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Suns Strokes: Phoenix Suns start fast, finish flat in loss to Thunder
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Suns Strokes: Phoenix Suns start fast, finish flat in loss to Thunder

PHOENIX — Mathematically, yes, the Phoenix Suns remain in the playoff picture; though now, after a third straight defeat, they are just about out of focus.

The Suns fall four games back with eight games to play thanks to a 109-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in front of an announced crowd of 17,538 at US Airways Center Sunday.

The ground to make up, however, amounts to an extra game with the Thunder (42-32) winning the season series, 3-1, thus owning the tiebreaker should that come into play.

In a game head coach Jeff Hornacek called a “do or die moment for us” prior to tipoff, the Suns responded with a 35-point first quarter and a 20-point first-half lead, taking advantage of an Oklahoma City team that had played and lost the night before in Utah.

But in the second half, the Thunder found their legs and outscored the Suns, 55-35.

Russell Westbrook led six players in double figures, scoring a game-high 33 points, helped by a 12-of-14 performance at the foul line. He added nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals in what was his 24th 30-point game of the season, the second-most in the NBA.

The Suns (38-36), one-and-and-half games behind ninth place New Orleans, got 24 points from Markieff Morris and a season-best 18 from rookie TJ Warren.

THE GOOD

Talk about a hot start: Markieff Morris made his first five shots and scored the Suns first 11 points. He added three more to his total during a 10-0 run that gave the Suns their largest lead of the quarter, 21-10 at the 5:53 mark. Morris finished the period with 16 points on seven-of-eight shooting.

Six straight points—four by Marcus Morris—gave the Suns their largest lead of the half (and the game), going up by 20, 54-34 at 6:27 of the second quarter. Morris had seven points in the period plus two rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. He and his twin combined for 31 points and 11 rebounds in the first half.

Leave it to the rookie, Warren, his fast break reverse lay-up at 2:07 of the third quarter snapped a 6:10 Suns’ stretch without a made field goal. He would add another fast break layup 44 seconds later, giving him 12 points, the first time in eight games he’s placed in double figures.

The Morris twins are on a roll: Markieff recorded his ninth straight game with at least 14 points which extends the longest such streak of his career, while Marcus (15 points, nine rebounds and five assists) is averaging 16.2 points on 47.7 percent shooting along with 9.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.4 steals in his last five games.

THE BAD

Though it was an improvement over an 0-of-eight first-quarter shooting performance the last time he played in Phoenix, Westbrook began his night missing seven of his nine attempts plus committed two turnovers and was whistled for a technical foul in the opening period. The ‘T,’ which came just 57 seconds into the game, was his league-high 15th, one shy of triggering an automatice one-game suspension.

The final 15 Thunder second-quarter points all belonged to Westbrook, who shot five-of-10 and went four-of-six from the foul line in the last 5:19 of the period. He scored 12 during a 14-2 run that pulled Oklahoma City to within seven, 58-51, at the 2:12 mark. Westbrook was also the team’s leading rebounder in the period with four and added a pair of steals.

After scoring 35 and 27 points in the first and second quarters, respectively, the Suns laid an egg in the third quarter with 17 points. They missed 17-of-24 shots, including 10 in a row during one stretch where the only points scored were a pair of free throws by Bledsoe. This marked the fourth straight and fifth time in six games that the Suns failed to crack the 20-point plateau in the third quarter.

The Suns’ last lead of the game, 83-82 at 9:41 of the fourth quarter, was wiped out by a 13-0 Thunder run thanks to four 3-pointers in a five-possession sequence to take a 95-83 lead with 6:45 remaining. Anthony Morrow made two 3s with DJ Augustin and Kyle Singler canning the others. Augustin scored 13 of his 19 points in the period, making five-of-seven shots, including three-of-four from beyond the arc.

In his first action since March 9, Brandon Knight was forced to leave the game with 18.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter after appearing to re-tweak his left ankle, which had caused him to miss eight straight games. Knight scored three points in 22 minutes off the bench, missing nine of 10 shots, including all six of his 3-point attempts.

STAT OF THE GAME

20: As is the Suns biggest lead of the game, their largest lost lead in a loss this season and the Thunder’s largest comeback to win of the season

HE SAID IT

“A tough third quarter. We gave up a lot of easy shots. They were getting to the paint and throwing it out and knocking shots down. Our defense went down and crumbled in the third quarter. Once we got down, we just folded. So, kind of the story of our season, you know, giving it up in the second half. It was a tough one for us.” — PJ Tucker

NOTED

The loss snapped the Suns three-game home winning streak against Oklahoma City

Warren recorded his second game shooting at least 80 percent on a minimum of 10 field goal attempts, becoming the first Suns rookie with multiple games doing so since Richard Dumas did so twice during the 1992-93 season

Wesbrook becomes the first Suns opponent with multiple games in one season of at least 29 field goal attempts since Kobe Bryant in 2005-06

UP NEXT

A two-game, four-day road trip that has the Suns visiting Portland and Golden State.

The Trail Blazers are up first on Monday, March 30. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

The Suns just played the Blazers three days ago in Phoenix and lost, 87-81, giving Portland a 2-1 lead in the season series.

LaMarcus Aldridge scored 12 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter, including 10 points on five straight possessions after the Suns had taken a 74-70 lead with 5:43 remaining. Meanwhile, Marcus Morris led the Suns with his fourth career double-double and third in a four-game stretch with team-highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Overall, the Suns have won seven of the last 11 and nine of the last 14 in the series.