Game 4 Preview: Suns vs. Blazers

Game Time:  1:30 p.m. Pacific, Saturday  TV:  KGW and TNT

Yes, this is up early.  Normally it would come around midnight Friday and take you through Saturday.  But I sense we need a little forward direction after last night's drubbing.  The Blazers can't spend all day thinking about the last game.  They need to focus on the next one.  So shall we.

Right off the bat you need to go back to the Game 3 adjustments here and ask yourself how many Portland was able to make successfully.  Zero?  Pretty close.  Those are still the starting point.  But there are a couple adjustments specific to this game, based on how the Blazers have been getting beaten and the fact that time to experiment is slipping away.

Anyone who's ever read me knows I'm not a knee-jerk guy.  As such when other people are suggesting lineup changes I usually focus on other areas.  It's not a video game.  You don't get predictable, let alone the expected, results by changing Players X and Y.  It's also a move that gets old fast.  Whipping people in and out of the starting lineup every time something goes wrong makes everyone involved look (and feel) sub-par at best, confused at worst.  That said, it's time for a lineup change now.

We're probably going to get one by default as Nicolas Batum is not up to par.  I'll be delighted if he can go but if he's not 100% he should not be in the starting lineup.  He can play situational minutes off of the bench and test his effectiveness.  There's nothing worse than thinking you have a guy watching your back as a starter and then finding you have to compensate for him when you actually get out there.   At this point I want players with three qualities:  healthy enough to play, wants to play, willing to do whatever it takes to play. Martell Webster really got after it once the storm passed in the last game. Martell fits the bill more than Nic.  He shiould start.

That's not all.  It's time to flip-flop Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez.  Again, if you've read me for more than 10 seconds you know I'm not a Team Jerryd OR Team Rudy guy.  Realistically both are more popular than productive.  Part of Portland's issue is that it has to start either.  But this is where we are.  Right here, right now BOTH of themare my guys and I'm depending on each.  Rudy has disappointed so far.  Jerryd has shown more life and more of that "healthy/wants to/willing to" attitude than Rudy has.  Even so I wouldn't be suggesting this if Phoenix wasn't having success thwarting Andre Miller with a bigger defender.  Their license comes from Steve Nash being able to guard someone besides 'Dre.  So far that's been Rudy.  Rudy has not made him pay.  If Nash is not going to defend Miller I want him to have to deal with Bayless.   At that point my offensive instructions are simple:  whoever Steve is guarding gets the ball and goes at the rim.

Heretofore the caution against such a move has been defense on Jason Richardson.  But how effective have the Blazers been in stopping him with Rudy out there?  Jerryd is at least strong and mobile.  J-Rich or whoever Jerryd ends up guarding will probably try to post or shoot over him.  If it's a post you send help and pray that whatever passes Phoenix makes end up in a jumper over the top.  If they just shoot over the top of Bayless you already have your wish.

Despite the blowouts the Blazer defense, provided they hustle back, can make a stand.  The offense is killing Portland.  Its lack of production is draining their life and energy.  We haven't been making Phoenix think at ALL defensively.  This move is an attempt to change that.  

I also instruct Webster, Bayless, and Fernandez that their job is to be aggressive and provide points.  I want Martell shooting first and thinking later.  I want Bayless attacking.  I'm taking Rudy to the bench specifically so I can tell him that when I put him in that means I want  him in.  I want him to be aggressive, to search for steals, to run the floor, to be Rudy.  I'll pull him when I've had enough Rudy.  I'll pull him quicker if he doesn't give me any Rudy at all.  I do all of this because it is the key to freeing up the more traditional scorers--Aldridge and Miller--whom the Suns have been free to bother.  I need all of them clicking in order to win.  It's obvious that without Roy the main guys won't click unless the secondary guys are doing damage.

The other main adjustment is spending far more time creating opportunities on defense and far less time in No-Man's Land.  I sincerely hope that I have seen my last slow close-out on a Phoenix jump-shooter in this series.  Defend the rim, defend a man, rebound, or run out.  Those are your four options.  If you can close out aggressively and bother a jump-shooter you should do it.  But if Phoenix whips a pass around and someone is lining up for three and you can't get there, for Pete's sake don't take three lazy steps out, half put your arm up, then stand and watch the shot.  Either let them shoot and help get the rebound or just run out!  Half the time they're going to miss those long shots, even open.  Cherry-picking would be better than standing four feet away from any possible action.

The same thing applies in transition.  You are either at one rim scoring or the other rim defending.  The turf in the middle is, as we used to say as kids, poison peanut butter.  If you don't get out of it quickly you'll die.  Or, in this case, your team will.

Rebound.  Rebound.  Rebound.   This series is being lost on the boards.  (Both this and the transition effort are hold-overs from Game 3 but they're the most important ones so I brought them across the link.)

Finally, the Blazers hit on something important in the second half of Game 3.  They got angry.  They got their dander up.  They started laying the lumber on the Suns a little.  Along with the rebounding one of the great shames of this series so far is that Phoenix has been the physically aggressive team.  That, my friends, is like being pushed around by Gilligan and the cast of The Big Bang Theory.   It should...not...happen.  This series needs to be shaken up.  The environment needs to change.  The Suns need to earn what they're getting.  If that's another win they need to come through it bruised and knowing they've been in a war.  Part of the reason I want Martell and Jerryd playing more is that they seem to understand this.  Juwan Howard understands it.  I think Camby and Miller understand it.  The other guys better pick it up.  You do whatever you have to in order to make Phoenix uncomfortable.

There are certain things I don't want to hear.  Ben was at the Blazers' practice today, as you can see below.  Two of the things that were discussed were the NBA's reaction to Amare Stoudemire's elbow last night and the fan reaction to the game.  Hopefully(!) this was just cover for the real agenda of the day because they can't let their adjustments slip to the media.  But to the extent the Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge, or anyone associated with the team are talking about those things the message is simple:  Knock it off.  If that's what you're really worried about you might as well just hand Phoenix the game and series and save us all the trouble of watching the misery.  It's not time to whine about elbows, to look for help from the league, to complain about the refs, to think about the crowd booing, or to concentrate on anything but you just got your butts kicked, the opponent was laughing at you openly in the middle of the game like you were kindergarteners playing against men, and you still have a chance to wipe that smirk off of their faces by taking this series or at least staying alive to fight in another home game.  If your mind is focused anywhere else besides doing everything you can to win the next game you do not belong on this team and probably not in this league.  This is the playoffs.  Winning matters.  Block everything else out.

If you've done that and you still come up short, so be it.  Everyone can accept that the Suns are a better team at that point.  We'll even come to your rescue by pointing out that with three of your top five players missing winning the series would have been a reach.  But that's AFTER we're done.  If you start thinking and talking like you've already lost when there are games left to play nobody is going to have mercy on you.  If we don't see you at your best in this situation--a relative best, to be sure, but 100% of what you could be on that day no matter what--why should anybody care about you or what you do?  This is the time when real NBA players step up.  Hit that jumper.  Run that break.  Get back on defense.  Club anybody who tries to get free at your rim in your house.  Make Portland Trail Blazers basketball stand for all of those things.  You don't get a ton of opportunities in life to define yourselves in an obvious, critical way.  Most people only realize they have defined themselves after the fact, looking back on what they did and how they handled things.  You know this is coming.  You know what it is.  You know what it means.   Offer no explanations before.  Offer no excuses after.    Go out there and do something that you, your teammates, and everybody who sees you can be proud of. 

If the Blazers can manage that, they're probably going to win this game.  If not they've already lost it. 

We'll see what happens tomorrow.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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