Undermanned for the second straight game and playing without three of its starters, the Thunder led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter before Phoenix found its offensive rhythm and took control of the remaining three quarters.
Once again, the Thunder reserves looked to take advantage of valuable extended minutes as several of its players were sidelined on Monday. OKC was without Steven Adams (leg contusion), Nerlens Noel (ankle sprain), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (calf contusion), Danilo Gallinari (ankle maintenance) and Dennis Schröder (away from team) on the second night of its one and only back-to-back.
Without three of its usual starters, the Thunder employed a starting unit of Abdel Nader, Darius Bazley and Mike Muscala alongside Chris Paul and Luguentz Dort. This gave the Thunder players who typically play fewer minutes, an opportunity to gain valuable in-game experience against the high-powered offense of Phoenix. Coming into the game, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan was anxious to see how his younger players would generate shots for one another and stick to its identity and principles on the offensive end.
Early on, the Thunder’s offense operated with great pace and tempo behind the high-energy defensive effort from Thunder guards like Hamidou Diallo and Abdel Nader who both snatched a pair of steals each in the first quarter. Defense turned into offense in the early going as OKC forced eight first quarter turnovers from Phoenix that which translated into 10 points for the Thunder.
As the lone primary ballhandler, Paul got out to an early start in facilitating offense. Similar to the Thunder’s start against Washington on Sunday, the 10-time All-Star orchestrated pick-and-pops to find both Muscala and Bazley for open looks from behind the arc. His leadership continued off the floor as a vocal leader on the sidelines guiding his fellow teammates in their first in-game looks as primary ball handlers. Without Gilgeous-Alexander or Schröder, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan instituted several lineups where either Dort, Nader or even Deonte Burton served as the point guard on the floor.
“I wanted to try to give some other guys an opportunity to handle the ball and deal with some pressure and be able to make some plays and have to run on offense,” Donovan said. “For the most part they tried to do a really, really good job … the first quarter they played really well. I thought we came out really ready to play and I thought Chris did a great job leading.”
Devin Booker looked to shoulder the load offensively for the Suns with 10 of the Suns first 16 points of the night. To contain him, the Thunder sent multiple bodies to Booker on nearly every possession and forced three turnovers from the Suns’ leading scorer. For a Phoenix team who leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, the Thunder held them to seven assists and six turnovers, nearly 1-to-1.
The game flow came to a screeching halt in the second quarter as the Thunder’s defensive energy began to translate into fouls. The plethora of whistles caused a rut for the Thunder on the offensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, Cameron Johnson erupted for 13 points in the second quarter to help his team overcome the 15-point deficit in front of them.
By halftime, Phoenix erased the Thunder’s lead completely and held on to a one-point advantage thanks to 19 first-half points from Devin Booker and another 15 from Cameron Payne. Coming out of the half, the Thunder had an opportunity to right the ship and regain a lead, but Phoenix pulled away on a 13-5 run thanks to a surging 16-point quarter by Devin Booker to gain control of the momentum and keep the Thunder out of reach.
“Our defense was not great there during that early stretch of the third,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “But for the guys that were out there, I think there'll be some really good learning experiences from being able to have to make plays with the ball in their hands.”
By the final buzzer, Phoenix outscored the Thunder 66-37 in the second half and Devin Booker finished with a game-high 35 points. However, as the Thunder inch closer and closer to the postseason, it’s game experience like this that will give Thunder role players opportunities to grow and take what they’ve seen from film and from the sidelines and execute it in real-time. As Coach Donovan has mentioned many times, in this unprecedented environment, it’s crucial to keep every player engaged.
“The good thing about our team is we talk all game long,” Paul said. “Even in some of the other games where those guys didn't play as many minutes, we talk about the things that we see. So, I think in this game where a lot of those guys are getting a chance to play, we were just talking about translating it. They get to observe a lot when they're watching some of the other games and now you put it into action so it was cool to see everybody put things together.”
Going into the second quarter, the Thunder led 37-23, but five quick points from Phoenix to start the second frame began the tipping of the scales in the Suns direction. By the end of the second quarter, the Suns had outscored OKC 42-27 as the Thunder’s offensive rhythm began to stall.
“I think it was a combination of a couple things,” Coach Donovan said. “One is that I thought their defensive intensity really picked up and they pressured us … I thought their pressure disrupted us and we got a little bit stagnant. We made some pretty decent plays when we broke their defense down and make good plays we were able to get some open looks, but I thought in that second quarter they turned up the defensive intensity and that probably took us out of some rhythm.”
Play of the Game
In the first quarter, the Thunder put on a clinic of textbook examples of defense translating to offense. In this example, Chris Paul poked the ball away from an unaware Devin Booker and immediately zoomed in the opposite direction. Deonte Burton, the recipient of the loose ball, sent it up the floor to Darius Bazley. Without a single dribble, Bazley dropped the ball off to Paul who then lofted a pass to the rookie for a two-handed jam over Dario Saric who was caught in the middle.
Stat of the Night22/10
With 22 points and 10 rebounds, Darius Bazley became the first Thunder rookie to record a double-double since Domantas Sabonis in January of 2017. This marks the second consecutive game where the Thunder rookie has notched over 20 points and his third look at minutes at the center position for the Thunder with the absence of Steven Adams.
“He’s done a really good job. I think the four-month layoff slowed things down for him a little bit,” Coach Donovan said. “I think the one thing about it is he’s shot the ball better because he's taking better shots, and I think our guys have put them in position where he's been able to be a lot more efficient. I think he's understanding when to drive and when to shoot a lot more now.”
Quotes of the Night
“As a group, we're going to go back and watch film, learn and take away from that. At no point in time in the game do we ever want to fall back, just stop with our principles and maybe get complacent with where we are.” –Darius Bazley
“There's nothing like confidence and there's nothing like real game minutes. You practice but nothing can simulate the game so it's always good to get those real minutes in games.” –Chris Paul
The Thunder have two matches remaining before the playoffs begin. On Wednesday, the OKC will take on an Eastern Conference foe in Miami before turning to its final game of the seeding schedule against the Clippers on Friday.