Game 55 Preview: Blazers vs. Suns

Game Time:  6:00 p.m. Pacific   TV:  Comcast

Oh great.  As if playing against the high(-ish)-powered Thunder last night wasn't enough, now it's the Suns on the road in the final game before the All-Star break.  Phoenix had a fantastic 8-1 start to the season.  Then the wheels fell off and they went 18-20 through the next 38 games.  During their mediocre stretch they were scoring fine but they never, ever held the opponent below 100.  Games that could have been romps turned into coin flips for lack of defense.  But they've addressed those woes in the last five games, all impressive wins against Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Denver, and Sacramento.  Oh...they haven't defended better really.  Every opponent save Denver topped 100.  Instead they've decided to score 112 points per game instead of 105.  As it turns out, that's plenty enough in the NBA.

So here come the Blazers, a team with heart, chutzpah, moxie...a team that's been playing better than anyone has a right to expect them to given their circumstances...a team that has pulled out plenty of improbable wins this season against teams that should have handled them easily.  But here come the Blazers, a team that can count its really good, healthy defenders on 1.5 fingers...a team to whom point guards like Steve Nash and shooting guards like Jason Richardson have always given trouble...a team that shouldn't even mention the Juwan Howard or LaMarcus Aldridge versus Amare Stoudamire matchup.  As I detailed a couple days ago, would I even think about getting into the Amare Stoudamire sweepstakes if I were the Blazers?  Nope.  No.  No way.  Huh-uh.  No thank you.  Can the dude still drop 50 on us tonight?  You bet he can.

The Suns present problems for Portland not just via frightening individual matchups but through aggregate play.  Every non-center who plays for them can hit a jumper from at least mid-range.  The lowest three-point shooting percentage among their non-center rotation players belongs to Leandro Barbosa.  He hits 33% of his threes.  Yeah, that's their version of a bargain basement shooter.  As a team they hit almost 41% of their three-point tries.  Steve Nash, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, and let's not forget Channing Frye, himself shooting over 43% from distance.  All they need is one mismatch--one double-team you have to throw to prevent someone from scoring--then it's one or two passes and a drained shot.  How many times do Portland players require help defending in a game?

Phoenix is tops in the league in offensive efficiency and there's not a close second.  They're 1st in effective field goal percentage, 2nd in shooting percentage, 1st in three-point percentage, 6th in fast break points, 8th in points in the paint, and 3rd in pace.  Portland's trick of picking up tempo to shock and outscore the opponent in recent games might not work so well here.  The only thing the Suns don't do at an excellent-to-elite level on offense is offensive rebound.  They're only average at that.  But when you hit all of those other shots, who needs to rebound?  Their other Achilles Heel is that they turn the ball over a lot.  When they score so many points, though, that's a minor quibble.

As you might suspect, when the Suns returned to their offensive production of yore their defensive production returned as well.  Lacking defenders at almost every position they're 29th in the league in defensive efficiency.  They're not strong defensive rebounders.  They allow almost as many fast break points as they score.  They allow more points in the paint than they score.  They're in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage allowed and nearer the bottom in three-point percentage allowed.  But at the end of the day their defense isn't as bad as their offense is good, which is why they've got the winning record.

Any way you slice it, this will be a tough game for the Blazers.  They'll not outrun the Suns.  They'll have trouble defending the paint and the resources they'll have to commit to doing so will strain their jump-shooting defense.  They always have trouble with the pick and roll...a Phoenix specialty.  112 points is a tall order, especially when you're not good at scoring in the paint.  It takes a lot of made jumpers just to get to 100.  The list of things that has to go right for the Blazers to have a chance is daunting.   But that's why they play the games...sometimes the daunting is achieved.

Keys to the Game

1.  Phoenix is vulnerable to the offensive rebound.  The Blazers can create extra points this way and also perhaps keep the Suns from breaking.

2.  Understand that you can get good shots against the Suns if you work for them.  The jumper shouldn't be the first option because you'll have a hard time matching their prowess in that area.  Jumpers are fine off of developed plays but if at any time you see the Blazers taking bail-out jumpers tonight the game is over.

3.  Jerryd Bayless off the drive may be the great hope here.  40 points would be about right.  Go get ‘em!

4.  Phoenix will turn it over and will fail to get loose balls.  The Blazers need to take advantage.

5.  It's the last game before the All-Star break.  It's a game the Blazers are expected to lose.  Portland better not get caught clock-watching, counting the moments until spring break.  If they do, the Suns will take them right back to school in short order.

Check out the Phoenix perspective at BrightSideoftheSun.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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