Long Story Short: The Blazers play a see-saw game with the Suns--crawling ahead by virtue of the inside game, falling back under the onslaught of three-pointers and second-chance points--until strong guard play in the fourth period against weaker Suns defenders puts them far enough ahead that they can weather the final run.
Portland came out in this one showing that they meant business. They exploited three Phoenix weaknesses from the opening tip. First they ran LaMarcus Aldridge inside and he responded with some of the prettiest post play of the season, spinning around defenders for controlled short shots. Second Andre Miller and crew employed busy hands to poke away turnovers. These led to quick, easy shots on the other end as Phoenix proved tardy in getting back. On the other end Portland forced the Suns outside, kept a man on the shot, and rebounded well. Throw in a couple of sweet Nicolas Batum shots and you had a near-perfect start for Portland.
That lasted until mid-quarter when Alvin Gentry started subbing in his sweet-shooting bench. All of a sudden Phoenix was doing the exploiting. Simple high screens lost Portland defenders, requiring perimeter wings to collapse to stop penetration. One or two passes later (literally) and Phoenix was presented with wide-open three-point shots. That would be like Kobayashi being presented with a hot dog. Between the 5:00 and 2:50 mark of the period the Suns shot nothing but threes, making 3 of 5. A 17-8 Portland lead shrank to 19-17 in the blink of an eye. Portland's bench manufactured a few points but the Blazers couldn't contain inside or out. Offensive rebounds and Nash drives closed the quarter for the Suns. The score was 25-24, Portland.
The second period started with Portland's second unit trying to make amends by offensive rebounding. They were all over the boards on that end, stalling the Suns' scoring by denying them possession. Unfortunately offensive rebounds by definition follow missed shots and the Blazers were still providing plenty of those. On the other end of the floor the Blazers still had no containment. Three of the Suns' first four scores were layup, three-pointer, dunk. The Blazers, meanwhile, were turning the ball over and missing jumpers. Phoenix snagged a 33-28 lead before Martell Webster stopped the bleeding with a three of his own. Andre Miller had come back in the game to calm things down but he couldn't get the offense cranked either. However the return of Marcus Camby from a seemingly eternal rest did the trick. All of a sudden Phoenix wasn't open anymore inside and the secure lane allowed the Blazers to venture farther out against the deep shooters. Phoenix started missing mid-range jumpers just as Portland had earlier. Behind Camby the Blazers continued to pound the offensive boards. LaMarcus Aldridge scored four late and Batum hit a three off of a sweet Miller pass to put the Blazers up 4 before Leandro Barbosa finished the half with a three off of an equally sweet pass from Nash. Each team had surged forward and fallen back throughout the half. The Blazers took a 44-43 lead into the locker room. The 1 point looked marginal but it was clear that through it all Phoenix was playing Portland's game instead of the reverse.
At the top of the third period each team made a compact with each other that the quarter would be decided by jump shots and only jump shots. One Andre Miller layup accounted for the only paint points the Blazers scored in the first 7 minutes of the period. Amare Stoudemire made one layup for the Suns during that stretch. Other than that it was a jumper-fest. Surprisingly the game was tied 60-60 when Batum slam-jammed after a baseline curl drive with 5:09 remaining. Amare Stoudemire was becoming more and more active as the quarter progressed. Between that and the Suns shutting off Portland's flow of offensive rebounds things were actually looking up for the home team. They were aided and abetted by a couple of raunchy bad fouls from Rudy Fernandez on Jason Richardson, one as he shot a three and another less than a minute later as the Suns inbounded with but 2 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The second gaffe got Rudy pulled and Jerryd Bayless inserted. The Law of Unintended Consequences reared its beautiful head as Bayless got aggressive and scored Portland final 4 points of the period. Despite that the Suns had managed to shoot and rebound well enough during the quarter to claim a 72-70 lead going into the fourth. The Blazers had given themselves a chance but momentum was trending Phoenix's way.
As the fourth quarter began Jerryd Bayless looked momentum right in the face and promptly spit in its eye. He came out blisteringly aggressive, putting in 2 layups, the second with an extra foul shot attached. Phoenix, meanwhile, discovered a pony they'd ride all quarter long. After LaMarcus Aldridge put a sweet block on Amare Stoudemire on Portland's first defensive possession Phoenix responded by going deep again. But Leandro Barbosa missed his three. Good for Portland, you say? Not so fast. Since the Blazers' defense was stretched thin trying to catch up with the shot attempt Amare Stoudemire calmly scooped up the offensive board and got fouled, converting both free throws. And DING! The light goes on. For the rest of the period the Suns would spread the court with shooters and dare Portland to both cover them and get the board. LaMarcus Aldridge, who otherwise was having a decent game, couldn't grab a board to save his soul. Marcus Camby could only be three places at once, not all five. The Suns ended up pounding the Blazers again and again, either converting or rebounding.
Was this the end of the line for Portland? Hardly. The Blazers had discovered their own "DING!" moment. It started with Bayless and his driving. Then Andre Miller got into the act. Basically whoever Steve Nash guarded drove. They either got the layup or created so much pressure that somebody else was open. Shooter, rebounder...it didn't matter. Portland started converting EVERYTHING. The two teams remained incredibly close on the scoreboard but two trends were becoming clear. First, Marcus Camby was gaining energy again as the game wound to a close, much like a vampire sucking the life out of a dainty maiden. Amare Stoudemire, on the other hand, looked daintier and more maidenly with every possession. He got slower, grabbed more instead of defending, and couldn't get inside to save his life. He did hit a couple jumpers but he might as well been sitting at a tea table making bon mots for all it mattered. Second, the Blazers were doing most of their scoring inside out while the Suns went outside in. There are only so many offensive rebounds you can get off of missed threes. Never was this proven so clearly as during a sequence at the 3:30 mark wherein Steve Nash missed a three which was rebounded by Grant Hill. Three seconds later Jason Richardson missed a three which was rebounded by Grant Hill. Hill figured enough was enough and just went up with the shot himself. Marcus Camby swatted him like a fly.
With three minutes remaining the Blazers were clinging to a 3 point lead. That's when the collapse of Amare Stoudemire reached its tragic conclusion. He finally decided that some aggression was in order. When he caught the ball extended on the left side he spun and drove baseline on LaMarcus Aldridge. That's when Andre Miller, who had already played Superman in the quarter with his layups and passes, jumped right in front of him and drew the charge. Amare shook his head. Then Jerryd Bayless missed an 18-footer (despite his good lane work not his strength) and Stoudemire had a direct bead on the rebound. He reached...and reached...he's got it...he's getting it....might want to leave your feet sometime soon Amare...GREAT LEAPING ZAMBONIS! LaMarcus Aldridge flies past Stoudemire and tips the ball home! OK...now Amare is mad. He takes the ball down low on the next possession, spins...and gets stripped by Marcus Camby. 8 seconds and 2 shot attempts later it mercifully came to an end. Stoudemire committed his 6th foul and sat. The Blazers were up 7 with 1:21 left at that point. Ballgame.
Well...not quite. Portland tried to be charitable and give this one back to the Suns. First Camby missed 2 free throws. Then Nicolas Batum committed a foul early in the clock, allowing the Suns 1 point back. Then the refs helped out by calling Aldridge for a moving screen when Steve Nash stepped on his big toe and fell. Nash made a layup with 54 seconds left and the Suns were within four. But what's this? They fell asleep entirely on the ensuing inbounds play! Marcus Camby leaked out deep all alone, he got the pass, went to the basket completely unopposed with the nearest Sun a good 10 feet behind him...AND HE MISSED THE DUNK! ARRRGH!!! But never fear, Blazer fans. Phoenix would attempt 6 threes in the final 50 seconds of the game. They'd make but 1. Whatver problems Portland had earlier with guarding screens and recovering had eased. Plus the Suns just dropped them short. The Blazers, meanwhile, made 6 of 10 free throws. Granted, those 4 misses plus that single made three for Phoenix made it look close, but in reality neither team was able to seize the game when it was offered. When neither team can take it the win goes to the team that was already ahead. By virtue of their interior play in the prior 47 minutes the Blazers had earned that honor over the jump-shooting Suns. 105-100, Portland. Blazers win Game 1.
Portland won this game by outshooting Phoenix in general(46.9% to 41.8%) and outscoring them in key areas. The first key was the foul line, where Portland shot 23-31 to Phoenix's 13-16. The physical nature of Portland's game and the resulting fouls obliterated any notion Phoenix had of capitalizing on their three-point advantage. The Suns ended up gaining 5 points from the arc but they lost 10 at the line. In addition the Blazers did an excellent job of beating the Suns down the floor both ways. Portland had plenty of early offense and scored 10 actual fast break points to just 4 for the Suns. One thing Portland did NOT do is dominate the boards. Phoenix had 17 offensive rebounds, scoring a full quarter of their points on second chances. Phoenix also committed more costly turnovers. Portland had 10 but they were of the dead clock variety, leading to only 12 points for Phoenix. The Suns had 12 but they committed more live-ball mistakes, leading to 20 points for the Blazers. More important than any of that, though, was the hard-nosed play of the Blazers and the poise they showed weathering every Phoenix run. The first couple of Suns surges scared you, but by the fourth quarter you figure that was just the pattern of the game. Portland would get up a couple points to earn some padding, then Phoenix would torch the nets for a while. But when the Suns looked proudly at the scoreboard they were only up 3-5 points. The Blazers would just reel them back in and the Suns couldn't keep shooting their way back. Credit Coach McMillan's strategy of calling timeout in the midst of every significant Phoenix run for some of that.
And speaking of credit...
Andre Miller was the star of this game. He was Mr. Everything. He got the run started at the game's opening and finished it at the end. He shot 10-17 on the evening, mostly layups but a few controlled stop-and-pops plus one dagger-like open three late in the game to make the Suns hang their heads. He also went 10-10 from the line. He drew that charge from Amare to break his spirit. He got 5 rebounds. He dished 8 assists. He stole the ball 3 times. He committed only 3 turnovers. He scored 31. The Suns could not stop him. He was free to be everything he wanted to be because of the Blazers' needs and he responded.
Marcus Camby smacky-doodled the Suns to the tune of 17 rebounds and 3 blocks. Most of the Blazer runs coincided with his high-energy times. He popped out willingly on every switch and stayed in front of Steve Nash or whoever else he got matched up with. They hit shots on him but at least they were jumpers instead of the layups they were getting against Portland's guards. Marcus Camby's uniform...where amazing happens.
Nicolas Batum had 18 points plus some critical threes but what really deserves attention is that he did a decent job watching Steve Nash when called upon. The freedom to employ Batum for stretches against the opponent's all-world player gave Portland's guards a rest and allowed them to focus on what they did best. It's not like Batum made Nash look stupid but if you look at that 5-point victory margin it's a pretty safe bet Nic kept Steve from a couple of shots that Miller, Bayless, or Fernandez couldn't have prevented.
LaMarcus Aldridge played 40 minutes but got only 3 rebounds. He scored 22 but shot 8-20 to do so. He had 3 assists but committed 5 turnovers. Razz him up, right? Not so fast. He was pulling a yo-yo string on his jumper all night. That accounted for the poor-ish shooting. Had his form been normal you could tack 6 points onto his total easily. By contrast his inside moves were as sweet as a butterscotch-coated caramel. He couldn't get down there in the second half because the Suns decided to bum rush him when he caught the ball. But that allowed other players openings. Also LaMarcus did a decent job on Amare when Camby wasn't on him. He didn't shut Stoudemire down but he did affect his game. It wasn't a perfect game for LMA but it was enough. He will play better.
Jerryd Bayless had a rough first half but when Rudy Fernandez sat in the second Bayless...was...ready. He fell an eyelash short of full B-Rex treatment but he was at least a Komodo Dragon tonight. He hissed, the Suns jumped, and he walked wherever he wanted after that. Before 'Dre took over the fourth quarter Bayless finished the third strong and paved the way. 6-10 from the field, 5-9 from the foul line, 4 rebounds, 18 points in 23 minutes. We would not have won this game had Jerryd not stepped up.
Speaking of not stepping up, Rudy seemed to be inside his own head all night. At the risk of offending our international fans, his second-half performance was stinky bad. It almost looked like he gave up out there. 2-7 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 points in 28 minutes. He'll bounce back, I'm sure.
Martell Webster played some decent defense including an incredible stand with 35 seconds left in the third when he single-handedly sent back two straight shots air mail direct to the Suns at I Just Served You Lane. He had 4 rebounds to go with those 2 blocks and 5 points besides.
Juwan Howard held the fort as best he could in his 13 minutes but the second unit needs more help than he can provide right now.
So...here we are. The Blazers have won Game 1. I don't think it's time (nor safe) to be banking on the homecourt getting stolen or quoting Portland's record of not losing series after having won the first game. In fact Phoenix has more than plenty of chances to win this series. They may still be favored simply because this is probably the way Portland has to win...close, gritty, coin-flip outings. Phoenix, on the other hand, has more in their repertoire than this. Plus they, too, have a chance to win Portland's close games. But I will say this: This is the playoffs. This has absolutely nothing to do with "since the All-Star break", as folks just found out. This is Suns-Blazers right here, right now. And if the Blazers are going they are not going quietly. They may not be going at all. Whatever you thought this series was going to be, you better re-think. You...us...48 minutes. Let's fight.
Check out the ranting, flailing, and general hair loss at BrightSideoftheSun.
P.S. Late in the game the TNT cameras panned past a kid in a full-on Suns costume with a big old three-foot wide sun sphere as the head. I do admit I felt a twinge seeing that knowing the Blazers were going to win this one. I remember what that feeling is like when you're so into it as a kid and your team loses. I can't in good conscience wish for the Suns to win the series. But if the Suns do pull it out, kid, I hope they do it for you.