Thunder Continues to Fight as Regular Season Closes

Once the 2011-2012 regular season is said and done, the Thunder will have played 132 halves of basketball, so for Head Coach Scott Brooks and players like guard James Harden, the second half of its loss against the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t linger on the mind longer than necessary. With five remaining games (and ten more halves) in the regular season remaining, the Thunder let go of the game in Los Angeles on Monday night and realized that its core personality will help it move past one cold shooting half.

“I think we had a bad half, which I think every team will go through, especially in this league,” Harden said. “We love winning, everyone in this organization loves winning and loves doing the right thing. As we keep working hard and bettering ourselves every single day, we’ll be alright.”

There’s no better recipe to a tough loss than to get back out on the floor against a challenging opponent, which will be the Thunder’s task tonight in Phoenix against the surging Suns. This game against a team that is currently penciled into the eighth seed in the Western Conference will be just the type of test the Thunder can use to learn more about itself and what type of basketball it wants to play starting a week-and-a-half from now in round one of the playoffs.

“We still want to keep charging ahead, keep moving, keep improving,” Brooks said. “We have a chance to play against some tough teams coming up. Phoenix, it’s a pretty important game for them, and we know how they play. They’re always a tough team to match up with, so it’s going to be a great challenge tonight.”

Phoenix is 7-3 in its last ten games and finds itself in a tie with the Houston Rockets for the final seed in the West. Led by veteran point guard and two-time league MVP Steve Nash, the Suns will be scrapping and clawing just as hard as the Thunder will be to play its best 48 minutes of basketball each night. Bringing that highest level of energy and intensity is a sure-fire way to give a team a chance to win, something that Harden expects both squads to do tonight.

“They’re trying to get into the playoff race, we’re trying to fight for that number one seed,” Harden said. “So, obviously this game has a big meaning. They have a great point guard over there who comes off a lot of pick-and-rolls and a lot of great shooters over there. So we’re going to have to control the ball and get out to their shooters. It’s going to be a good game, it’s going to be a good bounce back game for us.”

Schematically, the Suns always present a challenge for opponents because of its personnel and the way Nash is able to manipulate screens, find his teammates and run the offense. The Thunder is 2-0 against the Suns this season thanks to some match-up advantages of its own, which were on display on March 7 at Chesapeake Energy Arena when Russell Westbrook went off for 35 points, Kevin Durant chipped in 30 points of his own and Serge Ibaka stepped forward with a gargantuan 18-point, 20-rebound performance. Still, Brooks said at shoot-around this morning that the key as always will not be the Thunder’s offense, but the way it defends aggressive Phoenix guards and big men.

“They have a pretty good point guard, what’s his name again?” Brooks deadpanned in reference to Nash, the perennial All-Star, before continuing to the rest of the Suns’ roster. “Sebastian (Telfair) has come in and played well. They have good shooters. They have shooters all around the floor. They have a good point guard that finds them and (Marcin) Gortat is playing great basketball. He’s right at a borderline All-Star level. The way he rolls and the way he finishes around the rim and he can shoot the ball with a mid-range shot.”

Pick-and-roll defense has been a constant theme for Coach Brooks in his points of emphasis for his team throughout the season, so look for the Thunder to continue to sharpen that aspect of its defensive approach tonight. Regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard for tonight’s game, Harden and the rest of his teammates think that if they can use the final regular season games to learn and grow, it will only pay dividends in May.

“We have five more to go, we’ll finish these five games out and get ready for the playoffs,” Harden said.