The Phoenix Suns come into the Moda Center tonight riding a surprising 5-2 record. Prior to the season, many had Phoenix pegged as a surefire bottom-feeder looking to secure more ping-pong balls in next Spring's draft lottery than wins this season.
To say the Suns have exceeded expectations seven games into the 2013-14 season would be an understatement, and they have a group of young players who've managed to have breakout seasons so far to thank for the early success.
As Jim Coughenor of Bright Side of the Sun pointed out in an article discussing the early trends of the NBA season, Suns teammates Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and both Markieff and Marcus Morris are all on pace to have the best years of their young careers. Is this level of play sustainable through April? Probably not, but Phoenix has so far demonstrated they can't be penciled in by opponents as an easy win. The Suns' only two losses were at the hands of the Thunder and the Spurs, both on the road.
Phoenix' early-season success has come on the heels of Bledsoe's scorching start to the year -- he's scoring almost 21 points behind solid shooting percentages while getting teammates involved to the tune of 7.3 assists a night. According to NBA.com's new player-tracking stats, he's one of the most effective penetrators in the league and he's deadly on the pull-up. The Blazers have trouble defending from anywhere but the three-point line and are the worst team in the league at protecting the paint, so stopping Bledsoe seems unlikely for them considering he's one of the best slashers in the game.
Portland will trot out a similarly effective point guard in Damian Lillard, who beats teams less at the rim but is a much more consistent outside shooter. Unfortunately, the Suns have stifled opposing teams' shooting from all over the floor -- they're top-10 in the league in almost all relevant defensive shooting stats. They're less sturdy defending the paint and can be damaged with good ball movement as well, but Phoenix' most glaring defensive weakness is stopping the fast break. If the Blazers play at their usual pace, they won't be able to take advantage of the Suns' poor transition defense. Tonight would be a good night for Portland to push the tempo when appropriate and keep the ball moving when their offensive sets are initiated in the halfcourt.
The Blazers are one of the best teams in the NBA at defending the three-pointer, but Phoenix has four rotational players who can consistently hit the outside shot and they're accurate from both corners. Portland's perimeter defense vs. the Suns' three-point shooting should be an interesting dynamic because both teams have relatively similar strengths shooting from and defending the three-point line.
On the other side of things, Portland is the worst team in the paint on both offense and defense. Phoenix is smack dab in the middle of those metrics thanks in large part to the play of Plumlee, who has been rebounding well, blocking shots and scoring the majority of his 11.7 points a game from inside at a high percentage. If the averages play out tonight, Plumlee will likely punish the Blazers inside with his shooting, rebounding and hustle.
Both Morris brothers are playing pretty well, but Markieff has really been tearing it up en route to Western Conference Player of the Week honors for his most recent seven-day shift. He's making his shots from all over at a staggering rate, but he's been banging inside for most of the season and hitting three-quarters of his shots taken at the rim. He will be a player to keep an eye on because Portland hasn't stopped anyone from dumping points on them in the paint this year and Morris has come on like gangbusters in the key.
Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright and Lillard should all be looking to make or receive the extra pass on the perimeter, because while Phoenix defends the arc really well, they struggle with teams that find the open man consistently. Likewise, Portland will have to watch P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Green closely on the outside, because they all hit the three at a high percentage.
The Blazers don't force turnovers, nor do they take advantage of them often. The Suns cough up the ball quite a bit and are pretty average at taking the ball away from the opponent. Portland should look to push the ball up as quickly as possible when they do come up with a Phoenix turnover, because the Suns have a hard time defending the fast break.
Really, these two teams are pretty even -- maybe not in roster composition, but statistically speaking. The Blazers saw both Lillard and Aldridge go off in the season-opener against the Suns a couple weeks ago and still managed to lose because Phoenix came out with a balanced attack and got contributions from everyone. No one outside of Lillard and Aldridge scored in double-figures that night for Portland, and they proved how difficult it is to win without consistent production from secondary and complementary players.
The Blazers should no doubt come out motivated to win this game, but Phoenix' chip-on-the-shoulder routine they're playing -- due to being written off before the season started -- has brought them some good early season results. Portland will have to see a contribution from someone not named Lillard or Aldridge tonight if they want to keep up with the young legs of a motivated Suns team. Pushing the pace, passing the ball quickly and establishing an interior presence on offense and defense would help give the Blazers a good chance to win tonight at home against a Suns team that is probably playing a bit over their collective heads in the season's first seven games.