The Thunder have pushed the Suns all-in, and it is win or go home for Phoenix. If the Suns pull out a win tonight, they remain right in the thick of the playoff race. A loss and you can call it quits, the Suns will be fighting for nothing more than a winning record in the history books.
Let’s get one thing good and straight before tonight’s game: If the Suns lose this game they will not make the playoffs. A loss tonight to Oklahoma City puts the Phoenix Suns 4 GB the Western Conference 8th seed and with an OKC win giving them a 3-1 head-to-head tie breaker it would functionally be a five game lead for the Thunder. The Suns would also (likely) be 1.5 GB the Pelicans who face a murderously tough Minnesota Timberwolves team tonight, in the Smoothie King Center (seriously, New Orleans?).
But if the Suns win tonight they are absolutely in contention. Phoenix would tie Oklahoma City in the season head-to-head column and would guarantee themselves the second tiebreaker over OKC if it came down to it. There is no way for the Suns to close the gap on Oklahoma City in terms of record without also taking the lead in the conference record race. New Orleans may get the benefit of playing Minnesota, Los Angeles—not the one with Chris Paul--, and Sacramento but they also still have to play Phoenix between now and the end of the season and their schedule isn’t anything to scoff at… Okay it’s a little bit to scoff at.
Plain and simple, the Suns and their fans still have a season to cheer for if Phoenix wins tonight, even if they would still be the underdogs. If they lose, it’s over. Plug in TJ and Archie for 36 minutes a night, shut down Bledsoe the moment it becomes mathematically impossible, and if Len so much as turns his ankle walking up stairs sit him for the rest of the season.
These are the stakes. Let’s go SUNS!
What Vegas Thinks: ¾ of a Basket (Thunder -1.5, O/U)
I’ve gotta say, I’ve never understood a line where one team is getting 1.5 points. 1.5 points? Some of the closest games I have ever seen have ended with a team losing by more than that. Is there a single person in Vegas who is going to bet on the Suns using the logic "Well, I don’t think Phoenix is going to win, but I think there is a good chance that if they don’t win they can cover." Just call it what it is, a toss-up!
Regardless of my qualms with the ¾ of a basket advantage OKC is getting over the Suns, the over/under on this game is insane in my humble opinion. Suns games have hit the under in 9 of their last 10, and none of those games have gotten within two possessions of 214. Granted, OKC hasn’t been able to defend a pick and roll to save their life and the last Thunder-Suns showdown resulted in 230 points being scored but I am going under all the way with this one. 214 just seems far-fetched given the Suns recent style of play.
Vegas Prediction: Thunder 108 Suns 106
What the National Media Thinks: Nothing rhymes with…
Enes Kanter reminded us that ugly break ups are always funny when they aren’t happening to us. Yesterday Kanter made comments about the Utah Jazz organization and their professionalism, or lack thereof, and professed his love for Oklahoma City. The Jazz have played better without Kanter, and the rim protection duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert has been incredibly effective. Kanter has been a daily double-double guy for the Thunder. So why the bad break up? Shouldn’t both parties be happy with their new roster?
Ultimately, last night was just a competition between ex’s for who is better off now that they have broken up. Suns fans should be happy that Enes opened his mouth because apparently Trey Burke took offense and turned into Isaiah Thomas last night. Suns fans should also be happy because this whole ordeal was proof that it isn’t at all strange to get into a spitting contest with guys after they get traded or leave the franchise, a frequent tactic of the Phoenix FO.
Kanter really has no reason to be frustrated with the Jazz. They have a defensive minded coach and Kanter didn’t play a lick of defense and yet he frequently played 25+ minutes a night. The Jazz shouldn’t be frustrated with Kanter either, he was a skilled big man in the post for them and yet they shoved him out to the wings to make room for raw talent in Gobert. These two weren’t a good fit, are both in better positions now that the trade happened, and neither really screwed the other. But break ups are tough, so maybe this will be a fun sideshow story line for years to come.
What Oklahoma City Fans Think: Remember this moment
The biggest story here on Bright Side of the Sun right now is clearly the playoff race, and that is great. There is also Brandon Knight’s impending free agency, the young guns waiting in the wings, Alex Len’s ankles, the Morrii being hilariously and devastatingly frustrating, and Eric Bledsoe’s value versus potential value. These are all great and interesting story lines and how each individual story line plays out will factor into determining the future of the Suns franchise, along with a dozen other story lines we may or may not even know about yet.
All of these stories are absolutely nothing in comparison to Kevin Durant and Kevin Durant’s foot injury and Kevin Durant’s free agency in Oklahoma City. Right now, with a superstar and impending free agent sitting out the remainder of his second to last season under contract and a foot with multiple screws in it being the reason, it is fair for OKC fans to believe their entire franchise hangs in the balance. Without Durant they lose Westbrook just one year later, and then it is all the way back to square one. ALL the way back.
SB Nation brother site Welcome to Loud City has been covering the topic ferociously, with stories such as this and this becoming common place. Big red buttons? The State of the Thunder? The next 14 months are as critical a time for Oklahoma City as any franchise in any sport has experienced in the last decade. Either it works out, the Thunder get to keep two of the NBA’s six best players for another half decade at least, or one of the NBA’s smallest markets goes back to the drawing board. These are the stakes.
The Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder are like prize fighters, dancing around, mirroring the other's movements. The Suns are still three games behind the Thunder for 8th place and a playoff spot, just like they were three weeks (and eight games) ago.
Both have lost their last two games, one of them a clunker, after winning four straight. There hasn't been full-game movement between these two in the standings since the first week of March.
Suns fans are, frankly, tired of it. As my dad used to say "Sh*t or get off the pot!". We want to see something happen. Anything. But meanwhile, the team is just sitting there, reading a magazine.
Finally, tonight, there will be movement. The Suns and Thunder face off in the desert as one is finally forced to land another punch.
Kevin Durant needs more foot surgery and is out for the season. Serge Ibaka had knee surgery and is out for the next few weeks. Energizer bunny Nick Collison and defensive specialist Andre Roberson are out with ankle sprains.
Yet while Kanter is putting up great numbers - even having a stretch of three games last week where he averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds - he is a defensive turnstile that has helped make the Thunder the 2015 version of Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets.
Kanter burned just about every bridge he could find, and even some houses for good measure, this weekend when he returned to Salt Lake City and his old stomping grounds to face the Jazz.
"The difference is, probably, I like playing basketball there (in OKC)," he said to the media when asked to compare the teams. "I never liked playing basketball before in my NBA career (all with the Jazz). I didn't bring it every night. It wasn't just a one or two game frustration. It was a three and a half year frustration."
But it gets even better.
"It's everything," he told Royce Young, of ESPN, of the difference between the teams. "The fans, the coaches, the team, the atmosphere is amazing. I've never felt anything like that before. It's so different. It wasn't just the basketball stuff. It was professionalism of the team. After I see in OKC, I see this is how NBA teams are. You know how you're like in a dream and you have a superpower and just don't want to open your eyes and end the dream? Oklahoma City's been that to me."
Wow. Now that's a blowtorch.
How did the Jazz react? By getting the win. NewsOK has a nice recap of how the game unfolded for Kanter.
Enes Kanter scored 18 points with 11 rebounds, his eighth straight double-double and 12th as a member of the Thunder. But in his first game back in Utah since the deadline deal that brought him to OKC, Kanter appeared to let a venomous crowd get the better of him. He was booed incessantly throughout the night and played to the crowd at various points, even egging it on. But he turned the ball over four times, committed five fouls and did not score a point or grab a rebound in the fourth quarter.
Since trading Kanter and his 13 points and 8 rebounds away for nothing (Kendrick Perkins, who was waived, and a 2017 second round pick), the Utah Jazz have won 13 of 20 games behind the league's BEST defense - by far - and a functional offense. Rudy Gobert has led the charge, taking over Kanter's starting center role and showing the team what defense is all about.
Utah didn't even need Derrick Favors and got an ugly game from Gordon Hayward, but still won.
The Thunder will almost certainly make the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see if Enes Kanter can help them win once they get there.
Check out more on the Thunder at our SB Nation brother site Welcome to Loud City
With the Thunder becoming an offensive juggernaut and defensive sieve since acquiring Kanter and losing Durant for good, the Suns will have to score better than usual to beat them.
On the good side, their best offensive game since the trades came against these Thunder (minus Steven Adams, who is back now to man the middle a bit). The Suns scored 117 points in that game, including 28 points from Eric Bledsoe who used Kanter's cement feet as a foil all game to get easy layups off the pick and roll.
The Suns might be wondering what could have been, but if there's anything to take away from this Suns team is that they are uniquely adept at having a clear mind for every challenge. They quickly forget bad losses, but also quickly flush the good wins too.
Who knows which Suns team will show up tonight, and whether they will take this game as a measuring stick on their quickly-failing attempt to make the playoffs.
They would certainly have a better chance with Brandon Knight back, if only to take A.J. Price's minutes and to allow Archie Goodwin to play shooting guard. But Knight is taking it slow, more concerned with his health and being 100% than trying to hobble around during a playoff push.
"Whether it's being a free agent or just in general, you want to make sure you're looking out for yourself, especially when you're 23," Knight said to Paul Coro on Saturday. "You hear a lot of guys say, 'If I could do it again, I wouldn't have rushed back from this or that. I would've took my time.' Guys say that for a reason. You have to listen to your body. I don't think I would help my teammates if I can't do certain things. Get beat here, get beat there and they'd be looking at me like, 'B-Knight, what are you doing?' I'd be like, 'I'm not 100 percent.' When I get it out there, I want to make sure I'm doing my job."
There is a lot of money at stake for Knight this summer, so you can understand why he wouldn't want to jeopardize his future by playing on a hobbled ankle for three weeks. He'd rather play like himself for two. It just sucks for the team, knowing any minutes at all could have tipped the scales against either Sacramento or Portland.
Eric Bledsoe should have one of his best games of the season tonight. He's got two triple doubles this year, and four near-misses including the last game over the Thunder (28 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists). Bledsoe seems to really get up for face-offs against a point guard considered better than him.
I'll also predict that one of Brandon Knight, Archie Goodwin or Gerald Green will have more points than Dion Waiters. Yep, that's me not only going out on a limb but jumping off it. If the Suns are going to win this game, they need an unexpected contribution from somewhere. But therein lies the problem for coach Hornacek. Two of these three will likely miss most of their shots. He'd be lucky to get a great night from one of them. Giving enough time to all three to find that hot hand is a nightly task.
Interested in playing Daily Fantasy Basketball with the chance to win money? Sign up for FanDuel here! You can bet on Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight or Markieff Morris filling the stat sheet for the Suns, but the best bet is Russell Westbrook, who puts up monster numbers every night.
If I've learned anything this year, it's to expect the unexpected.
I'll go out and say the Suns will win this one, cutting the Thunder lead to 2 games with 8 to go, just to extend our anxiety for another week.