A Look at the Suns
After mucking around much of the season in "We can't figure out how to play together" hell the Suns find themselves in the dreaded 9th position in the Western Conference. Not firing on all cylinders the team couldn't score enough to make up for the atrocious defense they were playing. Shaquille O'Neal and Amar'e Stoudemire were constantly jockeying for post position, touches, and who did and didn't have the right to use an apostrophe in their name.
A typical pre-game conversation:
O'Neal: Get that apostrophe outta here, man! That ain't right.
Amar'e: What?!? Don't even come like that. The apostrophe is my newest accessory. See? I got the apostrophe bling around my neck with six carats of ice at the top. My hood ornament's an apostrophe. I am rockin' that thang!
O'Neal: An apostrophe's not an accessory! That's somethin' your mama gave you!
Amar'e: It just so happens my mama did give it to me! Besides, this is Apostrophe 2.0! It ain't like your prune-juice smellin' old-school apostrophe. Look it up, grandpa!
O'Neal: I already did look it up! You're lookin' at THE O-apostrophe-Neal. That means "Son of Neal". What's yours mean? "Amar" is "love" in the Romance languages. You love...E? What's that about?!?
Amar'e: Romance languages? Why you want to stank up this joint with all of your college book-learnin'?
O'Neal: It ain't just college! I been to NBA school and now I'm the Dean and Professor. Check out this trophy! What does it say? MVP. That stands for Most...Valuable...Punctuator. Now step off! There's only room for one apostrophe in this locker room.
Amar'e: Me step off? You step off! Man, I hope The Man offers you to somebody for a second-round pick and they turn you down!
O'Neal: What'd you say? Well I hope your retina detaches and rolls all over the floor! Then you can sport an apostrophe on the lenses of your thick old safety goggles! Call it Vision 2.0! 2 blind...2 play...2-point-oh oh I can't see no more! Accessorize THAT!
Amar'e: What?!? Oh no you didn't!
O'Neal: Oh yes I did! What are you gonna do?
Amar'e: I got two words for you: Ka-Zam!
O'Neal: That's it!!!
At that point Steve Nash would have to separate the two big men and the Suns would go on to lose 94-116.
A funny thing happened on the way to the lottery, however. Amar'e did suffer a detached retina and hasn't played since February 18th. Then all of a sudden the Big Apostrophe started cranking out huge games. With Shaq's ascendance and some of their wings stepping up the Suns' offense switched back into high gear. Other than a brutal stretch of six games earlier this month when they played almost every good team known to Man in a row and got killed by all of them, they've been winning ever since. Sporting a 40-31 record they are working on a six-game winning streak, the last two against Utah and Denver. They are currently 3 games behind Dallas for the 8th spot and 4 behind Portland and Utah, the next two teams up the chain.
A quick look at the Suns' schedule shows that the next three games--Portland, Utah, and Sacramento on the road--will be pivotal to any chance they have to make the playoffs. After this the majority of their games are at home or on the road against weaker opponents. They could rattle off a bunch of victories to end the season. But they won't matter if they can't take care of business in these three games first. If they have any kind of pride or post-season aspirations--and it's a fair bet that a veteran team like this has both--they're going to come out focused and determined. The Blazers will have to match or counter them in order to secure a victory.
The teams have played three games so far. The first two were in Phoenix and the Suns handled the Blazers easily, treating them almost like a little brother. The young pups got their revenge when the teams met in Portland but it took 52 points from Brandon Roy and 124 overall to get the job done. The Suns have scored over 118 in 5 of their 6 victories in this string which means Portland might have to bring the offense hard again. Phoenix has had 6 different players lead the team in scoring in their last 8, including ultra-veteran Grant Hill in each of the last 2. The Blazers will have to be ready for a multi-pronged assault.
Earlier in the season Phoenix was struggling with field goal percentage and three-point percentage both. They've cleared up those problems. They have returned to the top of the heap in overall percentage and field goals made per game even though they're only 14th in field goals attempted. They average over 50% shooting while holding their opponent around 46%. They're 5th in the league in three-point percentage--everybody but Shaq and Grant Hill takes them and makes them--though they don't defend as well on the deep perimeter. They also draw and hit a lot of foul shots. Overall they're tops in the league at offensive efficiency.
Phoenix turns the ball over more than the Blazers but they also garner more assists. They have good individual rebounders but are not great as a team. Their defense is still an afterthought, but with all the points they're putting up it hasn't mattered.
Keys to the Game
1. Somebody from Portland has got to score and score BIG. I'm not saying Brandon has to have 52 again but he and LaMarcus need to be in the 20's with some Outlaw and Fernandez on the side helping out. Unless something goes really wacky you can't post 92 and win this game.
2. Three point shots are a vulnerability for the Suns and a strength for the Blazers. Let's hope our guys are on.
3. You must move Shaq around and make him work on defense. Phoenix actually bogs down a little when their offense consists solely of low-post Shaq shots as well. Perhaps this calls for a little creative thinking at the 5-spot? You can't play small all game but after Przybilla and Oden are done roughing up the big guy Portland might try that Outlaw-Aldridge frontcourt for a while.
4. There are so many guys from Phoenix who can kill you. It's just wrong that Matt Barnes, Leandro Barbosa, and Grant Hill have all topped 20 in the last three weeks. But the key to the Phoenix offense is still that Steve Nash pick and roll. You have to find a way to bottle him up, still cover Shaq, and get back to the shooters on the wings. Again speed may be of more value here than bulk. The secondary and tertiary defenders are going to be hard-pressed to make their rotations tonight. Guys away from the ball on the initial attack are going to determine the outcome of this game.
5. You have to rebound the ball and limit turnovers to keep the tempo reasonable. Phoenix is not Golden State. They're not going to greyhound you all night. But they'll hit quick if the opportunity is there. Every easy two you give up adds another step to the mountain that you have to climb.
6. Most of all the Blazers have to realize what time it is...for themselves but particularly for the Suns. Portland has to come out with energy and sustain it. They have to be ready for a barrage, for a fight, maybe even for some tooth and nail clawing. Don't let the Suns' intensity surprise you because you could be down 15 before you realize it.
This game becomes much more important to the Blazers if they lose it than if they win it. It's unlikely that the Suns will catch Portland at this point no matter the outcome but you don't want to even flirt with the idea. It's much better to dispose of them, alleviate the need to keep looking over your shoulder, and just concentrate on seeding. From a confidence standpoint and to show they are ready for the post-season and this level of play the Blazers would be well-served by a victory tonight.
Check out what's up in Phoenix-land at BrightSideoftheSun.
Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.