The Phoenix Suns were underachievers earlier this season, and deficiencies were evident when star guard Devin Booker was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
But Phoenix won 11 of 15 games prior to the All-Star break, Booker is back healthy and the acquisition of Kevin Durant re-energized the squad. Suddenly, the Suns again are viewed as a title contender with just 22 games left in the regular season.
Durant won't be on the court Friday night when Phoenix resumes play after the All-Star break with a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but his effect is already evident.
Durant sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Jan. 8 while he was a member of the Brooklyn Nets. He is close to a return -- possibly Sunday against the Milwaukee Bucks but more likely Wednesday versus the Charlotte Hornets -- and impressed his new teammates during a serious scrimmage on Thursday.
"I think everybody's competitive level has risen a little bit," Suns center Deandre Ayton told reporters after the scrimmage. "The atmosphere around the facility has, I won't say gotten intense, but it's definitely a little tenser when it comes to business. Ain't no more playing games or, you know, less smiles, more seriousness and getting a job done."
Durant, a 13-time All-Star, always has been all-business on the court. Phoenix, which is fifth in the Western Conference, is hoping he is the missing ingredient when it comes to its title aspirations.
The Suns reached the NBA Finals two seasons ago and lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. Last season, they were dispatched earlier as the Dallas Mavericks embarrassed them in the final two games of the Western Conference semifinals by margins of 27 and 33 points.
And while Durant is known for his immense offensive prowess that includes four scoring titles, Phoenix coach Monty Williams said Durant will make an impact on both sides of the ball.
"It's the thing that I kind of not laugh at but I always marvel," Williams said. "You have to be really, really good on the offensive end to be a defensive player like Kevin and nobody talks about it. It just speaks to how good he is on offense.
"He's a really good defender. The thing that I always watch with him is when he closes out to a smaller guy, bigger guy, he always has his stick hand up. And he moves his feet and tries to stay in front and he just competes."
The Thunder -- Durant's former franchise for nine seasons, beginning with one campaign in Seattle -- returned to action on Thursday night and dropped a heartbreaking 120-119 overtime decision to the host Utah Jazz.
All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander contributed 39 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He also had a chance to win the contest, but his 16-foot bank shot went in-and-out as time expired in overtime.
"At the end of the day with 4.6 seconds (left), it's hard to get a great one most of the time," Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said afterward of the game-ending play.
The Thunder are a half-game out of the final play-in spot in the West entering the second end of a back-to-back that precedes a six-game homestand.
Despite Thursday's agonizing result, Daigneault was encouraged by his squad's performance.
"If they hurt and you can look back on it and see that you could control a lot in the game and learn from that, that's the best way to move forward," Daigneault said. "We have to look in the mirror on that one because there are a lot of things we could have done better. But we got to turn the page, we have a good team on the road (Friday), a quick turnaround."
Oklahoma City halted a five-game skid in the series with the Suns when it delivered a 117-96 home rout in last season's final meeting.
--Field Level Media