In a Nutshell
After following their common and oh-so-annoying habit of building a lead and then handing all of their hard-earned margin right back to the opponent the Blazers dig deeply on defense, dimming the Suns' offense enough to walk away with the win. Motley rogues off the bench again provide unexpected spark to preserve the game.
The first quarter told a simple tale. On certain possessions the Blazers moved the ball. On other possessions the Blazers held the ball. On the former they scored easily, on the latter not at all. The quarter featured more of the former than the latter, which meant things went well for the Blazers. In Andre Miller's absence Brandon Roy started the game as the de facto point guard. The offense wasn't bad. That train came to a full stop when Nicolas Batum, tasked with watching Steve Nash before switches (of which there were plenty), picked up his second foul with 7:30 left in the period. That sent Batum to the bench and brought Patty Mills to the fore. After the usual settling-in period Mills acquitted himself well at the point. The ball moved even better, the tempo picked up, and shots looked clearer. Only turnovers and some cheap fouls marred the period for the Blazers. They led 29-23 after one.
The second stanza saw an even bigger dose of the bench. Rudy Fernandez joined Mills in speeding up the halfcourt offense, penetrating and dishing to open shooters. The opportunity to handle and pass the ball got Rudy's spirits up and he looked involved on both ends. The Blazers looked sharp in the halfcourt up until the final minutes of the period, when the succumbed to the temptation to stay outside. On defense the Blazers alternated between zone and a switching man defense which attempted to shut off Steve Nash's passing lanes even if it left him scoring. Nash did score but the Suns didn't prosper, netting only 24. Some missed easy shots and the aforementioned drift to the perimeter left the Blazers with only 22. They had built a dozen-point lead in the period but left up only 4.
That perimeter drift became an avalanche in the third quarter as the Blazers played right into the Suns' hands. Gone was the energy built by the reserves. Gone was the defense. Even farther gone was any rebounding. Phoenix doubled LaMarcus Aldridge every time he touched the ball within 20 feet of the hoop and the Blazers responded with nothing. Phoenix still wasn't hitting on all cylinders but they connected enough times to score 28. The Blazers posted 18. The 6-point deficit looked as big as the national debt given the momentum of the game. Blazer fans were preparing for another letdown.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the guillotine. After a slow start to the period in which the Blazers seemed to be following the "Only One Man Moves at a Time" rule on offense, Coach McMillan went for broke and removed the big men. Mills, Batum, Fernandez, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Brandon Roy were the rotation. Playing without traditional point guards or centers the Blazers adopted a penetrate-and-dish routine, seemingly (and no doubt unintentionally) trying to set up threes. Most of those shots missed, but the thing about threes is that you don't have to hit that many of them to post decent numbers. Portland hit four in the period along with the occasional layup when Phoenix forgot to collapse. It wasn't a great offense but it was serviceable. The Blazers turned serviceable into sufficient by their play on the defensive end. All of those interchangeable wings plus a mobile man in the middle meant Phoenix couldn't get clear drives or open shots. When that quick lineup started helping each other on defense, sneaking in for a steal or block on someone else's man, they started looking scary. All of a sudden Phoenix was turning it over and violating the shot clock. Roy, Rudy, Matthews, Batum, and LMA stymied the Suns until the game clock called for intentional fouls. Nobody missed any and the Blazers inflated their score via the charity stripe. The 106-99 victory ended up looking solid. Blazer fans breathe a sigh of relief for one more night.
That interchangeable defensive lineup won't work against every team, particularly ones with posting bigs. But it was sweet against Phoenix. It's like taking all your best toys out and playing with them at one time.
The first guy to show real signs of life in this game was Rudy Fernandez. He penetrated, dished, and kept his feet moving on defense. He hit 4-6 shots, 2-3 from distance, scored 11, and collected 3 rebounds and 3 assists in 23 minutes. He also played late in the game, a rarity. As the first pirate to swing across the rail to board the enemy boat, we swig our first mug o' grog to him.
Patty Mills also wielded a rapier-sharp attack tonight. He was as aggressive and focused as I've seen him. His loose cannon moments were few and his hits big-time. He scored 9 and dished 7 assists in 29 minutes. Another swig for the Aussie Posse.
Wesley Matthews had another super-active game. He wasn't intimidated by the Suns' defense in the least. Right or wrong, he never hesitated. Mostly it worked out for him. He led the team with 24 points, hit 7-8 foul shots, and played nice defense.
Normally First Mates don't like to get their hands dirty, but LaMarcus Aldridge forgot himself for a night and knocked some heads together late in the game. When he became the center by default he started rebounding (which he hadn't done previously) and blocking shots. He was a key to Portland's critical late defense. He also hit his foul shots (questionable lately) during the foul parade to preserve the lead. 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, and a steal.
Joel Przybilla only got 10 minutes but the zone looked anchored when he played in a way it wasn't otherwise. Basically he kept the enemy from sneaking across the plank. 4 rebounds and some more confidence.
Armon Johnson had a 6 minute run ended by a poor defensive play but he dished 3 assists and tried to be aggressive in the meantime.
Dante Cunningham got 6 minutes as well. He hit a shot, blocked a shot, and grabbed a rebound.
That ends the motley part of the proceedings. One last drink to all of the above. Now we get to the more refined folk.
Marcus Camby did not find himself at an advantage against a team that prefers to shoot instead of drive. He wasn't good enough offensively to keep Phoenix honest and his defensive and rebounding acumen was sabotaged by the constant need to roam. 5 rebounds, 6 points, 2 steals in 25 minutes.
Nicolas Batum had some good moments but all too often fails to alight on the other ship, instead holding the rope and swinging back and forth between them. He shot well at 5-9 for 12 points including a great late three. But his defense wasn't as good as Matthews', he got only 2 rebounds, and didn't distinguish himself in any other way. It's like he's waiting for the game or its players to suit his style before trying to make an impact instead of going out there and making an impact with the things he can do that transcend style.
Brandon Roy had 20 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds. He feasted on 9-9 foul shooting but shot only 5-15 from the field. This is a case where the great stat line is kind of a mirage. Roy just doesn't look special out there. For most players that's not damning, especially with that kind of statistical production. But if you know Roy's game, not looking special--not doing anything noticeable or eye-catching--is about as incriminating as a description as you can find. Had he looked this way in his first Summer League I would have forecast him as suitable perhaps, but not great. Thinking back on how he did look back then, this is sad. But 20 points on your sad-looking days is still pretty good, eh? There's just a huge contrast between Roy's game and that of the hearty pirates who looted the victory tonight.
Stats of the Night
- Suns shoot 50%+ from the field and the arc and 81% from the foul line...and lose.
- Suns outscore the Blazers 44-30 in the paint...and lose.
- Phoenix turned the ball over too much (17) and got stuck with a -15 at the foul line. There was the loss. Before we tag the loss on the refs, though, 10 of those 15 made shots came in the last 42 seconds of the game. Still, this same game probably goes the other way if played in Phoenix...where the Blazers will play Friday.
Odd Notes and Links
I assumed the pirate analogy with humor, but honestly this is how the Blazers are going to have to get wins. Portland started out the season among Her Majesty's Navy. They obviously can't hang in high-society. So they're going to have to hoist the Jolly Roger and sneak up on some folks. If that takes playing weird lineups and finding points where they can, so be it.
Hear cursing about not being able to win on the road over at BrightSideoftheSun.