.
"Just attacking. I thought we did a great job," Westbrook said afterward. "Once they got up by 20 we made a decision if we wanted to defend or go home. As you can see, we decided to defend and close out the quarter at a reasonable number and it went up hill from there."
First, in the third the Thunder came out a lot more aggressive. Their bigs hedged hard on pick-and-rolls, forcing the Suns point guard all the way to the sideline in a trap with the guard. The Suns big was able to roll into the lane, but the Suns PG couldn't see over the defensive pressure. This speaks of poor pick-setting by the big, but also of lack of aggressiveness by the Suns guards, Bledsoe and Knight.
The Suns helped the Thunder by settling for jump shots (and missing them), especially three-pointers. After making 4 of their first 8 threes, the Suns managed to miss 13 of their last 14 attempts. Ouch. It's comical how bad the Suns have shot threes in the second half of the season. So funny I forgot to laugh.
Over the course of the third quarter, the Suns only mustered 17 points, at one point missing 10 straight shots. As that unfolded, you could see they started passing up open shots.
"I think it's when they start pressing," coach Hornacek said of the droughts. "They don't make a few shots. We've had stretches like that almost all year where we miss two or three, and then all of a sudden it becomes five and then it's eight, 10, 12, and then guys are a little tentative about shooting. When they do shoot it, it's kind of an afterthought. It's hard to shoot when it's an afterthought."
They kept the lead on their own defense, which was aggressive as well, but could not pull away.
The big, back-breaking run was by the second unit of the Thunder, led by D.J. Augustin's aggressive play on Archie Goodwin and smooth shooting stroke. Between him and Anthony Morrow, they made 5 of 6 threes in the first few minutes of the fourth of turn a three-point deficit to a 12-point lead, all without Westbrook in the game.
"It was crazy because they went with a small lineup with Westbrook out," Tucker said. "They were attacking, getting in the paint and kicking it out on those guys. They were moving the ball, getting open shots and they were knocking them down."
The Thunder went with Kyle Singler at power forward and Anthony Morrow at small forward during that stretch where they broke the game open. Because of that, and their effectiveness at scrambling, the Suns had to go small too.
They played Markieff Morris and Brandan Wright at center, leaving Alex Len's 11 rebounds and 3 blocks on the bench.
There's 8 games left as the Suns play out the string, including tonight's game against Portland.
"That's a tough blow," Morris said. "We just got to stick together and finish the season strong. We're still not out of it. We just got to finish strong."
Of the rest of the season, Keef said, "Being professional and just doing your job. Finishing something you started...Anything is possible. Just got to keep fighting.""
I'm highly curious how the Suns play out the string, and how the rotation changes over the next two weeks.
"We'll find out what kind of character they have," Hornacek said of the final two weeks. "We got to play these games, and they're all against good teams, so have pride to go out there and try to win that game. You worry about what the record is at the end. We got ourselves back into position, but couldn't win any of these last three games."