Thunder 96, Suns 91

It took the NBA’s highest-scoring offense coming to town for the

Oklahoma City Thunder to rediscover the lockdown defense that’s

made them a surprise playoff team in the Western Conference.

Kevin Durant scored 35 points and the Thunder held Phoenix to

its lowest scoring output in a second half this season on their way

to a 96-91 victory Friday night.

“It’s important that we just keep grinding it out as a team,”

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s what we talk about.

We have to treat every possession with great effort, great

togetherness and we have to defend for each other.”

The Thunder limited Phoenix to a season-low 34 points after

halftime but needed a late basket from an unlikely source – rookie

reserve Serge Ibaka – to avoid a third straight loss.

Ibaka scored inside with 33.3 seconds left to push Oklahoma

City’s lead to 91-86, after the Suns had closed a 12-point deficit

to three. Ibaka ended up matching his career high with 15 points,

and Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha also scored 15 for the

Thunder.

Oklahoma City played without starting center Nenad Krstic, who

is day-to-day with a right knee contusion.

Amare Stoudemire had 24 points and 15 rebounds to lead Phoenix,

which took a step back in the race for the No. 2 seed in the

Western Conference playoffs.

“We just didn’t seem to have the emotion tonight,” said Steve

Nash, who had 11 points and 12 assists. “We fought back and we

tried to manufacture it but it wasn’t a natural pool of emotions

for our team tonight. I think that we just couldn’t quite get that

electricity going.”

Phoenix, which had won 11 of its previous 12 games, fell to

fifth place in the West. The Suns are one game behind Dallas and

Denver and a half-game behind Utah.

After shooting 58 percent in the opening half, the Suns were

held to 31 percent shooting in the second half and scored only 12

points in the third quarter – the lowest total in any period from a

team averaging an NBA-best 110.4 points.

Nash said the Suns got stagnant and sloppy on offense,

committing nine of their 20 turnovers in the third quarter.

“You’ve got to give them credit. They did a good job,” Nash

said. “On most nights we find a way to score more than 12 points

in a quarter. It was an unusual night in that respect.”

Oklahoma City had been struggling on defense, falling to sixth

in the league after leading the NBA in opponents’ field goal

percentage through the end of February. Three of the Thunder’s

previous five opponents had shot at least 52 percent from the

field.

“We want to become one of the better teams in basketball and we

have to fix the problems as we see it,” Brooks said. “It’s always

about fixing things, and right now we’re working on our defense and

continue to have focus on that end.”

Russell Westbrook came up with the biggest defensive play,

sealing the game with a block of Nash’s driving layup with 22

seconds left.

Durant, already wearing a wrap around his left wrist after a

tumble two nights earlier, received treatment after he was kneed in

the thigh in the third quarter but still closed the game with three

free throws in the final 20 seconds.

“You take a lot of falls in the game but it’s something that

I’ve got to play through,” he said before getting a brace placed

on his wrist. “These last three games are critical for us, so I’ve

got to go out there and help my team out.”

The third quarter was frustrating enough for Stoudemire that he

drew a technical foul after series of three straight turnovers –

his own travel and offensive foul, followed by an offensive foul by

Jason Richardson.

The Suns then went another 4 minutes after that without a basket

to fall behind by 12.

Oklahoma City had fallen to the No. 8 seed after losing in

overtime at Utah on a last-second non-call that the NBA later said

should’ve been a foul, then giving up a 13-point lead in the fourth

quarter in a loss to Denver.

With the win, the Thunder moved into sixth – one game ahead of

Portland and San Antonio.

“It’s definitely forgotten with our guys,” Brooks said of the

collapse two nights earlier. “I do remember it – clearly.”

NOTES: Durant’s 730 made free throws are the most in a season by

any NBA player since Michael Jordan hit 833 during the 1986-87

season. Jerry West holds the record with 840 in 1965-66. … With

the Phoenix loss, every NBA team has now lost in the Ford Center.

The Suns had been 3-0 against the Thunder and 2-0 against the New

Orleans Hornets during their hurricane-forced relocation. … With

Nick Collison picking up three early fouls, veteran Etan Thomas got

to play in the first half for the first time since he started in

Krstic’s place on Nov. 29. Thomas’ last four appearances had come

in games when Oklahoma City was either ahead or behind by at least

24 points in the second half.