The 5-5 Portland Trail Blazers visit the 4-7 Phoenix Suns tonight. The game will be played at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time and will be televised on CSNNW.
Before Blazers fans get all smug about the .500 record and how much worse the Suns' mark looks, a couple of notes:
1. 5-5 and 4-7 aren't that far off. A 1-game swing puts Phoenix at 5-6 themselves.
2. Phoenix has played plenty of tough teams. Their losses include Miami twice, the Lakers, the Jazz, and the Bulls. Even the Warriors--the first loss of the season for Phoenix--are above .500. The only team the Suns have lost to that they really, really shouldn't have was Orlando. It's not like Phoenix stinks. They've just been playing above their grade.
Also of concern to the Blazers: the Suns are pretty well equipped at the two spots the Blazers have trouble defensively. They're lead by Goran Dragic, shooting over 47%, dishing more than 7 assists, and scoring 16+ per game. He averages 2 steals per game and sports a flashy 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio on top of that. For perspective, Dragic is better than Portland's favored son Damian Lillard in every significant per-minute category save points (a 0.7 difference in Lillard's favor), three-point percentage, and free throw percentage (though Dragic draws more fouls). In most cases the differences are significant. This is not to put down Lillard, rather to say that Dragic isn't a player the Blazers can take lightly. He's got as much point guard-ish goodness as Lillard does and he's way more experienced.
Neither is Marcin Gortat a player to sneeze at if you're the Blazers. He's not delivering the same high-efficiency offense that he showed last season but he's still capable of putting the ball in the bucket and rebounding. Skilled centers can be a thorn in Portland's side, swinging around J.J. Hickson and mystifying Meyers Leonard.
One could argue, "What's the big deal about two positions? Aren't the Blazers--at least the 2012-13 version--dominant at the three middle spots over their Phoenix counterparts?" 100 NBA GM's out of 100 would take LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews over Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, and Jared Dudley right now. Scola's shooting and scoring are down, though he's rebounding well. Dudley scores fine as long as he doesn't get too far from the hoop but his overall shooting percentage and defense are in the tank. The less said about Beasley the better. He's horrid. But the thing is, holes are holes. Having Batum blast his way through Beasley's defense doesn't give the Blazers an advantage if Dragic or Gortat are pouring right through Portland's line.
Phoenix's bench is OK, not special. Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Markieff Morris, a resurgent Jermaine O'Neal, and young shooting guard P.J. Tucker get most of the minutes. O'Neal and Tucker shoot well, O'Neal and Morris rebound, Telfair is still a wizard with the ball in his hands, but overall their performance has been spotty. They can give you good nights but they won't carry you to a win. Then again, who can tell what to expect when matched up against Portland's bench? If the Blazers continue to play starters big minutes, the first-unit guys should feast on Phoenix's reserves. If not, well, you know the story.
Despite the three-point shot being part of the Phoenix heritage, this team doesn't shoot them well. There's not a single player on the roster that you'd trust to make them consistently. Portland's defense tonight should consist of closing out on the initial shooter then providing help when he tests the interior. The Suns like to score in the paint and the Blazers will need to watch that. Obviously Portland will have an advantage themselves in the distance shooting department.
The Suns shoot more field goals per game than any team in the league. Many of those attempts come off of offensive rebounds. The Blazers are a good defensive rebounding team. This should be an interesting battle to watch and could be an area around which the game pivots. If you one-and-done the Suns they won't shoot well enough to win. If they keep hammering and scoring those paint points on second shots they have a good chance.
The Suns don't turn over the ball much so the Blazers may go wanting for fast break buckets tonight. The good news is that the Suns are just as bad as Portland at defending and are the worst team in the league at stopping the three-point shot. In a sense, every bucket should be an easy bucket.
Add it all up and you probably have a game where both teams will shoot a high percentage but Portland's better overall shooting ability should trump Phoenix's. The counter-balance to that would be Phoenix dominating on the offensive glass and the Blazers failing to disrupt with turnovers. Throw in the Suns playing at home and the fact that they've not played against a defense as permissive as Portland's and this is more or less an even contest. If Portland's shots fall they should cruise to victory. If not they could still win by beating the Suns on the glass. If that doesn't happen either it'll be a long night.
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