Media Row Report: Blazers 106, Suns 92

A legend after one night.

The Portland Trail Blazers closed the game with a 18-1 run to pull away from the Phoenix Suns and win tonight's season-opener in textbook fashion, 106-92, in the Rose Garden.

I say textbook because the Blazers won this one using a number of fundamental principles the coaching staff and scouts have been preaching since the very beginning of training camp. Use depth to withstand runs. Send five guys to the boards. Throw multiple looks at opposing point guards. Take advantage of improved perimeter shooting to diversify the late game offense. And milk every last second of goodness out of Wesley freaking Matthews. 

Despite a scorching third quarter (14 of 18 from the field, 4 of 4 from deep), the Phoenix Suns did not impress tonight. Hedo Turkoglu is the human equivalent of sagging your pants to a completely unnecessary degree solely to embarrass your parents in public. Take your jeans, move them down so they expose areas that should never see the light of day, parade around at your local indoor mall while shopping with your family, and take a snapshot of their reaction. That's the Suns team photo every time Hedo forgets that he shouldn't go into a coma while his man is cutting to the basket. "Look, man, we get that lazy is your thing, that it's cool to slack off, it's hip to be chill. We're not trying to change your behavior or your look or anything. Be who you are. But just know that this cold stare, from me to you, means that I think you're an embarrassment. It means I wish we didn't share a jersey. It means I'm going to play so hard to cover up for you that I earn enough cachet so that I can demand a trade as far away from you as possible. Now, please, pull up your pants. You're embarrassing your mother."

Where were we? Yes, the Suns weren't particularly impressive. Jason Richardson picked up where he left off during the playoffs -- 9 for 13, 22 points -- but Steve Nash's hot shooting was offset by nine turnovers, some of them the cringe-inducing kind, and none of Phoenix's surrounding pieces were able to make much of an impact offensively. Grant Hill had a few sprightly takes to the rim and Hakim Warrick made some noise with his energy, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep pace with a balanced Portland attack, which saw five players in double figures.

So let's look at a few of these fundamental principles in turn. 

Use Depth To Withstand Runs

Nate McMillan used 10 players in the first quarter but tightened that up a bit during the second half, after apparently seeing enough of Fabricio Oberto in three minutes and opting to go small. Really small. At one point he used a four guard lineup - in a combination I don't believe ever saw the court together during the preseason - and it was surprisingly effective. Going deep into his bench allowed McMillan to turn Armon Johnson loose on Phoenix's guards during his 10 minute stint and to go with some soft full-court pressure when Phoenix took a third-quarter lead. The Blazers had a number of deflections tonight and Nash's late turnovers were no coincidence. Portland's depth certainly caught up to Phoenix: Batum, who played just 26 minutes, barely looked tired after the game and hit three late three-pointers, making the Suns pay for leaving him open and/or rotating slowly. 

Five Guys To The Boards

This was evident throughout the game because the Suns leave rebounds secured in a carseat inside of a locked car while they go to the supermarket. Total neglect. The Blazers had 18 offensive rebounds, extending possessions over and over again, with Batum grabbing boards completely untouched on multiple occasions (11 total rebounds, 5 offensive). One nice by-product of the unorthodox lineups is that there are tons of cross match-ups or mismatches that, if the energy is up, lead to improved rebounding opportunities. The Blazers won the battle of the boards going away, 48-30. All 10 Blazers had at least one rebound; four Blazers had 6+ boards.

Take Advantage Of Improved Perimeter Shooting

Back on Media Day I joked (wasn't really joking) that I was going to make it my mission during training camp to convince the Blazers to go with a three-guard closing lineup featuring Brandon Roy, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Turns out Matthews didn't need any help at all making that happen.

Tonight was really best case scenario for how the trio can win games in the fourth quarter. Matthews had 5 fourth-quarter points. Roy had 5 fourth-quarter points. Batum had 11 fourth-quarter points, including the three three-pointers already mentioned. Those numbers are almost certainly giving you a headache because they are disorienting. No need to consult a doctor. Just sit down and take a deep breath. This feeling is known as "late-game offensive scoring balance" and it's totally normal, it's just not something you're used to. You'll be fine. The symptoms should go away shortly.

In addition to the balanced statistical output on paper, you probably felt the entire game open up there at the end. Instead of a single point of attack, the baskets were coming from both sides, the corners, the top, everywhere at once it seemed. This was exactly the plan, and it works as long as the Blazers shoot 10-20 from deep for the game and 5-8 from deep during the fourth quarter. While it won't always be this easy -- in fact, it usually will be much more difficult -- the Roy/Batum/Matthews combination spikes up the team's "watchability", which has been called into question a lot recently.

Wesley Matthews

Speaking of Matthews, he filled the stat sheet tonight: 13 points, 6 boards, 3 assists. An underreported aspect of his game has been his ability to leak out in transition. He embodies McMillan's "play early or play late" mantra. He sneaks out, tries to capitalize on a slow defense by attacking the rim, but doesn't force things and pulls the ball back out if it's not there. He had a number of buckets in transition tonight and he should be a key recipient of outlet passes from Batum after he makes a steal. Again, a touch of an excitement factor.

Matthews didn't start, but played more minutes than Batum, Miller and Rudy Fernandez. Miller's playing time was guaranteed to drop from last season, but he played just 26 minutes tonight, and it wasn't because he was particularly ineffective. It was simply a matter of Matthews changing the game in so many ways that McMillan can't bring himself to sub him out.

"That guy can play," McMillan said afterwards, a gushing compliment in Nate-Speak.

It also took just one game for Bill Simmons to issue a Twitter mea culpa regarding Matthews.

Random Game Notes

  • Brandon Roy was 9-20 tonight and his balance looked better. "It felt good," he told me after the game. "Even some that missed felt good. Those things will come as we continue to play more games."
  • I asked Roy whether he expects to play in a four guard lineup often or if this was a unique case caused by match-ups. "Some of it was match-up," he told me. "Hedo at that four, throughout the game we were trying to play LaMarcus and Camby but then I thought late it was a good adjustment to try to match their size, and it worked out for us. We'll just play it by ear. We know we have the luxury of going small. But every team is not going to be small."
  • Armon Johnson is what Jarrett Jack was supposed to be. Big, quick, smart, limits turnovers, goes hard, and, most importantly, can get into offensive sets with a calm demeanor on the ball. By the way, for the NBA advance scouts that are reading this trying to get a feel for the rookie's game, let me save you some film time. HE'S GOING LEFT. 
  • Steve Nash wasn't going out of his way to praise Johnson after the game, however. "He looked like he played really well," Nash said flatly. "He has a lot of ability. It will just be a matter of how many opportunities he gets and how hard he works."
  • Nash recently expressed frustration about the state of the Suns and he said after the game the team has some work to do when it comes to congealing. "We have a lot of work to do. Six new guys, trying to incorporate everyone, the chemistry, the cohesion, it's not something that's going to happen overnight."
  • While a number of guys seemed to really flip the switch on tonight, LaMarcus Aldridge, who posted an impressive preseason, tallied just 8 points and looked like he was struggling under a heavy current. He contributed in other areas - 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block - but was indecisive in dealing with the extra attention that Phoenix was paying to him. McMillan said pretty bluntly after the game that Aldridge needs to improve how he handles double teams from the block. Something to watch.
  • GM Rich Cho made the rounds all over the Rose Garden tonight, signing autographs for fans, chatting with a bunch of media members and sitting next to Paul Allen. With President Larry Miller on Allen's other side, Best Friend Of The Billionaire Bert Kolde got bumped to the far outside of the four-man pack.
  • Patty Mills was on the active list and dressed for the game and Elliot Williams did not. Elliot Williams needs to invite Paul Allen to a personal one-man dunking exhibition and maybe he'll get to wear sneakers instead of dress shoes next time. Mills went absolutely nuts on the bench when Rudy Fernandez hit a second-half three-pointer.
  • According to his player fact sheet, Fabricio Oberto's "favorite bands include Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, U2 and Metallica."
  • The Blazers pulled out all the pre-game stops for opening night, suspending giant curtains down from the scoreboard and superimposing a video on the curtains, featuring the thumping rhythmics of Eminem. Both Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla were introduced to the crowd from seats on the bench, prior to the "entering the stadium through the 100 level entrace and clapping hands with the fans" intro that has become customary over the last few years.
  • Marcus Camby took a microphone to center court before tip off to say, "I want to thank you guys for coming out to support us this season. We plan to do our best to work hard, not only on the court but in the community. Go Blazer Nation."
  • The Blazers ran another high-low lob play early in the game from Camby to Aldridge, which resulted in free throws for Aldridge.
  • The play of the night was a perfectly-timed transition shovel pass from Johnson to Matthews for a thunderous finish to a three-on-one fast break. "Did Jerryd Bayless ever do that?", one writer asked. "No way, he would have missed the layup at full speed and landed in Cho's lap," another replied.
  • The Miami Heat are currently on pace to break the record for fewest wins in a season, a mark that was tied nearly tied by the New Jersey Nets last season.
  • Congratulations to Dave and Mrs. Dave on the birth of their second child.

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Opening Thoughts

It was good. That's a good team. People try to write Phoenix off because Amar'e is gone. Nash is an unbelievable player, I thought our guys tonight played the game we wanted to play. We stopped turning the ball over, got some penetration, good ball movement tonight, 31 assists, controlled the boards. As we got into the game the defense got stronger. 11 points in the fourth quarter. 

What was the difference in the fourth quarter?

I thought our second unit got scrappy. Wesley and Rudy and Armon. Both times we put that group in, they got after the ball defensively, which created some offense. We went with the small lineup, we knew they would go with Frye. I wanted to get Nic at the 4, get Wesley in the game and that lineup worked out for us.

Nicolas Batum was guarded by Steve Nash. Effective in the post?

We didn't get anything out of his post-ups. Where he punished Nash with that match-up was the offensive glass. And then he knocked down some threes late in the game. I thought our guys did a good job of recognizing mismatches, where they made mistakes defensively, and we started to move the ball. For a short period of time, we started to go one on one, a lot of isolation, that's what they want you to do.

Armon Johnson's NBA Debut

He's going to make mistakes but he goes hard. As long as he brings that type of energy, where he's scrapping defensively, I thought he did a good job of just making the guards work bringing the ball up the floor. Offensively he saw a few lanes and was able to get to the rim. Made some big plays, big shots by him. We just want energy from him and he was able to give us that for 10 minutes.

Defensive performance

I thought a few times we didn't close out chest to chest. We didn't stay with the gameplan on that. They want to raise up. If they have any time of vision to the rim behind the three-point line they are going to shoot it. We had a couple of Kodak moments where we were standing there with our hands down. And Frye, I think Hedo, Richardson, had uncontested shots. Other than that, we stuck with the game plan. 

How would you rate this win?

It's a win. We take this. We can be better. We got a lot of possessions tonight. Forced 19 turnovers. Was able to create some offense off of our defense. We can be better. We take this and go down to LA tomorrow and try to improve.

Nash and Richardson went off

Contested shots. Knowing that they can score. I thought our defense did a good job of keeping them off the three. That team can score, they've let the league in scoring for a number of years.

Timing of Andre Miller's return to the game in the fourth quarter

Well, we wanted to get him back. I thought he had fresh legs late in the game. He was able to make some plays. Armon and Wesley I thought used a lot of energy pressuring, trying to help get us back in the game defensively. Wanted to give those guys quick breathers and get Wesley back in the game.

Wesley Matthews

That guy can play. Tonight we went small and he matched up with Hedo and we were able to play a smaller unit because he plays bigger than his size. He made plays. Offensively he got to the rim, knocked down some jump shots, nice job of guarding Nash, making it hard on him, he did a nice job tonight.

Small lineup opened up offensive spacing

They were double-teaming quickly on our post ups. I thought we started to rush. You got wide open shots against that defense, we needed to get to the open spot and give the ball to the guys who were open against their double teams. They were committing to the trap on LaMarcus and that should be an easy play if you space the floor.

First impressions of Oberto

Oberto, we put him in for a few minutes, I think he's going to be OK.  He knows how to play the game. Another guy with a high basketball IQ. The few minutes he played I thought he was OK.

Nash

We made him work. We lost him a few times in a cross match-up. He was guarding Nic, we had Nic on Richardson, and in that situation Nic just needs to stay with Nash. He was right in front of him and we were trying to get to match-ups. We made that adjustment though.

Aldridge struggled with the reads

They were double-teaming him. Forcing. If they're going to double-team like that, committing two quickly, that's easy basketball. That should be the easiest game to play. We didn't take advantage of it, we didn't make them pay on their double teams. 

Have you talked to him about improving his reads?

Yeah. He's got to get better at it.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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