Long Story Short: The Blazers take advantage of the Suns' overconfidence, draining shot after shot in the first half and then gutting out the inevitable second-half comeback to take a nice win on the road, making up for last night's fourth-quarter nightmare.
You knew something was up in this game from the opening moments. The Suns got the tip and Jason Richardson streaked out for the layup with only Andre Miller near him. "Oh great," you thought, "here come the first two points of the slaughter." But wahoo and huzzah, Miller blocked the shot (WHA?), his first of three blocks on the night (WHAAAA?!?) and the Blazers calmly got it down to Juwan Howard for a short jumper. That was followed by a turnover and another jumper. Then another turnover and another jumper. Then a missed shot by Steve Nash and another jumper. At this point the Blazers led 8-0 and the Suns started furiously flipping through their scripts trying to find out where it said that in Act One.
The first quarter continued basically along those lines. The Suns played rancid efense and took a potpourri of shots on offense. Some of those shots smelled like spring flowers. Some of those shots smelled like what the spring flower potpourri is supposedly covering. The Blazers, meanwhile, took advantage of the Suns' efense, helping themselves to any mid-range jumper they wanted. If you look in the scouting book under "Portland" you'll find that mid-range jumpers are all they do. It was as if the Suns hatched a fiendish plot to ruin John Wayne's movie career by casting him as a cowboy. End result: Portland 30, Phoenix 20 after one.
In the second quarter everything turned around, naturally. The sleeping giant awoke and...huh? What's that? Still sleeping? Indeed they were. Like a surly teenager with a zero-period class Phoenix cried out, "Just five more minutes, mom!" when coach Alvin Gentry set the alarm buzzing. Robin Lopez took a couple of Hefty Man shots right at the rim at the beginning of the period and it quickly became apparent that Blazers would have a hard time dealing with his size and strength. So, of course, the Suns ignored him. Instead they decided that Channing Frye should get some shots in the paint. And Miley Cyrus should audition for the Metropolitan Opera. And Andy Dick should become a Supreme Court Justice. And maybe the Suns should have thrown away their Big Book of Bright Ideas, or at least made sure they weren't reading it upside down. Soooo...their offense got a little better, as in three points' worth. Meanwhile they continue to rack up turnovers, giving Portland extra chances. Jerryd Bayless punished them early in the quarter with drives and free throws. Steve Blake heated up later in the period along with LaMarcus Aldridge and Dante Cunningham. The efense was back in full force and Portland scored 30 again. The Blazers go into the locker room up 60-44, a 16-point lead over Phoenix in their building.
You knew the Suns would come out with a flurry in the third and this time they actually managed it. They had three layups plus a jumper and a free throw before the 7-minute mark. The Blazers hit a couple of jumpers but it looked like the tide was turning as far as shot quality. Portland preserved 13 points of its lead after the Phoenix onslaught, at which time the Suns figured, "Digging 3 points out of that lead is good enough for now. We'll get the rest in the fourth." The Blazers, meanwhile, said, "Three layups? We didn't know that many were allowed. Hey coach, can we... Huh? Yes? OK then." Andre Miller makes a layup, LaMarcus Aldridge adds another, Jeff Pendergraph scores at the rim and is fouled. Throw a couple of made jumpers in there too and Portland's lead is up to a full 20, then 22. Only a brief 3-pointer flurry to end the quarter brought the Suns back within 16. The Blazers enter the final quarter with that lead.
The surly teenager finally got out of bed in the fourth as the Suns began the period with two conventional three-point plays and a made three-pointer, scoring 9 in their first 4 possessions and cutting the Portland lead to 7 with 10:30 left. "See ma? I told you I'd get to it! (Huff!)" Then Steve Blake and Nicolas Batum looked over to the Blazer bench. "Three pointers? We didn't know those were allowed. Hey coach, can we...Huh? Yes? OK then." Bam! Nicolas drains one. Bam! Steve drains another. Then the layup people showed up again. Cunningham layup. Miller layup. Cunningham dunk. Miller layup. "We love efense!!!" Phoenix tried to match but they got killed by Goran Dragic who couldn't run the offense or shoot or hold onto the ball. They wanted ever so badly to get Steve Nash in the game for him but the clock never seemed to stop to allow it. At the 6:00 mark the Blazers led by 16 again. It was time for Phoenix to make its last surge.
The surge started with the Suns finally playing some decent "D". They swarmed and scrambled, forcing the Blazers deep on the court, shooting threes while covered with the clock winding down. Naturally the Blazers' shooting percentage went into the toilet. Phoenix also made a run on offense, started by a couple of buckets from Frye. Then Nash and Amare Stoudamire remembered that they were supposed to be All-Stars carrying the team. They started pumping in shots as fast as they could. Most of them were successful too. The problem was that the Suns couldn't hold onto the ball on half of the possessions between those shots. They made more bad passes than the Butabi Brothers. The Blazers weren't hitting shots and the lead shrunk to 7, but at a certain point the clock ran out on the comeback. Phoenix was forced to foul to get possession. Unlike those guarded threes, the Blazers did fine making free throws. Steve Nash hit a three to bring Phoenix within 4 but nobody could connect on another distance shot and the Blazers charity-striped their way to the 8-point victory.
Portland shot 58.4% for the game, handily beating Phoenix's 47%. The Blazers only attempted 9 threes and the offense prospered for it, at least against this team. Portland matched the Suns exactly in free throws and rebounding and actually beat them by 2 in fast break points. Portland had 10 steals and 20 points off of turnovers which helped provide the edge. But the main story of the game is that Phoenix took it for granted for way too long and the Blazers responded by taking what was offered them. Had the Suns come out and murdered Portland in the first period the Blazers probably would have shrugged and lost. But when you let a team shoot 80% for the period even the most disheartened squad will perk up and figure there's only half an hour of basketball left to play. Why ruin a good thing? The Blazers didn't tonight. No sympathy for the Suns. They're undoubtedly the better team right now but--as the Blazers will soon learn when the roster finally gets off the ground--"better team" has to be proven on the court every night. When you start thinking you're the better team before you play the game instead of after you get into trouble.
Letting LaMarcus Aldridge have comfortable mid-range jumpers is a big, big mistake. Make him put the ball on the floor. Push him outside farther. The Suns did none of that. LMA feasted to the tune of 11-17 shooting and 22 points. It was good that in a night when the guards were getting decent shots too they remembered to feed the big guy. Sometimes that's a problem. LaMarcus was also partially responsible for the late-game points the Blazers scored even though he didn't tally too many of them himself. The Suns perked up their coverage by running two and sometimes three people at him. He got the ball out in those situations and the Suns didn't rotate at all. It's nice to have a guy who draws that attention.
Steve Blake had a very, very nice game. He was aggressive but not crazy on offense from the get-go. He took every shot he could get without disrupting the offense and with nobody on the other side interested in watching him he sank 7-12, ending up with 20 points. Oh, he also had 12 assists. Did I mention the efense?
Andre Miller also got wide-eyed and drove to the lane for a bevy of layups and short jumpers. He scored 20 on 8-15 shooting and added 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
Dante Cunningham looked like a cross between Inspector Gadget and The Terminator out there. He blocked one shot that seemed like it was at scoreboard height. After getting served a massive in-your-face dunk by Amare Stoudamire early in the game he returned the favor with interest late, making the Phoenix crowd gasp in horror and awe. He played the Jerome Kersey hustle role again on defense and the boards. 13 points, 6-7 shooting, 4 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Martell Webster and Juwan Howard both did alright. Webster hit 5-7 shots, had 4 rebounds, and added 3 steals. Howard hit 5-10 with 5 rebounds. Each had 10 points. I liked that Martell wasn't all three-crazy. There were better shots to be had.
Jeff Pendergraph wowed the home crowd with 5 points and 2 rebounds in 10 minutes. He also wowed them the wrong way with 3 turnovers and 3 personal fouls in that span. Pendy Smash!
Now we get to the not-as-great news. Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, and Nicolas Batum had sub-par games. Batum had a couple of credible defensive stands and that nice three we mentioned. Bayless hit 5-6 free throws. But these three were pretty anemic. Nic had the best game of them. Fernandez had an especially rough night with 2 turnovers and 4 fouls in 7 minutes. It looks like he's tired, hurt, or maybe has just given up. He's not ahead of the game in the least. He's reacting to everything that's happening instead of being proactive. Bayless had trouble quarterbacking the team when called upon and is back to looking uncomfortable unless he's on the drive. I guess we didn't need these three with other players stepping up but the other players wouldn't have gotten the chance to step up had these three been on.
This game makes up in some ways for the loss yesterday. More importantly it sends the Blazers into the break on a positive note and still in possession of a decent record. We'll see how the team is transformed after the intermission. Brandon Roy? Travis Outlaw? Even without centers Portland can still put up a fight with those guys back. Even just Roy would provide a major transformation. Portland hasn't excelled in the last few weeks but they didn't fall apart completely either. Tonight preserved that trend and will hopefully give us momentum going into next week.
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