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.
With the playoff push on, the Phoenix Suns have turned to another world basketball veteran to help them get over the hump and keep playing games into May. Add Shavlik Randolph to a rotation that features P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green.
The Phoenix Suns signed a relatively unknown big man last week to bring some veteran moxie to a team in a playoff push that's been counting on two young big men in the pivot all season, Miles Plumlee and Alex Len.
The Suns already start a world traveler in P.J. Tucker at small forward and Gerald Green at shooting guard. Both players spent years of their athletic prime out of the NBA as they honed their craft and figured out how to make themselves indispensable to an NBA team.
Shavlik Randolph (6'10", 240) has not played more than 16 games in an NBA season since he was a rookie, but he's had 6 seasons of NBA experience and brings a needed presence under the basket. He's also had two full seasons and a couple of partial seasons overseas as he keeps his basketball career alive.
What does he bring to the Suns?
"We like, defensively, how he's a little more mobile and active," coach Jeff Hornacek said after Randolph's first game on Sunday night. "A lot of times if you're just in the right position, guys don't get to that shot (they want). That's what he brings. There's a lot to be said for being in the right position at the right time."
Clearly, Hornacek doesn't expect Randolph to be a world beater. He's played in 113 total career games, with only 7 NBA starts to his credit and career averages of 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.
He's not as athletic as Miles Plumlee or as talented as Alex Len. But neither of the Suns young big men has seen as much basketball as Randolph, who knows he just needs to be in the right place at the right time.
"I try to stay in my lane," he said. "Not try to do anything I can't do. My mentality is just to stay ready. Coach has been great at communicating with me, since I got here."
In two games, Randolph is a +18 in 24 minutes of play, tallying 11 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. He was on the court when the Suns made good runs against both Atlanta and the Clippers. He's not a shot blocker or a talented offensive player, but he's active and is willing to do the dirty work. The Suns outrebounded the bigger Clippers, and Randolph was good at boxing out huge center DeAndre Jordan.
"My focus was just to try to get a body on him," he said. "Let my teammates get the rebound."
With Miles Plumlee nursing an knee sprain, and Alex Len not playing well enough to be trusted in crunch minutes, expect Hornacek to turn to Randolph in crunch minutes for the foreseeable future. Randolph can allow the Suns other big men to be more active and aggressive while Randolph does the little things like boxing out.
Still, Randolph is just a week removed from sitting at home in Miami after ending his China season with a thud. Now, he's been a fourth-quarter mainstay as the Suns try to keep their heads above water.
"I just kept myself ready," he said. "When I went over to China, I did it with the mindset that I was going to come back and finish the season in the NBA."
China wasn't fun for him, after hurting his shoulder early in the season.
"It happened at the beginning of the season in China," he said. "I missed a few more games than they wanted me to miss. It kinda got dicey over there. If you don't play, the team starts losing, they stop paying you. You're not getting the medical attention you need. It was dicey."
But now he's back in the states, doing what he wanted to do all along.
"My wind is coming faster than my knowledge of the plays is coming," Randolph said of joining the Suns. "This team, they have a system that works, a rotation that works. So I'm having to go in and figure out what I can do to help a team that's already really good."
Randolph sees a lot of promise in young Alex Len, who started the last game and contributed 6 points and 6 rebounds in the first half.
"He's a very talented young big man with a big future in this league," Randolph said of Len. "I think [Len] showed glimpses of it tonight. You see his size, his ability to play above the rim, how long he is. The Suns have a lot to be excited about."
But for now, the coach wants someone who knows his way around the block. He wants a guy who will deliver the same performance every single time out. Randolph can provide that.
According to Paul Coro of azcentral.com, the Suns will activate point guard Eric Bledsoe some time in the next four games.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe will definitely not play on Thursday night against OKC. But he could play anytime after that.
Of the three return date options, a Sunday return is the least likely because the Suns play again a night later after a short flight.
"You don’t know how they’ll come back," Hornacek said. "We might bring Eric in off the bench a little bit. We hope he’s there at the end of game. If you throw him right into the starting lineup, it might screw you up for a few games."
With Plumlee and Bledsoe returning any game now, the Suns will continue to fight their toughest stretch of schedule with upcoming games against Western foes Oklahoma City (Thursday), at Golden State (Sunday) and then at the Los Angeles Clippers (Monday) on a back-to-back.
Goran Dragic also now has a left side strain. Sounds like a bruised rib to me.
All credit to Paul Coro on this. Hit up the link.