By Randy Renner
The final score looked pretty good, Thunder 122, Suns 106.
If you didn’t see the game, just the final score, you might have thought OKC had been in control all the way, built a big lead, rested the starters in the fourth quarter and cruised.
That’s probably what should have happened but the Thunder have fallen into the defensive doldrums again and instead of an easy stroll in the Valley of the Sun the Thunder teetered at times on the brink of disaster.
“We gotta be better,” admitted Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. “If we want to be elite, we gotta do a better job of defending.”
The Thunder seemed to have things under control in the first quarter, leading 29-19 after the first 12 minutes but in the second quarter the Suns exploded for 38 points and almost unbelievably scored on 15 consecutive possessions. The Thunder couldn’t get a stop until almost nine minutes had ticked off the clock in the quarter.
“That’s sick,” Thunder superstar Kevin Durant said when informed of the stat.
Most of that damage was done by the Suns reserves and they mostly did it inside. Phoenix hit just one of 11 shots from beyond the arc for the entire game. But in that second quarter backup bigs Mirza Teletovic and Alex Len scored 27 of the Suns’ 38 points on 10-for-11 shooting.
Head coach Billy Donovan blamed some of the lackluster performance on fatigue.
“We just got more and more drained,” Donovan said. “We were just slow reacting.”
That’s been a common theme when the Thunder defense gets torched. It usually has something to do with slow reactions, slow rotations, mental mistakes.
At least the OKC offense was humming. The Thunder hit 15 threes and shot 49.4 percent overall. OKC put up at least 28 points in each quarter.
Durant cranked up his game in the second half, scoring 25 of his 32 points in the second 24 minutes. Westbrook dropped 29 on the Suns while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing eight assists. Dion Waiters added 15 and Enes Kanter and Cameron Payne each had 11. Payne was 3-for-4 from deep.
But the Thunder let the Suns, who’ve now lost 23 of their last 25 games, hit almost 51 percent of their shots and they sent them to the free throw line 39 times where they made 31 of their tries. It all came together to provide plenty of tense moments deep into the game with the Suns leading by four with a shade over a minute to play in then third quarter.
From there though the Thunder managed to sync up their offense and defense and spurt out on a 17-1 run to provide what seemed to be a safe cushion only to have the defense let them down again.
The Suns cut the lead all the way down to four at 106-102 and it was anybody’s game again with 4:18 to play.
The Thunder then closed things out with a 16-4 run to finally finish off the Suns with a win that looked much more comfortable on the scoreboard than it really was.
OKC will host the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday evening at The Peake before taking about a week off for the All-Star Break.