Since the game wasn't televised I thought I'd go with an untraditional write-up again tonight. The goal here is to give you as much raw description as possible.
Let me first say it was a competitive game in a great atmosphere: the Memorial Coliseum provided a whole different intensity level and the Suns came in looking for a win. As promised, Nate McMillan stuck with a 10 man rotation, although Rudy Fernandez left the game with back spasms at halftime and did not return and Nic Batum was pretty much given the night off again, so it was more like an 8 man rotation.
Let's go through each player individually and then I'll close with a few thoughts.
McMillan wasn't kidding when he said he was looking to get Roy touches: the very first play of the game saw Roy in an isolation on the left hand side, which he promptly missed. To make matters worse, he failed to get back on defense as his man leaked out, leading to an uncontested layup on the other end. A disappointing start from a player who promised to step up the team's defensive intensity at yesterday's practice. It would get better.
Tonight we saw Roy with the ball in his hands in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. From the side, from the top, going left, going right. It's hard to recall him really settling for his favorite shot -- the face-up 15 to 17 footer -- all night. He simply wasn't looking for it: if it wasn't a pick and roll, he was attacking his defender's body to get into the paint, where he had a fair bit of success both finishing and dishing the ball to open teammates.
One big thing to note up: Aldridge was almost exclusively looking to slip to the hoop during pick and rolls at the top of the key. It's unclear whether this was taking place simply because of how Phoenix was playing defense or because this is a new focus for the team's offense. Brandon would lull the defense with a change of pace dribble at the top and once he found LaMarcus's man (Stoudemire or Amundson) committing too far or leaning too much, Aldridge would release quickly to the basket. Aldridge finished a couple of these before Phoenix adjusted, rotating defenders over. This then necessitated an extra pass from Aldridge to find the open man on the wings. Cat and mouse. In any case, the Roy/Aldridge pick and slip is a new offensive weapon that, judging by how often they went to it tonight, we should see more of in the future.
When Brandon wasn't using picks it was usually because Jared Dudley was guarding him and he realized that it was a green light to do work. Early in the game, he drove by Dudley for an easy lefty layup -- the kind he's made 100s of times -- and then began drawing more attention on later forays to the hoop. In the first half, he was able to draw Frye's attention and then complete a nifty dump pass to a wide open Greg Oden for a forceful slam; late in the second half, he was able to get into the paint and find a cutting Andre Miller -- seemingly from out of thin air -- for another point blank attempt.
The chemistry between Roy and Oden -- as I wrote yesterday -- is still developing but is taking strides. Aside from the drive-and-dishes to Oden we also saw a quick swing pass from Roy to Oden that led to a frustration foul to prevent an Oden layup. On the down side, we also saw an off-the-mark entry pass that sailed off Oden's finger tips and out-of-bounds. After that one, Roy did the "my bad" chest thump as Oden stared at his hands. Not quite there yet.
Brandon finished with 11 points, 3 rebounds and 5 assists. He went 4 of 13 largely because he couldn't hit a jumper and because, late in the game, he was attempting to draw fouls while shooting and the refs weren't biting.
Hands down the most promising performance from any Blazer. The desire to temper expectations for Oden is getting harder and harder to pay lip service to. There is simply too much to like about his performance tonight and throughout camp. I understand that he was matched up against undersized 4s playing 5 but the NBA happens to be in a big man recession: centers are 20 percent off these days.
After the game Nate McMillan seemed quite upset with the team's defensive effort, and answered a question about Greg's performance by essentially dismissing the solid offensive output and calling on him to do more defensively. All things considered, I thought Oden played at least adequately -- if not better -- on the defensive side of the ball. He was smiling after the game thinking about how he had chased Frye all over the court and he did a solid job of challenging Nash's jumpers (which were falling all night) after the pick-and-roll switches without getting called for fouls (he had just 1 foul in 28 minutes of action). He also had 3 blocks -- one swatting a Barbosa shot near its pinnacle and another denying an Amar'e shot almost before it left his hand. Both times he was straight up with no potential to foul. Love to see that.
As a testament to how thoroughly Oden dominated the glass (13 boards), the Suns managed just 5 offensive rebounds as a team. In sum, both on the glass and defensively, I thought Oden did exactly what he was expected to do and he did it better than is fair to expect from him at this point.
Let's get to the offense which is what everyone who was in the Memorial Coliseum will likely be gushing about: 8 of 10 from the field for 17 points. I took pretty diligent notes on this game, here are a few regarding Greg...
- right hand drop step over Frye, flips it in
- Oden offensive rebound, jump hook putback
- seals Frye, ball swung from left to right, open layup converted
- Oden grabs 2 offensive boards in one possession, it ends with a layup
Martell got an extended look tonight (15 points, 5 boards, 2 assists in 24 minutes) and I'll say this about him: it's never just in the middle, it's either way high or way low right now.
On the positive side, he attacked the glass, getting an aggressive putback after flying through the air during the first quarter and finishing a nice dunk on a push-the-tempo pass from Miller. In the most memorable play of the entire game, he tried to posterize Amar'e, crashing to the ground hard on his right forearm as the ball caromed off. Scary moment but he appeared to be ok.
During the first quarter there was no other way to put it: Martell was a defensive liability. Despite being matched up against Carlos Powell (who?) he cost his teams points by not closing out on back-to-back Powell 3s. Soon after, Nate took a timeout. The first play after the timeout saw another Powell 3 point attempt -- this time Martell was in his mug. I think we can assume Nate gently reminded him that closing out on shooters is an important aspect of team defense.
Overall his performance was good but a bit hyper. He made a 3 and then later airballed a 3; it was that kind of night. He was succeeding because he was going 100% but despite the full effort he didn't quite find the game's flow.
In my opinion, Batum has to remain the starter thanks to his stability. Martell made a solid case tonight for a change-of-pace, big-minute reserve role.
Forget about all the off-the-court stuff, I guarantee that Andre Miller will be the most polarizing player on the court as well. Why? Because he continually takes risks -- seeking them out just for fun -- and they regularly don't end how he expects them too. Like any good risk-taker he doesn't dwell on the failures, constantly looking ahead to the next play, for the next advantage. He ended the night with the team's most impressive individual line (25 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 turnovers) but there were some negative indicators as well.
The surest weapon in his arsenal right now is his pull-up, shot-put jumper which he took and hit both in mini-transition and off-the-dribble tonight. He's pretty money from 15-18. That's in all the scouting reports, of course, but we got to see it again tonight. One example: a pump fake that had rookie Earl Clark way up in the air, drew contac and made the jumper anyway for an and-one. Great body control, underrated athleticism.
Another weapon that I wrote about last week is his ability to push the ball after both makes and misses. The Suns drive their fans crazy sometimes with their inability to consistently get back on defense and Miller surely knows that scouting report inside and out. He was looking to push the ball up regularly, with good success.
There was also a weapon that we hadn't yet seen before and that drew some murmurs along press row: a 4th quarter corner 3 off a dish from Brandon.
Here's the bad news for Miller: when push came to shove in the fourth quarter, the Suns ran their offense right at him and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Play after play after play, the Blazers needed stops to pull back into the game and the Suns simply let Nash go to work. Time after time Nash delivered: pull-up jumper, drive to the bucket for a foul, beautifully executed pick and roll to Amar'e for a dunk, etc. Dre's nice night was wiped off the books by Nash's even better night (23 points, 15 assists, 2 steals).
It wasn't just Nash's superiority, though. It was also Dre's determination to attack the hoop, other options be damned. With about 9 minutes to go, he started really going after his man, first Barbosa and then Dragic. He first drew a foul and then on the next possession he dribbled the ball off of his own foot. No looks to Oden. No real looks to Aldridge. Indeed, the two bigs combined for just 4 fourth quarter points. That's a problem, especially on a night when they combine for 37 points. Those numbers are on Dre (and Roy too).
LaMarcus wasn't dominating but he was shooting well: 20 points on 9 of 17 shooting, 7 boards and 3 assists. He ran some high/low looks with Greg and, as mentioned above, was regularly setting picks for Brandon. He is covering a lot of ground in the offense this year although his shot selection looks a lot like it did last year: mid-range jumpers.
LaMarcus's had two real offensive highlights. First, he aggressively crashed the offensive boards to chase down a Przybilla miss, converting it for an uncontested putback. Second, he recognized the Suns were sagging their interior defense onto Oden and snuck to the weakside block, signalling for an alley-oop from Miller. The over-the-top pass was on the money and Aldridge's dunk finish was authoritative. Prettty nice highlight.
On defense, Aldridge was relatively successful, holding Amar'e to 15 points. The most frustrating aspect of his defense was seeing him automatically switch on a regular basis, rather than showing hard and recovering like McMillan said we should expect. Miller was having some difficulty -- especially in the first half -- fighting through picks but too often it seemed Aldridge welcomed the switch, despite the mismatches that it created. I would imagine the game tape has a number of teachable moments on pick-and-roll defense for Aldridge tonight.
Blake had an unremarkable night, connecting on 2 free throws for his only points of the game and dishing out 4 assists in just under 20 minutes. Unfortunately, he also had 3 turnovers which seemed to be the by-product of an over-aggressive approach we never really saw from him last year. Is he pushing too hard trying to keep up with Miller? Possibly.
The highlight of his night, though, was a push-ahead pass off of a made 3 pointer to a rim-running LaMarcus Aldridge for an uncontested dunk. On the money. The lowlight was back-to-back poor passes on a single possession: a failed alley oop followed by a sailed pass well over his target's hands.
Upon further reflection, the skill gap between Miller and Blake is such that Miller could probably give 5 more interviews with Marc Spears and still be the starting point guard. But that doesn't mean there aren't issues to be ironed out with Miller starting. Unfortunately, it's also easy to imagine Blake's productivity taking a pretty solid hit playing backup minutes with other reserves, rather than alongside the starting unit.
Travis finished with 10 points and 4 boards but his second half play was some of the ugliest I have ever seen during his entire time with the Blazers. He missed multiple shots in a row, committed back-to-back careless turnovers, and then followed all of that up with a long 3 pointer that failed to draw iron. A lot of fans and media observers were mumbling under their breath during the stretch. Tough to watch.
With that said, Travis did find himself the recipient of a few easy dunks and, repeating what we saw against Sacramento last week, he seems to be a regular target when the Blazers look to push the ball. It remains to be seen how often the Blazers will actually push tempo once opposing teams start to lock down on defense. But if and when the team does run, Travis looks to profit in these situations more than he has in years past.
As mentioned, Joel (2 points, 8 boards) was the first sub in during both the 1st and 3rd quarters and you could see, as soon as he checked in, that he was going out of his way to get himself into the flow of the game after sitting. He wasn't particularly successful at that, missing a number of close-range shots. He did enjoy a lot of success gathering defensive rebounds, as he usual does, and as should be expected against a team like Phoenix.
His rotation situation mirrors Blake's. With Oden playing so well, the skill gap between the two players seems larger than ever before. It's almost impossible to see Joel being as productive on the second unit as he was on the first unit last year. Those are the breaks I guess.
A non-factor in 9 minutes. 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist. He didn't return from the locker room at halftime due to back spasms and will "most likely" not play tomorrow night in Utah, according to Nate McMillan after the game.
My vote is to simply rest Rudy until the regular season. The Blazers will need his change-of-pace off the bench, especially if Travis Outlaw isn't able to produce efficiently on offense. Give him a few weeks off to rest and heal.
Nic saw limited action (just 8 minutes) tonight and didn't exactly light up the box (2 points, 1 board, 1 assists, 1 steal). Half of that production came on a single play shortly after he checked in, when he smartly made a steal in transition and passed the ball ahead to Travis Outlaw for a dunk. It was the kind of play that made you think, "That's why he'll be starting."
- Blazers Broadcaster Bill Schonely sang "God Bless America" (quite well, I should add) before the game but he did not sing the National Anthem. In fact, no one did. Tonight's game was the first professional sporting event I have attended in America during my entire life that didn't begin with The Star-Spangled Banner. It seems like the NBA must have rules governing pre-game ceremonies that would mandate the National Anthem be played. Does anyone know? Are the Blazers subject to a fine for not doing so?
- The weakest lineup by far tonight was Blake, Webster, Batum, Outlaw, Przybilla. Struggled on both ends of the court, getting lit up by (and failing to adjust to) Barbosa on one end (25 points) and going possession after possession without a decent look on offense. Pretty brutal stuff.
- Bayless registered a DNP - Coach's Decision and bolted from the locker room pretty quickly after the game. The highlight of his night appeared to be a halftime conversation with fellow Arizonan Channing Frye. Also, these capri pants. It's going to be an incredibly long season for Rex.
- The Suns' were outrageously hot from distance (12 for 23... Barbosa going 5 of 7 by himself) and the Blazers simply did not adjust to the hot shooting adequately. The defensive effort seemed to be "oh, he'll probably miss this one" rather than "I better challenge this shot because they've been hot." If I was Nate McMillan, I'd be disappointed in that perimeter defense.
- Given that tomorrow night's game is the second half of a back-to-back, I would expect to see mass rest for Roy, Aldridge and possibly Oden -- as well as Fernandez.
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-- Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org)