Hmmmph. Any questions?
As expected the Suns came to play tonight. Don't let the final score fool you about that. Phoenix got up 94 shots, made 50% of them, grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, and outrebounded the Blazers overall. Shaq and Jason Richardson had fine games, Nash wasn't exactly himself but he wasn't horrible (except on defense), and Phoenix got some decent contributions off the bench.
So how do you beat the veteran, playoff-hungry, six-win-streaking Suns on a night when they're putting it in the bucket?
It's pretty simple, really.
You outhustle them. You wreak havoc in the passing lanes. You block shots. You convert all of these opportunities into easy points on the other end by outrunning them. And you don't wait for turnovers either. You push the tempo every chance you get. When you're stuck in the halfcourt you don't settle for the first shot you get. Rather you work the ball inside. If they single-cover you score deep. If they run help at you then you swing the ball to an open shooter. When the first opportunity isn't there, reset and set great screens. Keep moving without the ball. Pass without qualm. Finish hard. Get dribble penetration and draw fouls.
All of a sudden you're shooting 60% and it doesn't matter that the Suns are at 50%.
You're taking 27 foul shots to their 16.
You're shooting 50% (9 of 18) from the three-point arc.
You've got 30 assists.
You create 9 steals and 22 points off of turnovers.
You block 10 shots.
Everybody on your team is scoring.
Everybody is trying to be the first guy downcourt to convert the easy bucket.
Everybody is diving on the floor.
Everybody is rebounding.
Then you look up and you're up 20 in the fourth and Phoenix is hanging their heads, knowing they've got nothing left in the tank or on the bench. It's over and you just sent a message that if the Suns are going to catch anybody for a playoff seed it's going to have to be Dallas.
This might have been the most playoff-intense game of the season. It was certainly one of the Blazers' best games of the season.
As far as game flow, Portland got off to a nice start. Phoenix was taking perimeter jumpers. Steve Nash was looking to pass instead of breaking down the defense. The Blazers, behind the energy of Nicolas Batum and the scoring of LaMarcus Aldridge, were collecting misses, pushing tempo, and getting relatively easy shots. The Suns called a timeout midway through the period and coach Alvin Gentry told them to go through Shaq first. The inside threat made the difference for them and they started coming back. After getting up by 6-7 early the Blazers carried a slim two-point lead into the quarter break.
Coach McMillan subbed in the Spanish Armada as a unit near the end of the first and it paid dividends. Rudy Fernandez started draining threes which opened up the floor for Sergio Rodriguez to drive. The Suns have no point guard defense so Sergio was able to do as he pleased. Then Brandon Roy started whipping it around...and Steve Blake...and Rudy Fernandez. Then the passing just avalanched. With the exception of Greg Oden everyone who played more than 5 minutes tonight had an assist. 7 players had multiple dimes. Phoenix tried to compensate by throwing up a zone but they were slow rotating. It didn't bother the Blazers a bit. More running, more deep scoring, more deep shooting and the Blazers post 36 in the quarter and enter the half up 8.
Phoenix tried to push the tempo coming out of halftime but the Blazers did a good job of getting back in transition. Without easy buckets on the run the Suns had two alternatives: go through Shaq or whip the ball around trying to find an open man. The former was quite successful, as Portland had little answer for Shaquille. The latter resulted in even more turnovers and Portland conversions. The Suns couldn't get anything off of dribble penetration tonight. It was either post Shaq, hoist deep, or turn the ball over. The coup de grace came at the end of the third when Sergio Rodriguez found a cutting Rudy Fernandez for an easy layup with 1.7 seconds left. Phoenix hesitated on the inbounds, letting the Blazers reset. They also lobbed a wobbling duck of a pass when they did inbound the ball. Rudy streaked from the time-line, snagged it out of the air, and got off another three as the clock expired. Nothing but net. The Suns were already down 16 before that sequence. They entered the fourth down 21 instead. And that was all she wrote. Cue the streamers, the chalupa coupons, the wave...the whole deal. Party time in Portland.
We've known it since Game 1 of the preseason this year against Sacramento: If you don't defend the Blazers they will kill you. That's basically what happened tonight with a lot of hustle and heart thrown in.
--Brandon Roy had 26 points on 11 of 19 shooting tonight. The Suns had no answer. They were also distracted by...I don't know...every other Blazer out there, allowing Brandon to cherry-pick his opportunities. The low-hanging fruit was good for him tonight. He also had 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and a block. Great intensity, good game.
--Even though Brandon only scored half of the 52 he pasted on the Suns the last time these two teams met LaMarcus Aldridge more than picked up the slack. The Blazers went to him early and Phoenix aggressively double-teamed him down low. With the damage our shooters were inflicting they couldn't keep up that strategy. And single-covered LaMarcus killed them. He alternated between setting up deep and early down in the paint (a la 2002 Shaquille O'Neal), swinging across with his hook, and shooting the face-up jumper. It pretty much all worked. LaMarcus went 11-16, 7-8 from the line, grabbed 12 rebounds (9 defensive), and had 2 assists, a steal, and 3 blocks. He was the player of the game tonight.
--Joel Przybilla jockeyed with Shaq all night. He gave as good as he got physically. Statistically speaking he had 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 block. Forget the numbers. He fought hard.
--Nicolas Batum keyed our early run with offensive rebounds and harassing defense. He was alive, active, fairly aggressive on offense, and selling out completely defensively. He played with that kind of unconscious abandon that makes young guys fun to watch. He ended up with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal.
--Steve Blake ate Steve Nash's defense for lunch, scoring off the drive and via the jumper both. He shot 6-10 for 14 points with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. He and his compatriots never really let Nash get off either. They shadowed him fairly well even through screens. Nash scored 15 but only managed 5 assists. Blake nearly matched him.
--Rudy Fernandez was the superstar off the bench tonight. You knew it was going to be a good night when his first three dropped. After that it was time to batten down the hatches and hide your women. He murdered the Suns from outside, first with his shot and then, when they closed, with his passing. He made 5-6 threes, 8-10 overall and scored 23 with 2 assists and 2 steals. Nobody's going to beat the Blazers when Rudy is shooting like that.
--Sergio Rodriguez only shot 1-5 (a little hesitation jumper after driving on Nash) but he took advantage of the Suns' lack of defensive integrity to the tune of 8 assists in 14 minutes of play. He also had 3 rebounds.
--Travis Outlaw played 28 minutes and only shot 4-10 for the evening for 11 points. However he had 5 assists and was enjoying whipping the ball around as much as anyone. This wasn't a game where we needed Travis to dominate the ball and score 20.
--Greg Oden helped key the defense early with his fleet footwork and shot-blocking. He got racked up by Shaq a little but that didn't matter. He helped shut down the lane when the Suns probed in there and that set the tone for the evening. He ended the night with 3 massive blocks and 8 points.
--Ruffin, Frye, and Bayless each got a smidgen of mop-up time.
I just marvel again at what a technically impressive game this was. The Blazers did so many little things right but also came with big heart. I can't think of a single area in which Portland was definitively outplayed save perhaps scoring at the center position. The effort was that comprehensive.
The Blazers indeed served notice tonight. Nobody's going to confuse them with the league elite, but when you talk about the playoff picture from now on you're going to be mentioning the Portland Trail Blazers. And it's going to be that way for many years. This wasn't a final exam for the season but this game marked the beginning of finals. The Blazers aced their first test. Party all night, Portland fans. You deserve it.
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