And now, Steve Nash, if you wish to be in the club you must run twixt the Paddles of Doom again crying, "Please sir, may I have another?" What's that? Going home instead? I don't blame you.
In a Nutshell
The Blazers used dominating rebounding and unselfish, interchangeable offense to overcome spotty defensive continuity and brief returns to bad old habits. Portland pasted a 31-11 fourth period on a suddenly tired, monochromatic Suns team, cruising to the victory.
The most significant development in this game was the demonstration that a healthy, well-stocked Portland roster (as opposed to the poor man's gumbo we saw last season) is capable of forming and executing a decent game plan. This was evidenced from the first moments of the game as the Blazers hit the Suns in the places they were most vulnerable.
Plan 1 was to hit the boards hard, particularly on the offensive end. Portland's forwards--occasionally guards--slammed the offensive glass repeatedly, a tactic the Suns couldn't answer. This led to second-chance opportunities but it also slowed down Phoenix's running game, as they were never confident of possession.
Plan 1a was to pressure with LaMarcus Aldridge even after makes, further slowing the up-court journey for the Suns. This was a brilliant use of Aldridge's length and speed, disguising whatever shortcomings he has in a straight-up halfcourt situation.
No running meant fewer easy baskets for the Suns. They had 6 fast-break points in the game. Constant halfcourt play put pressure on the non-scorers in the Phoenix lineup, which technically means everyone but Steve Nash and Jason Richardson. Under pressure guys like Hedo Turkoglu and Channing Frye don't look nearly as good.
Plan 2 was moving the ball inside-out on most possessions. The Blazers cleverly posted their wing players without expecting them to score. Once the ball was entered Phoenix was forced to sag towards the posting guard/small forward. One cut down the middle and the rim belonged to the Blazers. Failing that a cross-court pass found an open shooter. The Blazers used their height/vision advantage without having to expose their rudimentary low post scoring skills. This wouldn't work against a team stocked with strong one-on-one defenders but against the Suns' smalls it was magic. Last year Portland fans never saw the ball in a guard's hands in the paint unless that guard was trying to score against two defenders. This scheme multiplied the offensive options at least threefold.
Plan 3 was to not hold the dang ball on offense! The Blazers weren't exactly quick in their offensive sets but they were certainly quick to share. We saw few six-dribble possessions tonight. Everybody became more of a threat when the ball was moving, even the usual six-dribble suspects. I'm struggling to remember a single shot heaved against true double coverage tonight.
Plan 4 was to push the ball whenever possible. At first Phoenix got back but after the first 18 minutes or so their stride started to lag. By the fourth quarter the depth-poor Suns looked tired even when Portland wasn't breaking.
In general the Portland offense looked better than expected tonight. (Caveat: these were the Suns.) They gained clear advantage through cutting, screening, and passing. They shot in areas comfortable to them. They didn't waste possessions. They pushed when possible and pulled back when necessary. It wasn't a flawless night but compared to what we're used to seeing it might as well have been. The space was there to use and the Blazers used it.
If you want to understand how the Blazers have changed offensively and why this is happening (and hopefully will continue), look at the players the Blazers have lost and gained in the last calendar year. Steve Blake was a passer but not a threat to do anything besides shoot offensively. Check out the list after him: Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Jerryd Bayless. All three of those guys were probably going to score when they touched the ball. Bayless perhaps less so, but he was still an endpoint-type player rather than a conduit. Now look at who they've picked up: Marcus Camby, Wesley Matthews, Armon Johnson. The first two aren't endpoints at all. We haven't seen enough of Johnson to know but even a short look reveals he's more of a natural point guard fit than Bayless was. The ball movement is no accident.
The defense, on the other hand, looked worse than expected for three quarters. Screens and quick cuts still bothered the Blazers, as did almost any pass. With the forwards hitting the offensive glass the guards were tasked with getting back to stop the easy bucket, which didn't always happen. Even though the Suns didn't get true fast-breaks they did exploit mismatches easily in the early going because of that tardiness. These flaws were pronounced when the Roy-Miller backcourt played. On the upside, whenever Wesley Matthews or Armon Johnson came in, business picked up. Even lineups including Rudy Fernandez found some success. Those players were able to cover for each other on switches with a little help from the bigs. They were able to stay in front of their men. They created pressure that led to turnovers. The bench players made the regular guys look better, one of the signs of a good reserve unit (as opposed to the "try to outdo them and take their spot" theory the bench has been operating under previously).
The Blazers were saved by good rebounding and good offense in the first period but the Suns also ran hot. The second units for each team defended better and scored less, leading to a relatively pedestrian second period. Portland took a four-point lead into the half.
In the third period Portland reverted to some old-school offense with Miller and/or Roy taking over. The Suns also stretched the floor, working both the break and the perimeter, making the Blazers look silly in a style reminiscent of last spring's playoff series. Only Marcus Camby's heroic floor coverage and the aforementioned steals kept the Blazers afloat. Still the Suns outscored Portland by 10 and took a 6-point lead going into the fourth. In the final period Portland's second-unit guards set a blistering pace which the starters followed when they returned. The Suns, tiring, started to rely on Steve Nash's solo game. The Blazers have the personnel to counter that this year. Nash spent the early quarter scoring on stop-and-pops but started missing with regularity as his legs faded and Portland kept throwing defenders at him. By the latter stages of the quarter the flow had inverted entirely. Phoenix's starting guards were heaving one-on-one. The Blazers rebounded easily and ran out before their counterparts could recover. By the time the defense collected Portland had their choice of a couple easy passes and a shot that the ragged Suns weren't going to be able to cover. By the end Blazer fans were laughing and dancing.
In every victory there's an unsung hero. Tonight that was LaMarcus Aldridge. Not only did he rebound and pressure as mentioned above, he was content to play the decoy on offense. Phoenix was worried about him and sent extra men. Aldridge didn't force it. He simply passed. Some of those passes were bail-outs but most found the mark. It got to be a game in itself: shift the defense then pass and strike. This couldn't have happened had LaMarcus' ego gotten in the way. He sacrificed himself for the team without giving up any effort on the defensive end. How long have we been waiting to see somebody do that? Oh, and he set some picks too. On other nights LMA will score 20. Tonight his 3-9 with 8 points and 9 boards looks just fine.
Brandon Roy took one-on-one shots tonight but he hit them. They were the least important part of his game, which was good to see. He hit consistently from the three-point arc, going 4-6, mostly on smart passes from inside. (It's a lot easier to hit your jumpers when the ball goes in the paint on its way to you instead of just around it.) He went 9-20 for 24 points. More significantly, except for a few stretches Roy was just as eager to give up the ball as anyone else. He got 6 assists. Add in 3 steals and you have a nice game despite some obvious early defensive lapses.
Nicolas Batum was the chief offensive rebounder and Suns-headache-maker during the early part of the game. He was really active under the boards. He also took after Steve Nash on both ends, making Nash work for his looks and taking him down low whenever he guarded Nicolas. Late in the game Batum hit a flurry of threes to salt it away. He ended up 8-17 for 19 points will 11 rebounds, 5 offensive. The most exciting development was how well Batum used offensive floor space tonight. He reacted to the ball when he didn't have it and found seams in the Suns defense which led to those rebounds and shots. His hustle was great but his smarts told the story.
Bless you, Marcus Camby. All the guy did was cover the paint side to side and hop out on any screen he saw to help slow the dribbler without giving up the cut. Any screen Camby wasn't involved in was trouble for Portland. Any screen he covered ended up OK. 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 6-11 shooting on putbacks and jumpers, 13 points.
Andre Miller played 27 minutes, went 4-8, scored 10, and dished 9 assists off of the new Blazer motion. His passing was precise and as long as the offense stayed active he looked great. His lower minutes will probably be typical as Coach McMillan looks to get those reserves more playing time.
Wesley Matthews played 30 minutes and gave great effort defensively. He looked a little excited on offense, missing some make-able attempts. He went 5-12 for 13 points. He had 6 rebounds and 3 assists. The best compliment is that most of the disjointedness on either end faded when Matthews was on the floor. He's a wheel-greaser.
Rudy Fernandez played 22 minutes with 2-4 threes made and 7 points plus 3 assists. As they did with Roy and Matthews in the Miller-less lineup the Blazers tried out Rudy setting the offense tonight. He was marginally less successful than the other two but not awful. Portland got by. The spacing just wasn't as pretty. His individual defense wasn't much better than we've seen but he did take advantage of his teammates causing pressure to snatch 3 steals away from the Suns. He fit in out there. As long as he does that and hits his shots he'll be fine. He can hold his head up around these parts tonight.
Dante Cunningham hit a couple nice jumpers en route to 6 points and some nice floor coverage in 14 minutes.
Portland, meet Armon Johnson. The dude manned up on defense, the most significant yet probably least exciting part of his game. He didn't back down from Goran Dragic or Nash or anybody. Blazer fans were on their feet for him because of his take-no-prisoners offensive attack though. In 9 minutes he scored 6 points, dished 3 assists, and grabbed 2 rebounds. He looked pretty nifty on the break.
Portland, meet Fabricio Oberto. Fabricio, wash your hair.
Stats of the Night
Blazers 18 offensive rebounds and a 48-30 rebounding advantage. Blazers 31 assists on 43 made field goals. Phoenix 6 fast-break points. Blazers 10 turnovers at the half but only 12 after the final horn. Steve Nash 9 turnovers.
Odd Notes and Links
Mike Rice pronounces "Dragic" like "tragic" with a different first consonant.
Jersey Contest form for tomorrow night's game
Check out the anticipatory grief at Bright Side of the Sun