In the Valley of the Sun, the Thunder outlasted Phoenix in crunch time to close out its long five-game road trip with a win. Toughness and defensive execution played major keys to withstand the many punches thrown by Phoenix.
Before the Thunder could return home to OKC, it had to go through the Valley of the Sun to take on Phoenix who was without Devin Booker for the second straight game but led by former Thunder player Chris Paul. Rejoining the lineup for the Thunder after six games was center Al Horford who made an immediate splash upon his return going a perfect 2-for-2 from the 3-point line to start the game – a foreshadowing of his perfect 5-for-5 3-point performance for the game.
However, despite the boost from Horford, seven turnovers for the Thunder coupled with a red hot 54.5-percent 3-point shooting performance by Phoenix led to a slow start for OKC and an early 32-17 deficit in the first quarter.
The Thunder rallied in the second quarter, shooting 50 percent from the field by turning up the dial on its offensive pace. Behind 10 fast break points, OKC erupted on a 15-0 run to close out the second quarter to regain the lead after a 3-pointer from Lu Dort who would finish with four made triples.
After Phoenix opened up the game shooting a blistering 54 percent from the 3-point line and knocking down six deep ones, the Suns were completely eclipsed in the second quarter going a mere 4-for-26 from the field and a fruitless 0-for-11 from deep. “Obviously we didn’t start great and then [Phoenix] had a rough second quarter and we just stayed the course,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “We course corrected in game and showed some toughness.”
Phoenix answered in the third frame with a 15-0 run of its own headlined by Paul and Crowder who combined for 19 points. This time the Thunder’s second unit surged with big plays from rookie Aleksej Pokuševski who used his 7-foot reach as a disruptor on the defensive end. By the end of the night, Poku finished with an effective seven points, four rebounds and a career-high three blocks. OKC also got a major boost from Hamidou Diallo whose explosive drives to the basket earned him trips to the foul line to tie the game going into the fourth quarter.
After OKC leveled the playing field heading in to the fourth quarter, the two teams traded buckets to open the final frame. Paul carried the load for the Suns’ offense as he poured in 15 points in the final 12 minutes of play to help his team build up a small six-point margin midway through the fourth.
OKC remained poised and patiently chipped away at the Suns’ lead. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who tied with Horford for a game-high 21 points, struck a balance late in the game of both finishing at the basket and finding his teammates for open looks. This was most evident in the pair of offensive plays in the final two minutes where the Thunder regained the lead. In one play, SGA drove the left side of the lane and finished craftily at the basket. In the ensuing possession, after Horford secured one of his team-high 11 rebounds, SGA found Dort on the perimeter for a wide-open 3-pointer with two minutes to go to take the lead.
“I think he's had a really good balance on this trip where he understands how to choose the spots but he also understands how to trust guys,” said Daigneault. “I thought he really trusted his teammates down the stretch tonight. Passed the ball really well and get other guys involved.”
Defensively, several players came up big in the final moments. OKC’s defensive ace in Dort drew three big-time offensive fouls on DeAndre Ayton in the final five minutes of play as he fought to contain Paul off of the ball screens. Darius Bazley secured a massive defensive rebound with 21 seconds left to help OKC push its lead from one to three. And in a perfect culmination of the type of defensive effort shown, Horford sealed the Thunder’s win on the final possession with a steal of the Suns’ inbounds pass.
“Defensively, our mental focus was very good. I was very happy with how in tune all the guys were. We continued to get stops when needed to down the stretch and not only get stops we get rebounds,” said Horford. “That was most encouraging to me to see us lockdown in defense and get stops when we needed.”
Play of the Game
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander connected with fellow international point guard Théo Maledon several times throughout the game for open looks from behind the arc. In the third quarter, the third-year guard caught everyone by surprise as he attacked the middle of the lane only to whip the ball behind his back to the opposite corner where Maledon stood ready for a shot. The ball bounces perfectly into the rookie’s shooting pocket with no Phoenix defenders around to contest the look.
“When I saw that he turned the corner, I thought he was gonna finish but I knew that I was ready to shoot it,” said Maledon. “He hit me behind the back and it was a really great play. Just had to shoot it.”
Stat of the Night12,000
With his team-high tying 21 points on Wednesday night, Thunder big man Al Horford reached an incredible career milestone with 12,000 points. The achievement puts him in exclusive company making him one of only eight active players with 12,000 points and at least 1,000 blocks.
After six days away from the team, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault praised the veteran’s ability to step in and not miss a beat.
“Al, he's impressive in that way,” said Daigneault. “He knows exactly what he needs and he did obviously an unbelievable job of keeping himself ready. That was the expectation. We wouldn't have expected anything different out of him and I thought his play tonight was obviously indicative of that.”
Quotes of the Night
“This group is really relentless. We have a lot of guys that work hard and at the end of the day just want to win. We're willing to do whatever it takes to figure out how to do so. I think we did tonight. We're just gonna continue to get better continue to try to get wins and see where it takes us.”
-Shai Gilgeous-Alexander “I thought this trip was good for us. We had some ups; we had some downs. There’s things we can certainly improve but we learned some lessons and I think we improved through the games and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do is continue to make progress and put our best foot forward and then evaluate and prepare and do it all over again I thought on this trip we kind of walked that walk”
The Thunder finally returns to the familiar territory of Chesapeake Energy Arena to begin a five-game homestand. OKC will first host the Brooklyn Nets on Friday at 7 p.m. CT before tipping off a two-game mini-series with the Houston Rockets on Monday and Wednesday.