Things haven’t exactly gone as planned so far for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have struggled offensively without their All-Star point guard.
On the flip side, the Phoenix Suns, projected by many to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference, are off to a surprising start.
Coming off their most lopsided loss in three seasons, the Thunder open their home schedule seeking an 11th consecutive win over the unbeaten Suns on Sunday night.
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While the Thunder (1-1) got by the lowly Jazz 101-98 in Wednesday’s season opener thanks to 42 points from Kevin Durant, they couldn’t overcome Russell Westbrook’s absence in a 100-81 defeat in Minnesota on Friday. Reserve Jeremy Lamb scored a team-high 16 points, but Durant had only 13 for the Thunder, who remain without Westbrook due to a knee injury suffered during the opening round of last season’s playoffs.
The loss was Oklahoma City’s worst since a 111-88 defeat in Orlando on Feb. 25, 2011.
“Them not having Westbrook, that’s taking away 25 (points), seven (rebounds) and six (assists) or some crazy number like that,” Timberwolves star Kevin Love said. “It’s a whole different dynamic when they have Westbrook on the team.”
Westbrook’s absence was also felt in the turnover department, as Oklahoma City had 21 giveaways. His replacement at point guard, Reggie Jackson, committed seven.
The Thunder shot 48.1 percent to finish third in the NBA last season, but they’ve made just 37.8 percent of their shots in the early going.
“We have to play a better brand of basketball,” forward Nick Collison told the team’s official website. “The offense has to be better. The passes, the cuts, we need to move the ball and get easier shots with ball movement.”
The Thunder may be able to bounce back Sunday in what has proved to be a favorable matchup over the years. Oklahoma City’s 10 straight wins over Phoenix (2-0) have come by an average of 14.8 points, the latest being a 97-69 victory Feb. 10.
The Thunder have won the past two meetings by 29.5 points per game.
“I’m worried about guys playing hard, competing hard and playing for your team every time down the court,” coach Scott Brooks said. “But it’s early. We’ve got a game right around the corner, and we’ve got to play much better.”
Taking down the Suns, though, could prove more difficult this time around. Phoenix, in its first season under coach Jeff Hornacek, is off to its best start since opening 4-0 in 2009-10.
After beating the Trail Blazers 104-91 in their first game Wednesday, the Suns pulled out an 87-84 victory over the Jazz two nights later on Eric Bledsoe’s tiebreaking 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left. Bledsoe, acquired from the Clippers in the offseason, missed 10 of his first 11 shots before scoring the final 14 points for Phoenix.
“It feels great,” Bledsoe told the team’s official website. “I was preparing all summer. All summer I was working, and to finally get this opportunity is a blessing.”
Second-year forward Miles Plumlee has also provided a huge boost with 31 points, 28 rebounds and six blocks through the first two games.
Phoenix may need to lean on Bledsoe and Plumlee all the more with Goran Dragic uncertain for this contest. Dragic, who scored 26 points against the Trail Blazers, was limited to five points and shot just 2 forf 11 against the Jazz before exiting in the third quarter with a right face contusion.
“He just didn’t look right,” Hornacek said.
The Suns have dropped five in a row and six of seven in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have won their last four home openers.