Before the Suns faced the Thunder on Wednesday, Alvin Gentry had some high praise for Oklahoma City’s James Harden.
Phoenix’s head coach said that he and his staff were talking about Harden in preparing for this matchup, and once they got past Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, they were hard-pressed to name a two-guard in the entire league who has played as well as Harden has this season.
Maybe it was a premonition, or maybe it was simply observation, based on the way Harden torched the Suns for what was, at the time, a career-high of 30 points. But Harden once again had a career night against the Suns, this time pouring in 40 points in the Thunder’s 109-97 win in Phoenix — one that kept OKC just a half-game from the top spot in the Western Conference standings, and one that, for now, has Phoenix on the outside of the playoff picture entirely.
Harden’s night was as efficient as it was effective. His 40 points came on just 17 shots, and they actually came on 12-of-15 shooting before he missed his final two attempts with the game having already been decided. Harden added seven rebounds, three assists, and four steals, and impacted the game every moment he was on the floor.
Things started slowly for the Thunder before Harden sprang into action. The Suns came out aggressive, and ran out to a 21-8 lead in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes. Steve Nash had three quick assists during that span, and Phoenix was hitting open shots that were loosely contested, at best.
Then, the Thunder brought the intensity. Or more to the point, they brought Harden.
The bearded one checked in with five minutes left in the first, and sparked a monster 18-4 run to end the period, scoring 10 points during that span to put his team up four after they had trailed by as many as 13.
Harden continued to score from inside and out, but the Thunder weren’t able to pull away until late. The game had a playoff-style pace to it, but it never felt like one the Suns would be able to win. That’s because the Phoenix offense, which had been so prolific in recent weeks, especially at home, was unable to find a rhythm for much of the night.
Nash is usually unstoppable no matter what the defense throws at him, but the Thunder were able to contain him with excellent pick-and-roll defense. After those three early assists, Nash, who leads the league in that category, tallied just two more for the rest of the game, finishing with just five — to go along with five turnovers.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks attempted to explain how his team was able to shut Nash down.
“We wanted to be able to jump the ball and really have him see a crowd and see four hands,” he said. “And our bigs and our guards did a good job of doing that and not allowing those easy passes. You can do that, and the next game he could have 12 assists and 15 points, that’s how good he is. But we did a good job on it. Our rotations were on point; we rotated quickly and got out to the shooters, also.”
It didn’t help that Nash’s main pick-and-roll partner, Marcin Gortat, struggled to find the basket, and finished just 2-of-13 from the field. He was clearly bothered by the length of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka inside, but he also missed some close shots that he usually gets to go down.
The Suns didn’t let this one get away without showing some visible signs of frustration — Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry picked up consecutive technical fouls late in the third while the game was still in reach, and Sebastian Telfair was playing a little extra-physical with Harden in the fourth, and let his words get away from him enough to pick up a technical, as well.
The loss temporarily dropped Phoenix to ninth in the standings, a half-game behind Utah and two games behind Denver, both of whom they’ll get a chance to play head-to-head before the season is through.
Thankfully for the Suns, they won’t have to face Harden anymore in the regular season. Two games, two career-highs in points for Oklahoma City’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate off the bench.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s not particularly the Suns, I just had two good games. Especially coming off that bad second half (in Monday’s loss to the Clippers), we wanted to bounce back, and I just tried to spark some energy off the bench.”