PHOENIX — Just when it appeared the Suns had been unofficially excised from the NBA playoff derby by the Los Angeles basketball collective, another uprising occurred.
This time it was a 122-115 triumph over the Thunder on Sunday night at US Airways Center that provided oxygen for their postseason bid.
"This is a win we needed to have," first-year coach Jeff Hornacek said.
Well, with the Grizzlies absorbing a 20-point beatdown in San Antonio on the same night, the Suns could have buckled against the mighty Thunder and still had the same record as the Grizz. But having surrendered the tiebreaker to Memphis, not taking advantage of an opportunity to seize the Western Conference’s eighth seed with only five games remaining would have been cause to at least set the alarm clock.
"It shows a lot about our guys," Hornacek said of knocking off second-seeded OKC (55-21) two nights after the Suns thumped the fifth-seeded Trail Blazers in Portland. "These last 10 games … we’ve been saying it’ll say a lot about our guys."
The first guy that should be discussed in connection with the Suns’ 46th victory is middle linebacker P.J. Tucker.
Earning a yearly stipend of $884,293 to work at small forward against the likes of the sensational Kevin Durant, Tucker drives a Suns team that had been expected to lose close to 60 games.
"He’s our emotional leader … he’s constantly on guys because he plays hard all the time," Hornacek said of Tucker, who scored 22 points and added seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals when not forcing Durant to work for most off his game-high 38 points on 28 field-goal attempts.
He even took a moment to taunt the OKC bench (to the tune of a technical foul) after posting up for a bucket against Jeremy Lamb, who had just been assigned to check P.J. after being led to the defensive slaughter by every Suns player he was matched up against during his third-quarter stint.
It’s Tucker’s belief in his himself — after working his way back to the NBA after playing in a few foreign lands — that seems to permeate throughout the roster.
"We feel like every game we play we can win," said Tucker, whose only second-half break was bestowed so he could change into a blood-free jersey after he and Durant collided head-first. "We have the confidence that we can play with anybody in the league. We’re just trying to stay focused, try to win and make the playoffs."
And if that means a face-to-face confrontation (literally) with Durant, Tucker won’t back down.
This intersection of former Texas Longhorns happened when Tucker and Durant were pursuing a loose ball with 37 seconds left in the third quarter. For his effort, Tucker was rewarded with a bloody nose; Durant earned two free throws and P.J.’s temporary exit from the game.
By the time Tucker returned a little over a minute of clock time later, Durant had scored six points in his absence and OKC had trimmed what had been a 14-point Suns lead to a single point.
With Durant now rolling, things were looking a bit dicey.
"We knew that they are a good fourth-quarter team," Tucker said. "Hats off to my teammates; they played hard tonight."
Part of that fourth-quarter repellent was supplied by Tucker’s 11 points. It was his turn, after all; teammate Gerald Green scored 11 of his 24 in the third quarter, and Goran Dragic had 19 of his team-high 26 in the second.
By the way, Tucker’s steals included a theft from Thunder guard Derek Fisher immediately after teammate Eric Bledsoe was swatted at the rim by Russell Westbrook with 45 seconds to play and Phoenix up 115-112.
Bledsoe (18 points and three steals) had earned the opportunity to attempt a warp-speed layup after stealing the ball from Durant.
That’s right. In a relentlessly entertaining game that treated a sellout crowd to 237 points, an interlude of Suns defense was the difference.
"Those guys are terrific — Durant and Westbrook," Hornacek said of the OKC tandem that produced 71 points. "They can get anywhere they want. But our guys kept fightin’. They challenged all the shots; we finally got some stops at the end.
"It was a good test for us, and one we passed."
The next one is scheduled for Wednesday night in New Orleans, followed by back-to-back Texas stops in San Antonio and Dallas on Friday and Saturday.