Former Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant won’t be suited up for Phoenix on Sunday when the Suns take on the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
But another Thunder player figures to be key for Phoenix’s hopes to climb in the Western Conference standings.
Cameron Payne was far from a star during his time with Oklahoma City from 2015-17, and Payne isn’t one now.
But the veteran guard has found a role with the Suns as the backup point guard behind another former Thunder headliner, Chris Paul.
While Durant and Paul figure to be much bigger keys for Phoenix’s championship hopes, getting Payne back to his best would be a big help.
After missing all but two games in a two-month span with a sprained foot, Payne has been largely inconsistent in his 10 games since returning.
But Payne has been trending in the right direction. After shooting just 38.6 percent overall in the first six games after being activated, he’s shooting 53.1 percent since (17-for-32).
In his last two games, Payne is averaging 15.5 points per game and is coming off an 18-point, five-assist performance in Thursday’s win over the Orlando Magic.
“He’s starting to get back to the Cam Payne that we all know and love and appreciate, and it takes guys a while,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s had some nagging injuries this season and when you take that time off, sometimes it takes you a minute to get going again, especially playing the point guard position.
“He’s starting to score the ball and pass, his interior passing has started to pick up. … I think it elevates our team.”
Payne also has just one turnover in nearly 38 minutes over the last two games.
Thursday’s win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Suns.
Durant is expected to miss his sixth consecutive game after suffering a sprained left ankle ahead of what was to have been his home debut against the Thunder on March 8.
While the Suns and Thunder are in much different spots — Phoenix is aggressively pursuing a championship while Oklahoma City is on the fringes of playoff contention as it works toward coming out of a rebuild — the teams aren’t far removed in the standings.
The Suns (38-32) and Thunder (34-36) are separated by just four games, with Phoenix fourth in the Western Conference while Oklahoma City is in ninth, entering Saturday.
The Thunder are coming off a 128-111 loss in Toronto that snapped a three-game winning streak. Oklahoma City has won six of its last eight overall.
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault continues to work through different rotations to try to find combinations that work.
In Thursday’s game, the most significant shift was giving Tre Mann more than 21 minutes after Mann was available but hadn’t played in five of Oklahoma City’s previous six games.
“I watched our high-intensity workout the other day for the guys that had not played a ton of minutes, and was pretty impressed with his approach to that,” Daigneault said. “He approached that like a guy who was banging on the door, and so (I) wanted to give him an opportunity.”
Sunday’s game is the third of four meetings between the teams this season and the first in Oklahoma City. The Suns won the first two by an average of 20 points.