Restart Reviews: Thunder/Suns

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing games from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. This week, to celebrate the final few days of the regular season restart, I’ll be putting up a new post every day dissecting a game from the previous night. This is the first of the single-game posts. I hope you enjoy.

August 10: Phoenix Suns 128, Oklahoma City Thunder 101

For about 15 minutes, it looked like a golden opportunity was going to slip from their grasp, not the first time it’s happened to Phoenix in their pained franchise history. The Thunder decided to rest three of their starters as well as multiple key players off of the bench, and guys named “Devon Hall” and “Deonte Burton” were getting serious run for Oklahoma City throughout the game. Chris Paul only took nine shots. And yet: at the end of the first quarter, it was 37-23, Thunder. The Suns had every reason to win this game and needed it way more than the Thunder did; sometimes, basketball doesn’t work that way.

Well, until it does. The Suns outscored the Thunder 105-64 over the final four quarters, a shockingly large margin even for a game like this one. The story you, I, and many, many others cannot get enough of keeps rolling for another day. Until the Phoenix Suns actually lose a game, would you believe anyone who tells you they’re going to?

Yet again, the Suns won in the bubble. Yet again, they looked even better than expected making it happen. Yes, this was against an Oklahoma City roster that the Thunder clearly didn’t put much care into. (Yes, I know they’re saying “rest,” sure. What they’re really saying is “we do not want to play the Lakers in the second round,” and who can blame them?) If you’re a Suns fan, how could you care? You’ve gone through so much pain, so many missed opportunities, so few great memories since 2010 that you’ve probably earned a few easier nights like this one.

Guys like Devin Booker, though…they make easy things look even easier. This shot is still rattling through my mind every few minutes as I type.

I mean, of course this guy would hit his longest three of the season in this game, the game that Phoenix absolutely had to have to stay in contention for what would be a stunner of a playoff appearance. With just two games left in Orlando until the end of the regular season, Phoenix has roared from six games back of the eight seed all the way to a half-game back from making the play-in tournament. Basketball isn’t a one-man sport, but this Suns run wouldn’t be possible without the one-man show Devin Booker has provided fans and opponents every night.

In the bubble, Booker is averaging 30.3 points per game, six assists, and a 58.4% hit rate from two. (He’s only been a 33.3% three-point shooter, but, well, it hasn’t mattered much.) He’s single-handedly won the Suns two games: the Clippers buzzer-beater win and the Miami game where he posted 35 points. Prior to the bubble, I would’ve easily ranked him third in the Young School of Guards behind Luka (obviously) and Trae (less obviously). I think I still would, but this guy is dragging his hilariously-constructed roster of misfits, castoffs, and former projects within half a game of a playoff bid. I love Trae Young, but he hasn’t done that yet.

Anyway, the Suns did have players other than Devin Booker take the floor in this one. They had so many good performances from guys who aren’t often reliable. Dario Saric got a surprise start thanks to DeAndre Ayton’s COVID testing mishap and took full advantage, going for 16 and 9 and getting three OREBs against a smaller-than-usual OKC:

Cameron Johnson has played his best basketball of the year at the perfect time. I don’t know if he’s quite there yet defensively, but I also know it hasn’t mattered much at all in the bubble because he’s turned into a fantastic shooter. He knocked down four of his eight three-point attempts in this game and is shooting 40% from downtown, both on the season and in the bubble. That alone provides real value:

Other dudes had good games. Mikal Bridges went 5-for-8 from three; Ricky Rubio had nine assists; Cam Payne continues to stun, posting a 14/6/5 statline with three steals; even DeAndre Ayton showed up late but still got 10 points. That said, one outing really stood out to me, because I feel as if I’ve been rooting for this guy to succeed for so long. Jevon Carter only posted eight points, but even that was great: he went a perfect 3-for-3 from the field, including making both of his threes.

But it wasn’t his offense that I felt like talking about. At West Virginia, Carter deservedly earned a reputation as a bulldog player that would follow his opponent all 94 feet, frustrating them from end-to-end. He helped turn West Virginia’s defense into one of the most thrilling, frightening pieces of art in modern college basketball. It was more surprising when Carter and company didn’t force turnovers than when they did. He’s never been all that great of an offensive player, though, so he struggled mightily to latch on with the Grizzlies last year. It didn’t work out, and he got swapped along with Kyle Korver last July – which really does feel like it was 17 years ago – for Josh Jackson and De’Anthony Melton.

All Carter has done in Year One with the Suns is turn himself into perhaps the team’s scariest pound-for-pound defender, aside from maybe Mikal Bridges. Carter is ruthless when given an opportunity, and he got 37 minutes of opportunity in this one. It’s really, really hard to not love watching him play basketball.

This block, in particular, caught me off guard a little bit and made me smile.

Like Cameron Johnson, Carter is another Sun playing the best basketball of his season (possibly his career) at the perfect time. When he plays like this, he operates as a near-ideal role player to have on a playoff team: the relentless defender that doesn’t care how uncomfortable he makes you. Two years in, it’s probably safe to say he’s unlikely to ever provide a ton of value offensively, but who cares when you have defense like this? He’s a restricted free agent this summer; within reason, the Suns should make every attempt to match any offer sheet that comes his way. I mean, watch this:

And tell me you wouldn’t overpay a bit to keep this guy on your team.

One-paragraph summation of the Thunder night, now that we’re at the bottom of the inverted pyramid:

There is nothing of real importance to take from this one for Oklahoma City. They lost by more than anticipated, sure, but they also gave several guys minutes they wouldn’t get on a normal night. The only performance I or anyone should really care to note is Darius Bazley, who had 22 & 10 and gave a small look into what he might become one day. He did a great job getting to the rim and scoring with fair frequency:

And also had a couple threes:

Bazley has been awful for the most part this season; dunksandthrees.com gives him an Estimated Plus-Minus of -4.6, which ranks 435th out of 465 qualified players. Prior to yesterday, he had been almost a total zero offensively on the year, completely nuking any value his at-least-average defense would provide. Bazley has played 22+ minutes every night in the bubble, but only in this game and Sunday’s against Washington has he given a glimpse of any real value offensively. If nothing else, Oklahoma City can walk away from this one happy that their first-round investment is showing some real promise at the most important time of the season.

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