Observations from the Thunder's 109-97 victory Wednesday night over the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center:
- OKC (45-17) is ½-game behind the San Antonio Spurs (45-16) in the Western Conference standings, but the Thunder actually trails the Spurs by two games for the conference's No. 1 playoff seed – one game in the loss column, and one more game due to losing the tiebreaker (San Antonio won the regular-season series 2-1). In order to get the top seed in the West, OKC must finish with a better record than the Spurs. A tie does no good.
Before we get James Harden's career-high 40 points, to me there was an even bigger event during Wednesday night's game. With 2:13 left and the final score already posted at 109-97 because neither team would score again, Thunder starting point guard Russell Westbrook threw a lazy in-bound pass to Harden that was nearly intercepted. An infuriated Scott Brooks immediately motioned Derek Fisher off the bench to replace Westbrook, who did not make eye contact with Brooks as he walked back to the bench. Brooks was sending a message to Westbrook. Whether Westbrook actually received that message is debatable because he seemed like he couldn't care less – which is precisely the entire point of the sequence. A big (+1) to Brooks.
Other notable actions came from Kevin Durant. With the Thunder struggling early and falling behind 21-8, a noticeably focused Durant began taking charge, not with his stats but with his actions. He frequently chatted with Brooks and his assistants about which attack might work better. Harden is the one who lit up the scoreboard, but Durant is the one who lit up his team's overall execution. OKC closed the quarter with a 21-4 run to lead 29-25.
As for Harden's performance: If you're going to go off for a career night, no better place to do it than your hometown or where you played collegiately. The former ArizonaStatestandout had the crowd "oohing" and "ahhing" all night. During a break in the action, a Suns fan shouted, "Hey, Harden. I'm calling the police. You're killing us." A fan seated alongside echoed, "He's doing it to everybody." In case there was ever any doubt, and there shouldn't have been, Harden locked up the Sixth Man Award on Wednesday.
Harden became the first NBA reserve in the last two seasons to record a 40-point game. It was the most points by a reserve since March 27, 2010, when Dallas point guard Rodrique Beaubois scored 40 against Golden State.
This win – the sixth straight for the Thunder over the Suns and the fourth straight win in Phoenix– was significant. A wobbling OKC team defeated a team that was playing well and was focused. The Suns entered the game 18-9 since the All-Star Break and were the current No. 8 seed. "Phoenix is fighting for its playoff life and I knew going into this game they were going to be tough," Brooks said.
Brooks said if he had a vote, which he doesn't, he would choose the Suns' Alvin Gentry as NBA coach of the year because Phoenix was 12-19 on Feb. 17 and is now in the thick of the playoff race.
Though the Thunder came in 4-5 in its last nine games, Gentry didn't think they were exactly struggling. "They've got two losses to the Clippers who are playing great right now. They lost to San Antonio, who is probably playing the best of anybody in the league right now. So it's not like they're losing to bad teams. They're losing to really, really good teams."
OKC contained future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash, limiting him to 12 points and five assists and also five turnovers. He is now 10 assists away from passing Oscar Robertson (9,887) on the all-time assist list. "We wanted to jump the ball and really have him see a crowd, see four hands," Brooks said of the game plan against Nash. "Our bigs and our guards did a good job of doing that and not allowing those easy passes."
Wednesday wasn't the first time Harden erupted against the Suns. When the Thunder beat Phoenix 115-104 at OKC on March 7, Westbrook (31), Durant (30) and Harden (30) each scored 30-plus and Serge Ibaka had a career-high 20 rebounds. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time since Nov. 18, 1969, that three players had 30-plus points and another player had 20-plus rebounds in the same game. The Baltimore Bullets did so in a 142-138 victory against the San Diego Rockets with Mike Davis (40 points), Earl Monroe (30 points), Gus Johnson (30 points) and Wes Unseld (23 rebounds).
OKC swept its season series 3-0 against the Suns.
The Thunder is now 14-3 (.824) in games immediately following a loss this season. Only the Chicago Bulls (13-1) own a better mark.
OKC improved to 20-11 (.645) on the road, which is tied with San Antonio for the best in the West.
The Thunder overcame its 12th double-digit deficit of the season, second-most in the NBA behind the Clippers' 13. It was OKC's second double-digit deficit against the Suns this season.
With the loss, the Suns (32-30) fell one-half game behind the Utah Jazz (33-30) for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. Phoenix owns the tiebreaker over No. 10 Houston (32-30), and has one meeting remaining with the Jazz (Tuesday on the road). Phoenix has secured a tiebreaking victory in the three-game season series against Utah (2-0).