When athletes lose in a painful fashion, they'll often say they can't wait to play their next game, to have another chance to compete, to prove themselves again as soon as possible. The Suns will have that opportunity, as it were, after playing about 2 1/2 quarters of great basketball in Oklahoma City last night before collapsing down the stretch in a 115-104 loss to the Western Conference leading Thunder.
Tonight, the Suns face last year's NBA champions, the Dallas Mavericks, at home and will hope to both start and finish strong to be able to split this challenging back to back. This will be the Suns last matchup against the Mavs this season after the Mavs won the first three, and the last eight overall against Phoenix. The Suns last defeated the Mavs on January 28, 2010.
Even at 17-21 and in 12th place in the West, the Suns remain only 3 games back of the #8 and final playoff spot.
Tonight's game will be televised nationally on TNT.
More after the jump.
Let's review what happened in the first three meetings between these teams:
In the January 4th contest, the Mavs dominated the boards, Dirk was Dirk, and even the usual strong performances from Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat couldn't save the day, as 7footer detailed the Suns 98-89 loss for us.
Former Sun Shawn Marion provided the difference in the second game later in January, again covered by the prolific 7footer, as a "new and improved" Suns line-up (remember Markieff Morris and Ronnie Price as starters?) dropped a 93-87 decision to the Mavs.
Steve Nash missed the third meeting with a thigh bruise and, for some reason, the Suns used that occasion to play horrible defense. Wil had the honor of covering the ensuing 122-99 massacre.
And now the Suns will have to bounce back from a game on the road last night, and a loss that had to be deflating. The Mavs are only 23-17 and 6th in the West, not exactly looking like World Champions this season as Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea departed via free agency, Dirk Nowitzki hasn't been as dominant and trade pick-up Lamar Odom has been a headcase.
Here are the Mavs numbers so far this season.
Jonathan Tjarks from SB Nation Dallas and I exchanged questions and answers leading up to tonight's game. My answers to him regarding the Suns can be found here, and his regarding the Mavs follow:
Q: Is the Lamar Odom situation in Dallas salvageable? Was his heart simply not in it from the start?
Jonathan: I don't think it would be fair to speculate on whatever off-the-court issues, which forced him to miss 4 games last week, are bothering Odom.
However, most of his on-the-court struggles have come because he's playing out of position. In LA, he played at the 4 and blew by bigger opponents but in Dallas, he's at the 3 with Dirk at the 4 and he's not nearly as comfortable posting up. However, despite his poor stats, he's been very valuable to the Mavs in terms of upgrading their length/athleticism defensively and giving them a second shot-creator off the bench. It's no coincidence Dallas went 0-4 with Odom gone.
One of our writers had a pretty even-handed take on his time in Dallas earlier in the week.
Q: How big has the loss of Tyson Chandler been for the Mavs this season?
Jonathan: Chandler was as important to Dallas defensively as Dirk was offensively last season. It hasn't been born out by the statistics this year because of how the Mavericks upgraded their perimeter athleticism and the decline in offense due to the lockout, but it's going to be a significant issue come playoff time. Chandler has the best qualities of all three Dallas centers (Haywood's post defense, Mahinmi's rim protection and Wright's finishing ability) in one package and he was the far superior rebounder.
Q: Dirk Nowitzki has a lot of mileage on the odometer in his 14th NBA season, and will be 34 this June. Does he have another MVP-type season left in him?
Jonathan: I'd use the analogy of a sports car. If Dirk has a quarter tank of gas left in his engine, an MVP season would be throttling him to 90, which would deplete his tank far quicker than going 60 for 3-4 more seasons. The Mavs are going to try and extend his career as far as possible, similar to what the Suns and Spurs do with Nash and Duncan, so I don't think Dirk will have the statistics to get another MVP in his career.
Q: Do you see the Mavs as legitimate Western Conference contenders this season?
Jonathan: It depends how you define "contender". I don't think they'll get out of the West but, if healthy come playoff time, they're right there with all of the teams chasing OKC. How far they advance, with the WCF probably being their ceiling, will depend on match-ups. The one team I don't want to see is Denver because they are so athletic on the perimeter and can really put pressure on your interior defense w/so many players who can penetrate and finish at the rim.
Q: Will Deron Williams be a target of the Mavs this off-season? If so, what do you think the chances are the Mavs land him?
Jonathan: He's a Dallas native and he's one of the top 3 PG's in the NBA so it's a pretty obvious connection. It sounds like Williams is going to try and team up with Howard in 2012 so I think it will all come down to Otis Smith's decision in Orlando over the next two weeks.
You never know what a man is going to do when you put him on a decision for all his chips, so it's hard to put a percentage on Dallas' chances for Williams and Howard. I think we'll have a much clearer idea of what's going to happen on March 16.
This Suns team has had some stinkers of games where they've not played hard or not played smart and on a few occasions both at the same time.
This game was not that. This was a very impressive outing from the Suns.
They played hard and fast and took the game right to the Thunder. They forced OKC to bench a starter, Kendrick Perkins, for almost the entire second half because he couldn't keep up with the pace of the game or the mobility of Marcin Gortat. They made Kevin Durant dig deep in his bag of super star tricks and pull out big shots from his rear end. They got out-talented by James Harden (amazing game, James).
They even needed some "favorable" calls to keep Grant Hill on the bench longer than he would have otherwise been...and I don't think it was a coincidence that Hill was sitting during the entire OKC comeback run.
In the end, it was a very solid effort from the Suns. If they had played this way to start the season they would be in the playoff picture right now and not four-games below .500. If they can continue to play this way -- consistently -- they still have a slim chance.
Enough of that, here's where this game turned: Shannon Brown blew two-straight possessions. First on defense and then on offense.
Is it fair to blame Shannon Brown and two bad possessions for the entire game?
NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT.
But they were the trigger point for a Thunder comeback that was powered by a 26-5 run spanning about seven minutes at the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters.
Alvin Gentry in his post game comments pointed out this one play as the turning point, so let's start there.
The Suns went to the zone with 4:47 left in the third quarter up 82-68. The Thunder scored just once against the zone in six tried in the second quarter according to mySynergySports.com.
The Suns got two blocks and bad misses on their next four defensive possessions before Durant hit a ridiculous and well defended shot.
Then this happened.
The Thunder advance the ball after a Suns make. It's 86-74 Phoenix with 2:10 to go in the third.
As you can see, the Suns set up the zone except Shannon Brown is lost and covering nobody. This forced Jared Dudley to rotate to the ball to help Steve and leaves James Harden WIDE OPEN for a three.
It's pretty obvious that Brown as the left side high man in the zone should have been up with Steve and covering Westbrook which would have allowed Dudley to stay closer to Harden. That didn't happen.
Gentry was livid and called a time out.
Out of the time out, the Thunder blow their defense as well and end up with two guys chasing Nash around screens and no one covering Brown. Shannon cuts to the front of the rim, is wide open, Morris gets him the ball, he travels.
Thunder run a classic zone offense play getting the ball to Durant in the middle of the lane which forces that back line to collapse and leaves Ibaka open for a dunk.
Gortat tries to post up Ibaka and dribbles off his leg.
Suns kill the zone. Durant posts up Dudley and scores.
Nash misses a little turnaround in the lane.
Nash goes under an Ibaka screen and Westbrook nails a three at the top of the arc.
And that's pretty much all she wrote.
The Suns fourth quarter offense deserves a mention here as well.
After scoring 90 in the first three quarter, they managed just 16 in the final one. They went 0-8 from three in the fourth with Dudley (3) and Redd (2) missing five of those. The Thunder went 4-8 from three in the fourth.
Having watched all eight missed threes, only one was well-defended and another was a desperation heave in the final seconds.
The Thunder did what other good teams have done to the Suns late in games -- they went small and rotated well and packed the paint. Phoenix did what you're supposed to do and kicked to the open shooters. The shooters just missed or maybe this is a different game.
Sometimes it just comes down to making shots....and not blowing your defensive assignments in the zone. Sorry Shannon, I know that's not fair.
A view from the other side:
Thunder Crush Suns in Second Half, Win 115-104 (Game #39 Recap) - Welcome to Loud City
The Suns were a great team through three quarters. This game unfolded very similarly to how the Magic game went a week ago, except for the fact that the Suns have superior offensive players. Through three quarters, the Suns played just about perfect offensive basketball. They had 26 assists on 34 made baskets. Steve Nash had the Thunder completely flummoxed; there were times when he would roll off of picks and then just jog into the lane for an easy lay-in and the Thunder had no idea how it happened.