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Today we're going to look at the matchups which will define the Portland-Phoenix series. As customary in 2009-10, the Blazers will be defined as much by who they don't have as who they do. As tempting as it is to imagine this series with a healthy Greg Oden suiting up, we'll forego that. But not having Brandon Roy? That's a blow. Roy has had some of the best games of his career against the Suns, who sometimes seem congenitally unable to stop him. He averaged 25 per game against Phoenix this year, 31 last season. He's a threat to shoot or drive, commands double teams, and sets the offense as much as the point guards do. He's a driver, a ball-handler, a clutch-time superhero. He's so much more than just Portland's leading scorer and All-Star. And oh, by the way, he's Portland's leading scorer and All-Star.
Roy's absence is going to put enormous pressure on Andre Miller. Miller is likely to be the fulcrum of this series for the Blazers. He's intermittently been the star of the backcourt during the season in place of Roy even when playing alongside of him. The intermittent title was removed the minute Roy's meniscus tore. He'll be depended upon to key the break, dish the ball, and direct the offense as normal. He's also the only legitimate penetration threat and ball-handler anywhere near the top of the rotation. He'll have to make up some of Roy's points as well. What does he need to do? Oh...only score 20+, shoot in the upper 40's, dish 8+ assists, draw 8+ foul shots, grab extra rebounds, all while drawing enough attention to free up the jump-shooters playing alongside him. He'll need to take advantage of his gifts no matter who the Suns put on him. If it's Nash he'll post up. If they go with a bigger, stronger defender he'll drive. If they have to double him to contain him, advantage Portland. Andre's mid-range shot has GOT to fall in order to keep the train rolling. When it doesn't Miller is ineffective under normal circumstances. The whole Portland offense will be up the creek if he goes 1-10 on those pull-ups and leaners under these conditions. As soon as the Suns don't have to worry about him nobody else gets up a free shot.
We don't know exactly who Miller will be matched up with on the defensive end. Nash is the obvious correlation but the Blazers may try Batum on Steve, letting 'Dre use his strength and hands on a bigger player. In any case, you can bet that the Portland switch defense will be in full effect, meaning Miller will be all over the floor on defense. The Suns are almost certain to have a bullseye right on his chest. For one thing, he's a sketchy straight-up defender. More importantly, if Miller has to sit with foul trouble what in the world do the Blazers do? Roy was their de facto second point guard. Blake is gone. That leaves Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez as the only practical choices to step into Miller's shoes. At least one breakout scoring game from Bayless during the series is a distinct possibility but over the long haul he's not been able to play the position to the level necessary for success here. He gets assists but the offense stalls every second possession when he's at the helm. Rudy has the court vision and passing to man the point but his handle is suspect and you never quite know what's coming with him. He's also not used to being the only playmaking guard on the floor. Look for Phoenix to throw on immediate pressure defense if Rudy has to bring the ball up alone. If Portland brings in Bayless with Rudy to take the pressure off they're going with a lineup that hasn't clicked and they're probably sitting a player higher in the rotation to do so.
Even assuming the best, it's not a stretch to say Portland's chances in this series go way down if Miller has to sit for long stretches. Heck, Portland's chances go down if Miller just gets fatigued and starts front-rimming jumpers. Phoenix is bound to know this and they're going to involve Andre in every conceivable kind of play. If he's on Nash then Nash is going to run him through 92 screens, look to drive, score on a dime, run the floor...anything to take Miller's strength out of the equation, make the game about speed and agility, and thus put him in peril. Andre handling this treatment or not could well be the difference in this series. It's quite conceivable that the way he goes will be the way the team goes as well.
Roy's absence will also put extra pressure on LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has always been an ultra-capable second scorer on this team. His offensive game has been quite sharp the second half of the season. He's been going inside more often and with more success, particularly in the last month. He's even shown some ability to deal with double teams, making opponents pay for their attention to him. He'll have to demonstrate that ability the minute he gets hot in this series. And the Blazers need him to be plenty hot, plenty often. 18 points and 7 rebounds probably won't cut it. Half again that much would be great, but is that too much to hope for? Even if LaMarcus doesn't tally 25 every game Portland will need 25 from him in multiple games. His offensive game is that good. Plus neither Amare Stoudemire nor Channing Frye are good defenders. Jarron Collins? Meh. Aldridge should be able to shoot over and drive around Amare, take Channing low, and do either to Collins. He'll need to rid himself of the ball quickly and accurately if the Suns send another player to bolster their bigs though. He'll not be able to put the ball on the floor against multiple players.
If Aldridge is matched up against Stoudemire defensively he has the quickness to stay with him but Amare has explosiveness that'll be hard to handle. Aldridge is far more comfortable watching the Nowitzkis of the world. Nevertheless it won't be a total pounding if LaMarcus has his head in the game. He'll need to concentrate on rebounding on both ends against Amare. He can make hay on the offensive boards but he has to keep Stoudemire from doing the same. The smart money says that Aldridge will be on Phoenix's other big men a large portion of the time, probably chasing Frye around the perimeter as Marcus Camby tries to slow down Stoudemire. In neither case will the Blazers let their bigs defend Amare one-on-one for the whole game, though. They'll send help to contain.
Speaking of Camby...while it's tempting to wish for a string of 30-point performances from Marcus like he posted in the Oklahoma City game that's a pipe dream. Camby will be called upon to operate in the high post, dragging a defender out of the middle allowing Miller to penetrate, Aldridge to swing down, or one of the forwards to cut. He'll also be called upon to hit his jumper if left alone. But his main task will be to dominate the boards. Offensive rebounds will be crucial for keeping control of the tempo and scoring a few extra points. Phoenix is a poor defensive rebounding team and Camby needs to show them why that's a bad idea. Defensive rebounds will be just as crucial, though. In order to win Portland has to own the glass. With Aldridge likely roaming Camby may be the first, best, and sometimes only chance for the Blazers to do so. The Blazers will want 15+ from Marcus per night.
Marcus will probably draw Amare Stoudemire defensively, especially when Frye plays alongside him. His teammates need to understand that if Camby gets that assignment they can't go knocking on his door every other play for handout help. Rotating off of Stoudemire to stop penetration in the halfcourt will kill Portland's defense. It'll also put Camby out of position for those critical rebounds.
In addition to all of this, Marcus must somehow stay out of foul trouble. Juwan Howard playing 15 minutes a game at center and power forward is fine. Juwan Howard playing 25 minutes a game at center is bad.
Since we've mentioned Juwan, a quick interlude. His tasks are simple: 1. Hold down the fort, particularly on the boards. 2. Hit the short jumper if open. 3. Set some mean picks. 4. Clock any Phoenix player who comes in the lane. And by "clock" I mean "Juwan-foul". We've seen some nice regular season clubbings. Let's hope he saved a couple doozies for the playoffs.
Returning to the Roy compensation, the Blazers are going to depend on Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster to fill a couple of key roles whether they play separately or in tandem. First they'll have to hit the open jumpers that come when Phoenix tries to adjust to the amped-up Miller and Aldridge offense mentioned above. If Batum and Webster fold from the perimeter Portland's offense is going to deflate faster than Warriors Nation when they found out Jessica Alba was getting married. Both will have to cut hard as well, especially when and if Rudy takes the reins of the offense. Both Batum and Webster have the potential to score big but neither is likely to do it every game. Huge numbers occasionally would be frosting on the cake.
That cake, of course, is defense. Unfortunately the Suns' two most critical offensive players are beyond them. Though small ball will rear its head in this series I can't imagine a scenario in which either player has extended success guarding Amare Stoudemire. The Blazers will probably try Batum on Nash but this won't work for the long term either. Nash is too crafty and Batum too inexperienced. It'll be important to keep Jason Richardson and Grant Hill from going crazy but the Blazers would live with either guy taking the majority of Phoenix's shots. Even if their one-on-one defensive skills can't be applied where Portland needs them most, however, both players still have crucial parts to play in the team defensive scheme. They will often be the first line of defense getting back to prevent the break, particularly when Miller penetrates. Rudy Fernandez is pretty much useless defending in transition so these guys will have to commit early and run hard. They'll also be responsible for keeping Portland ahead on the boards, especially if Aldridge is out chasing shooters.
Rudy Fernandez is a wild card in this series. You don't like him matching up defensively with Richardson or Hill but you do like him playing the passing lane against a team that's prone to turn it over. You don't want him having to bring the ball up or set the offense all the time but you do foresee crazy stretches where he can freelance and pick the defense apart. The Suns' style should be good for him. But playing the Suns' style might not be good for Portland. Whatever happens (or doesn't) Rudy needs to hit most of his threes just like Batum and Webster do. He needs to run and provide offensive energy. He'll need to set up other players and make the Suns remember him, if nothing else so they have to commit to him on defense instead of using a free man on one of the more obvious threats. This series will be a chance for Rudy to shine or fall. He'll do either without being a main focus but he needs to make a positive contribution nevertheless. Oh...and Richardson and/or Hill can't score 30 while he's watching them. I'd be interested to see what happens if he's matched with Nash, actually. I don't think he'd defend him well but I don't think Steve would defend Rudy well either. It could be a circus.
Any of the other three Blazer reserves could play a big role in this series as well. They'll just do it for one or two games instead of seven. Cunningham could be an amazing spark on both ends, particularly if Portland wants to run. I could easily see him as a counter-move if Grant Hill gets rolling or when Louis Amundson comes in. He'd defend, help his teammates with their assignments, and make either of his counterparts run like heck to keep up with him. Jeff Pendergraph is less likely to contribute but he could provide spot minutes should Camby and Howard get in foul trouble. He's not ready defensively but even banging people around could change the tenor of the game. He should be able to hold his own on the boards. If he can sneak in a couple of those dunks he showed against Golden State, so much the better. Jerryd Bayless could be another wildcard like Rudy, though he won't get as many chances initially unless Miller has to sit quickly. I could easily see Jerryd busting out with at least one B-Rex game in this series. He's every bit the handful that 'Dre is on offense. But Jerryd's had trouble whether paired with Fernandez or Miller. It's probably safest to assume he'll play minutes in the mid-teens and to just let him have his head when he's out there.
Phoenix has some capable bench players of their own. Their frontcourt is thin since Robin Lopez went down. Amundson is a fan favorite for his rebounding and dirty work. Jarron Collins starts buts plays limited minutes. The Blazers are likely to see huge doses of the deep-shooting Frye off the bench. That's it for the big guys though. The smaller positions are slightly better stocked. Leandro Barbosa is a good-shooting shooting guard who isn't shooting good right now. But against Portland's backcourt defense with the switching and the collapsing and the sometimes-tardy closing out Barbosa could easily re-discover that stroke. Jared Dudley is a solid body guy who can also hit threes. Though sometimes inconsistent Goran Dragic generally does well backing up Steve Nash. He's not as tough as Miller or Bayless but he shoots better than either and he takes good care of the ball. I wouldn't be surprised to see Phoenix initiate the small-ball game, especially if Portland's bigs are dominating inside. Fortunately for Portland all of their tall players are fairly mobile on defense.
Overall you'd have to say the Phoenix bench is better positioned simply because they'll be doing what they always do while Portland's bench players are all moving up in the rotation and shouldering more, and sometimes different, responsibilities.
Summing up: Even broken down the Blazers do have the tools and the talent to make this a legitimate contest. The team will need every player's best all at once in order to do so, however. That's difficult over a long series when an opponent has plenty of time to work, and plot, to thwart your best. The Suns will be comfortable with everything they're doing and have time to throw in a few extra wrinkles against Portland specifically. The Blazers are going to scramble to get half of their team up to speed on doing what they've already done. Portland may have surprises too, but they won't be as well-rehearsed and they'll be more critical to the team's success than the Suns' will. No matter which way you slice it, Phoenix has more room for error. That's not a positive sign for the Blazers.
Tomorrow we take a look at the recent history between these teams, strategies they're likely to employ, and the best scenarios for the Blazers to capture momentum in the series.
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