Thunder Visit Suns in Next Preseason Game

James Harden is gone. Russell Westbrook is hurt. Kevin Martin left.

The Thunder are adjusting well anyway, thanks to the staying power of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka and an infusion of even younger talent.

Oklahoma City is 4-1 in preseason action despite playing star duo inconsistent minutes in order to experiment with other players on the roster. The process has unearthed other options OKC heading into Tuesday night’s exhibition game at Phoenix.

THUNDER at SUNS

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Where: US Airways Center

TV: None

Radio: Arizona Sports 620

Reggie Jackson, filling in for Westbrook at point guard, is averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals through five games. The third-year guard’s progress figures to be key while the Thunder try to remain contenders without Westbrook on the court.

Meanwhile Ibaka may have sooner-than-expected help in the frontcourt in the form of rookie center Steven Adams. The 12th overall pick from the 2013 draft, Adams, has logged double-digit rebounds in the last two contests, including a 10-point, 15-rebound performance against New Orleans. He followed that up with six points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in just 24 minutes in a win over the Jazz.

On the Suns' end, Dragic is considered day-to-day and unlikely to play on Tuesday due to a sprained ankle suffered last week. Eric Bledsoe figures to receive the majority of defensive attention from Thabo Sefolosha.

"We don’t want to rush him back," Hornacek said. "If it's still sore and playing it is going to aggravate it more, then to me there’s no sense of playing at this stage. We have five days off after these two games. If he’s feeling great and he says he has no problem with it, then he’ll play."

The Suns' big men will need to be more aware of Ibaka than they were against Clippers shot-blocker DeAndre Jordan, who rejected five shot attempts in the first half last Tuesday.

KEY MATCHUP

Hornacek has repeatedly admitted that the Suns’ small forward rotation is a collection of differing skill sets. P.J. Tucker is defensive-minded, Gerald Green is the bets shooter, and Marcus Morris offers a little bit of everything.

Subsequently all three present different looks to throw at Durant, who should in turn give Hornacek a clearer idea as to the capabilities of his small forward trio. Morris and Green are both taller than Tucker, but whether they’ve improved enough on defense to offer a similar defensive challenge will be answered fairly quickly on Tuesday night.

“We know P.J. plays hard and plays tough,” Hornacek said. “We’ll probably get those other guys on [Durant] to see how they do. That’ll be a good challenge for them.”

OPPONENT X-FACTOR

Even without Westbrook, the Thunder figure to contend due to 1) Durant and 2) their prowess on the boards. OKC was sixth in the league in rebounds per game last season, and they’ve eclipsed 50 boards in three of their five preseason contests already.

Ibaka is certainly a factor in that department, but what makes the Thunder so devastating is the ability of almost every player in their starting five to make an impact on the glass. Durant, the center rotation of Adams and Hasheem Thabeet, Sefolosha and even Reggie Jackson are all excellent team rebounders.

“It’s always a difficult time of year for players, coaches, management. These guys have put their hearts out there. They’ve worked hard for a long time. Tough decisions will have to be made, but that’s just part of the business.”

— Jeff Hornacek

The onus will be on the Suns, particularly their perimeter players, to remember to box out no matter who they’re matched up against.

FINAL THOUGHT

The Suns’ reserve guards should benefit with additional opportunities if Dragic is held out, though Hornacek could dole out the extra minutes in several ways.

Kendall Marshall and Ish Smith have evenly split time as backup point guards, while Dionte Christmas and James Nunnally have seen roughly seven fewer minutes per game than fellow off-guards Archie Goodwin and Shannon Brown.

Hornacek indicated on Monday that the team is planning on carrying every player presently on the roster through the final two preseason games this week before the following five-day break and regular season opener. These two games will either give 1) last-gasp opportunities to some of the roster hopefuls or 2) a better idea of Hornacek’s rotation moving forward.

“It’s always a difficult time of year for players, coaches, management,” Hornacek said. “These guys have put their hearts out there. They’ve worked hard for a long time. Tough decisions will have to be made, but that’s just part of the business.”