Long Story Short: The Blazers mess around with the Suns for three quarters like we were Tiger Woods and they were a Denny's hostess but the Suns turn it on in the fourth, burning Portland for their game-long indiscretions. Andre Miller has a spectacular first half while Brandon Roy posts a horrible offensive effort. The two invert as the game progresses with Roy scoring late and Miller playing ineffectively.
Once again tonight both the Blazers and their opponents play a scrappy game for...wait. Did I say "scrappy"? What's that "s" doing in there? My bad. Far from being the barn-burner, playoff-ready contest I anticipated in the preview, this game turned out to be a junk-fest for the better part of three quarters for both teams. I'd love to say it was a titanic defensive struggle but in actuality both teams followed a similar offensive formula:
Option 1: Four passes to a contested jumper.
Option 2: Twelve dribbles to a contested leaner.
The futility was broken only by the occasional fast break bucket or offensive rebound put-back. But this wasn't the worst thing in the world for the Blazers, as Portland Ugly beats Phoenix Ugly. In fact you might say that Ugly is the Blazers' secret weapon this year. I was pleasantly surprised that the Blazers were able to keep the game a contest of rebounds, bumps, and stunted halfcourt offense. Every time the ESPN cameras caught Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry in the huddle he was begging his team not to do this, not to play Portland's game, not to fall into the slower tempo. Yet there Phoenix was, walking the ball up the court, prosecuting Options 1 and 2 above as if they were imitating Portland instead of trying to beat them.
The Blazers were aided and abetted in their strategy by the fine play of Andre Miller early. Miller went right at Steve Nash and quickly got him in foul trouble. Once Nash went out of the game Portland's strategy became simple: deny Amare Stoudemire whenever possible and double-team him whenever necessary. After an early flurry Stoudemire wasn't a factor for most of the game. Without Nash and with Amare muzzled the Suns had real trouble producing points. Marcus Camby also deserves mention for his 10 rebounds in the first quarter. As the game had turned into a battle of the boards, Camby was pretty much a Sherman Tank out there.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, especially the significance of two fouls. When Nash returned later in the half he looked to personally take it out on Miller, driving past him at will. The Blazers, meanwhile, showed bad spacing when they were on the run and poor recognition in the halfcourt. More often than not they ended up with 1-on-1 moves for jump shots. The only respite came when Miller had the ball, as he drove back at Nash and looped a few alley-oop and fast break passes as well. That aside, Portland's rebounding energy began to dip. The offensive rebounds disappeared. The defensive rebounds were heavily contested. Phoenix was fighting back. Portland had scored 26 to Phoenix's 21 in the first quarter. The score was exactly inverted in the second, 26-21 Phoenix. The game was tied at the half.
The third period promised a momentum shift, as both teams by that point had to realize this important game was up for grabs. But like two marathon runners cautious about making a move too early, both kept plodding along. The Suns' offense was worse than ever. The only thing saving them from an abysmal period was a few offensive rebounds. It got so bad for them that at one point they had an uncontested 8-second violation. (In normal times Phoenix is famous for having a shot up by the 16-second mark.) The Blazers just kept clamping down on Amare. Nash and his teammates couldn't compensate. The pick and roll was nowhere to be found. It was like Phoenix was playing with one hand tied behind their back. This was the time for Portland to strike. But for the most part "strike" meant the same jumper-laden, poorly-spaced offense they had run all night. Brandon Roy in particular was suffering horribly, missing everything he threw up. Without Roy hitting the heart of the Blazer offense, and all of the pressure on Phoenix, was gone. Phoenix scored 17 in the quarter but the Blazers managed only 21. Portland up 4 heading home.
The fourth period began with the Suns saying, "Enough of this s-less scrappy offense." They detected Portland's Juwan Howard, a second-unit substitution, on Amare Stoudemire. Connecting the dots from A to B (which was about as complex as they had to go) they gave Amare the ball and let him work. Stoudemire burned Howard twice and Portland's help defense came way late. On a third play the help defense just fouled Stoudemire outright. After that flurry of points from the big guy the second unit experiment was over. At the same time, however, Brandon Roy started taking over and actually hit a couple shots. For all of the Amare-inspired danger the game was still tied.
But that's where the party ended.
The Phoenix Suns made a strategic move in the fourth, throwing on a zone defense. Portland responded by treating the zone like it was the Riddle of the Sphinx tied up in the Gordian Knot and stuffed into a Rubik's Cube. The key to beating the zone is to get the ball in the middle of the floor, much as when attacking an opposing pair in doubles tennis. You put the ball down the center, forcing them to decide how to manage. Every time the Blazers did this they got an easy shot and/or a foul. Unfortunately "every time" turned out to be thrice in the quarter. Other than that it was a process of getting stuck on the sidelines, forced into long jumpers with hands in faces, having never probed the center portion of the court in any significant way. The only thing that bailed the Blazers out was a couple offensive rebounds early. After that scoring was like pulling teeth. Brandon Roy's offense, while improved in the period, was a mixed blessing as he took time setting up his shot. He was the main guy getting inside for easy buckets when they happened but he was also taking a fair amount of those jumpers and/or bleeding the clock until they became necessary for someone else.
Meanwhile Phoenix, forcing misses and still acquitting themselves well on the boards, found their run and gun game. It started with Jared Dudley scoring 8 quick points off of a couple threes and a layup. Then Grant Hill got a couple instant shots unopposed. All of a sudden the Blazers were down 8, still unable to score. The Suns wouldn't make another field goal in the game after Hill's second shot, but they hit 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch. Adding insult to injury, the Blazers missed 5 free throws in the final period.
The Blazers were still within 5 with 40 seconds left but Phoenix had the ball. Portland threw on the press and forced another 8-second violation. The ensuing offensive set was as desultory as they all had been but Roy made it look good with a desperation, bail-out three-pointer, cutting the deficit to 2. The Blazers fouled Nash with 19 seconds left and he hit both, sending the Suns back up 4. After another eye-gouging, weak-pick-setting, running-around-the-perimeter set (out of a timeout, no less) Andre Miller finally heaved a three-point jumper of his own which missed solidly. The game was over already when Grant Hill hit the obligatory final free throws, pushing the margin to 6, 93-87 Suns.
A look at the boxscore seems to indicate that the Blazers did a number of things right tonight. Portland shot 36.4% but Phoenix managed only 38.8% which has to be considered a significant advantage towards the Blazers. Portland put up 8 more shots than the Suns. Offensive rebounds were 14-10, Portland. Assists were 16-14, Portland. The Blazers committed only 4 turnovers. Portland actually beat Phoenix in fast break points 11-8 and points in the paint 42-36. All of that is screaming out a Blazers victory. However the Suns shot 24-26 from the foul line (92.3%) while Portland managed only a respectable 21-29 (72.4%). Credit Phoenix there and Portland for tightening up at the line down the stretch. Phoenix shot 7-23 from the three-point arc, an anemic (for them) 30.4%. That would seem to seal their fate. Except the Blazers shot 2-17...11.8%. Portland had open threes throughout the game too. They just missed. Not learning their lesson, they kept at it when the threes were covered late. And there you have it. Neither team played like a playoff contender. Neither team looked good. But Portland played around too much and left the door open and the Suns had a couple matchups, a couple good moments, and enough experience to capitalize on both.
Brandon Roy scored 23 tonight to lead all scorers but don't bother believing in that much. This was a wretched offensive effort from him, saved by a fourth-quarter spurt. He went 8-25 for the game, hit 1-5 threes...about the only thing up to par was his 8 free throw attempts, of which he hit 6. He had 8 rebounds as well. But really this was among the worst games I've seen him play in a while.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a couple moments on the boards but he shot 6-15 himself for 16 points and 8 rebounds. He helped curtail Amare's run in the fourth and had a decent defensive game, at least to the point he was stretched.
Andre Miller had an amazing first half and even played well through part of the third quarter. It was like he became Brandon Roy tonight, punishing the Suns on the drive and with the pass both. He keyed the Portland fast break, momentarily making it look better than Phoenix's. Even though Nash was striking back at him Miller had the upper hand in that battle early, which should have been enough to swing the tide for Portland. Unfortunately both his game and the Blazers' fell apart late and in the fourth quarter--whether he was tired, thrown off by Brandon taking over, or just lost the mojo--Miller was almost painful to watch. He went 8-9 from the foul line and had 22 points and 9 assists, which was fantastic. He went 7-20 from the floor, which was OK. He went 0-6 from three point range, which is enough to make you scream, "Why are you taking six three-pointers?!?"
Marcus Camby played a healthy 35 minutes and had that dominating first quarter with 10 rebounds. He calmed down after that though, ending up with 16 total. He had 5 blocked shots and did a nice job on Amare when he had him.
Nicolas Batum played 32 minutes but looked a step slow on defense all night, much as he did against Golden State earlier. He garnered 6 personal fouls and went 1-6 from the three-point arc with 8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. He sure is purdy when he finishes on the break though.
Juwan Howard got 20 minutes and went 4-6 from the field for 8 points and 4 rebounds. He was one of the few Blazers who looked normal out there instead of clenched. However "normal" for Juwan isn't enough to cover defensive responsibilities against Amare Stoudemire one-on-one and he didn't get much help tonight.
You can pretty much see that the confidence level for Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless is as low as that Tiger Woods joke I started the recap with. Jerryd played defense with blinders on, missed jumpers, and just couldn't get anything going. He went 0-5 in 12 minutes for 1 point with 2 personal fouls. Martell just doesn't look like he knows what anyone expects him to do out there. He's drifting everywhere. Maybe it's the reduction in minutes since Batum came back. Maybe it's another hot start to the seasons that peters out at the end. Maybe this is just Martell. 0-2, 0 points, a rebound, a block, and a foul in 18 minutes.
My bad above. Dante Cunningham also looked normal for his 4 minutes with a rebound, a block, and a very nice conversion at the hoop for 2 points. His confidence hasn't gone anywhere. His posture and energy are perfect, 4 minutes or 24.
So...the Blazers have a few more days off to think about this game and their next one. They'll probably not catch the Suns at this point, though Portland still owns the tiebreaker. The Spurs lost tonight as well, leaving Portland 2 games behind them in the loss column, also owning the tiebreaker. The Thunder lost to the Pacers, of all teams. Considering the schedule they have left if they're going to lose to Indiana maybe the Blazers can catch them. On the disastrous end of the scale Houston won, leaving them 3 games behind Portland in the loss column.
Hear the chortles, or at least sighs of relief, at http://www.brightsideofthesun.com