That was a series of previous results for the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder heading into Sunday night.
The Suns came out of a 5-2 record in their most challenging seven-game stretch of the season. The Thunder came out of a 57-point loss the night before, making it 16 losses in their last 17 games with their tanky roster.
In a way, it almost felt like a game that would be difficult for the Suns to stand up to. Now some would call hogwash about it and say it’s all about having the same mentality every night. But that’s easier said than done, and Sun’s fans should know that from previous years, how big teams would come to Phoenix with some dullness in their game.
After the Suns had that lack of energy for the first 18 minutes, they did enough to keep the Thunder comfortable enough in check in the second half before almost falling apart in a 123-120 win.
While the Suns have been able to do the most in wins and not losses, it was yet another example of the team playing at the level of their opposition.
All-Star guard Devin Booker mentioned the unsolicited mail game.
“It’s been the story of the season for us: playing down to our competition and playing up to our competition, and that’s not what the big teams do,” he said. “The big teams get better every night regardless of the opponent. We’ve talked about it and stressed it enough over the course of the season that we work on ourselves, and we didn’t tonight. Fortunately, it happened in a win and we respond better to our next game against Cleveland. ”
Phoenix was six during a first quarter that lacked something resembling intensity. After a Thunder three-pointer from a Suns turnover put OKC up three with 7:32 left in the second quarter, the Suns had little response defensively, and that was all it takes to lead seven in the half.
A little more of a good effort defensively and a push from Booker turned the advantage up to 13 through three quarters and it looked like they would not allow Oklahoma City to get close enough from there.
Thunder, however, cut an 18-point lead by the Suns in the fourth quarter down to 10 with 2:27 left, and then almost followed the meltdown.
After a Booker touchdown went down, OKC went on a 7-0 run in under a minute. Booker then got a technical foul to allow the Thunder within four. A successfully designed game by the Thunder had center Isaiah Roby wide open for 3 and he missed, but then Paul traveled in the backcourt to give OKC the ball back with 23 seconds left.
On this possession, Thunder guard Luguentz Dort pulled a free kick, which head coach Monty Williams challenged and was knocked down. The Suns won the bouncy ball out of it and then the game.
It was a pretty unnecessary tip of the act that brought flashbacks in late March as it felt like an unbearable exercise for the Suns to close out a game.
“Just playing with the game,” Booker said of what went wrong in the final stretch. “Lack of focus, revenue, giving up transition buckets – to give up a lead so late it has to be more than one thing, so I would say a collective of all that I just mentioned.”
“We know we can be a lot better, especially at the last minute,” Williams said.
Booker finished with 32 points and was 9-of-10 from the line, playing aggressive downhill basketball as a goal scorer all night.
Torrey Craig got his fourth straight start in place of the injured Jae Crowder and has his most productive evening yet with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Mikal Bridges added 17 points and Chris Paul had a double-double of 18 points and 11 assists.
Cameron Payne missed the game due to a left knee contusion and Williams had the choice of either reinstating E’Twaun Moore in rotation after almost three months out of it or dizzying Paul and Booker. He chose the latter, where Jevon Carter was the first guard off the bench and made more dribbling than he usually has this season.
Carter is not a playmaker, but is very familiar with Williams’ system, and Booker ran a good portion of the offense when Paul was also sitting. There’s also the fact that the playoffs start in a few weeks, so it makes sense to keep the same guys in there who are going to play.
Carter rewarded the show with faith with six points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals.
It’s not the type of gain that the Suns are gaining momentum from. They did what they had to do to win, but not in a positive way, as it’s about the Suns setting the right habits before the post-season game.
“We collapsed right at our end,” Craig said.
“Everyone knows in the playoffs that it can not happen because it costs you a game, it costs you a series,” he added.