EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns stumble through finish line, do enough to beat Thunder

May 2, 2021, 8:35 PM | Updated: May 3, 2021, 12:21 pm

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Ty Jerome (16) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) while...

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Ty Jerome (16) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) while guard Jevon Carter (4) and forward Cameron Johnson (23) look on during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

(AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

It was quite the range of previous outcomes for the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder heading into Sunday night’s game.

The Suns were coming off a 5-2 record in their most challenging seven-game stretch of the season. The Thunder were coming off a 57-point loss the night prior, making it 16 losses in their last 17 games with their tanky roster.

In a way, that made it almost feel like a game that would be difficult for the Suns to get up for. Now, some will call hogwash on that and say it’s all about having the same mentality each night. But that’s easier said than done, and Suns fans should know that from previous years where great teams would come into Phoenix with a certain listlessness to their play.

After the Suns had that lack of energy in the first 18 minutes or so, they did enough to keep the Thunder comfortably enough at bay in the second half before nearly falling apart in a 123-120 win.

While the Suns have been able to do it mostly in wins and not losses, it was yet another example of the team playing to the level of their opposition.

All-Star guard Devin Booker mentioned it unprompted postgame.

“That’s been the tale of the season for us: Playing down to our competition and playing up to our competition too, and that’s not what the great teams do,” he said. “The great teams get better every night no matter the opponent. We’ve talked about it and stressed it enough during the season that we’re working on ourselves and we didn’t do that tonight. Luckily it happened in a win and we’ll respond better our next game versus Cleveland.”

Phoenix was down six through a first quarter that lacked anything resembling intensity. After a Thunder three-pointer off a Suns turnover put OKC up three with 7:32 left in the second quarter, the Suns had a bit of a response defensively and that was all it took to lead by seven at 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 wouldn’t allow Oklahoma City to get close enough from there.

The Thunder, though, cut an 18-point Suns lead in the fourth quarter down to 10 with 2:27 left, and then the near-meltdown ensued.

After a Booker touch shot 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 play 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 at 23 seconds remaining.

On that possession, Thunder guard Luguentz Dort drew a foul that head coach Monty Williams challenged and got overturned. The Suns won the jump ball off that and then the game.

It was a quite unnecessary spurt of plays that brought on flashbacks of the end of March when it felt like an excruciating exercise for the Suns to close out a game.

“Just playing with the game,” Booker said of what went wrong in the closing stretch. “Lack of focus, turnovers, giving up transition buckets — to give up a lead that late, it has to be more than one thing, so I’d say a collective of everything I just mentioned.”

“We know we can be much better, especially in closing moments,” Williams said.

Booker finished with 32 points and was 9-of-10 from the line, playing aggressive downhill basketball as a scorer all night.

Torrey Craig got his fourth straight start in place of the injured Jae Crowder and has his most productive night 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 reinserting E’Twaun Moore to the rotation after nearly three months out of it or staggering Paul and Booker. He chose the latter, with Jevon Carter being the first guard off the bench and doing more dribbling than he normally has this season.

Carter is not a playmaker but is very familiar with Williams’ system, and Booker ran a good chunk of the offense when Paul sat as well. There’s also the fact that the playoffs start in a few weeks, so keeping the same guys in that will be playing then is logical.

Carter rewarded the show of faith with six points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals.

It’s not the type of win the Suns are going to get any 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 postseason play.

“We just collapsed on our end,” Craig said.

“Everybody know in the playoffs that can’t happen, because that’ll cost you a game, that’ll cost you a series,” he added.

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