Mama said there'd be days like this. She never explained that most of them would come in the Valley of the Sun against a fairly mediocre Phoenix Suns team. Nevertheless, the Blazers began this game like they were looking to lose (or at least had little understanding of how they'd managed to win recently) and Phoenix obliged them, attacking inside and out, flustering Portland's offense, and making the Blazers look like the understaffed, inexperienced team they just might be.
The first period was probably Portland's best of the night. The Blazers did a masterful job of rebounding and Wesley Matthews looked brilliant dribbling to the foul line and canning jumpers. Portland even had a little swagger going. The way things turned out, that might have been overconfidence. The Blazers played a bit too loose, missed a few too many rotations, got caught flat-footed. It was almost as if they figured they'd make it up later. That never happened as the second period featured 10 Portland turnovers, sloppy transition play by Portland's bench players, and the evaporation of the offensive-rebounding oasis that has sustained the Blazers in the first period. Down 4 after one, the Blazers now found themselves down 13 at the half.
The second half saw the Blazers living and dying by the three-pointer. First they died, then they made a little run and lived again briefly, but Phoenix canned a couple threes as well, leaving Portland in the dust. The Blazers never got back within double-digits.
Portland's 20 turnovers stand out as a major cause of defeat. They looked discombobulated all night. Part of that may have been the absence of J.J. Hickson. But even without Hickson they should have been able to run more clean plays against the Suns than they ended up doing. It's not like the center position gets a ton of touches and Meyers Leonard wasn't out of position that much. This was perhaps the first game of the season where you can say a lack of team effort cost the Blazers dearly. Certain individuals played crisply but one or two holdouts ensured that the team never came together as a group.
The other huge stat: Marcin Gortat 11-14 for 22 points, Jermaine O'Neal 7-9 for 17 points. Combined that's 18-23 shooting and 39 points for the Phoenix centers. The power forwards did almost as well with Markieff Morris going 9-13 for 19 points himself. Portland just couldn't stop the Phoenix bigs. Every time they collapsed Phoenix came up with a good shot from the outside. Every time they left one of their bigs against a Phoenix center the Suns got a sweet and easy deuce. It was like watching a dude who knew how to exploit a video game playing against a newb.
Given that, it's not surprising that Portland continued their streak of allowing obnoxious percentages to the opponent. Phoenix shot 60% on the night, 41% from distance. In the battle of the Suns' poor-shooting offense versus Portland's poor-percentage defense, the defense proved poorer. The Blazers got outscored by 30 in the paint, 54-24. This was an obviously bad evening but it could also be said that the law of averages caught up to the Blazers here. How long can you allow high percentages and massive paint totals and still come up with wins?
LaMarcus Aldridge went 5-15 and scored but 12 points tonight. He had 7 rebounds but also 5 turnovers. I wasn't keeping careful track, but outside of offensive rebounds his attempts in the lane could be tallied on less than one hand. He made an effort early in the second half to get inside...like twice. Other than that he was content to shoot outside. He was also content to let the ball come to him intermittently. It was almost like he was resigned to a role in the offense instead of playing like the team's star. He didn't play huge defensively either. Whatever else goes on with this team the Blazers can't afford to let LaMarcus slip away into average-land, not unless they want to devote the entire year to a wholly speculative future and a ton of losses. Either someone needs to pinch LaMarcus or LaMarcus needs to get in somebody's face and demand the ball (and then position himself like he wants it and is determined to finish it).
Nicolas Batum apparently had the flu tonight. Whatever medication he was on must have given him really happy delusions because he came out in the first period firing shots that would make Allen Iverson blush. He calmed down, played defense, and finished the game shooting a respectable 5-10 for 13 points with 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
Damian Lillard spent the night keeping the ball to himself and/or turning it over when he attempted plays not involving his own shot. The good side of that story is that he scored a game-high 24 on 7-13 shooting, 2-4 from distance, 8-9 from the foul line. The bad side: 3 assists, 6 turnovers. It's perilous to read too much in too soon but there's a meta-story to this game. Does it matter if Lillard looks good (statistically) when his main star looks like he's checking out and his second option gets only 10 shots? If you're a shooting guard, sure. If you're a point guard, not so much. Lillard is a rookie in his 11th game. He has to think about his own outing because he doesn't yet have the vision to understand everybody else's alongside. However when guys are in the dumps he'll eventually be responsible for getting them the touches that help them out. Sometimes him scoring isn't the right answer. This is particularly true on a night when your teammates have to help you out so much on defense. (Whenever I hear Lillard call, "Help!" I'm half-surprised that somebody doesn't call back an expletive-laden version of, "No duh!") When the other guys are putting in that much work covering on the defensive end you have to feed them on the offensive end. The Blazers wouldn't have won this game no matter what Lillard did but it's a development to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The most encouraging thing about Meyers Leonard's first NBA start was that he wasn't afraid for a moment. He stayed mobile, hustled hard, and set himself up for some nice offensive looks and conversions. He ended the night 6-9 for 12 points. As usual he looked pretty good defensively as long as he could move to make a play. He had 2 blocks and 2 steals. As soon as he got isolated defensively Gortat and O'Neal pinned a plaid parochial vest on his shoulders and schooled him. The only thing missing was nuns on the baseline rapping his knuckles with rulers. But this is all part of the process. In the big picture it was a fine first outing. In the immediate picture the lack of post defense killed the Blazers and the 5 rebounds in 33 minutes didn't help. Bright spot alert: Leonard had only 3 fouls on the night.
Wesley Matthews looked like a superstar when this game opened. Actually he looked like Nicolas Batum did in his last couple games. He was hitting shots, defending...really the only Blazer to grab this game with gusto. When the team went south, though, so did Matthews. He finished 4-13 as those brilliant early looks off the dribble turned into poor looks. He scored 13 with a couple steals.
Ronnie Price came down hard off of his last couple good efforts, playing 17 minutes, committing 3 turnovers, dishing only 2 assists, and missing 3 of 4 shots. His defense wasn't there and neither was Portland's offense when he played.
Joel Freeland played 16 minutes, tried gamely but got schooled on defense just as badly as Leonard, missed all 4 of his shots, and grabbed 3 boards. He committed 4 personal fouls.
Victor Claver got an early call and though he ran around like always he didn't have much to show for it.
A bunch of guys got garbage-time minutes. You can check out the boxscore for their stats. I'm refusing to talk about them much because their team defense was so horrid nothing else they did mattered much.
Minnesota comes in on Friday. Since it's a home game Blazer spirits should be better.
Bright Side Of The Sun will like the changes to Phoenix's starting lineup tonight plus the resurgence of Gortat. Don't burst their bubble by telling them every opposing center plays like that against the Blazers.
Portland Trail Blazer tickets for all games are available from Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.