The first half of this contest was fit for neither man nor beast. Advice for those still waiting to watch on DVR: keep the fast-forward button handy. You'd have more fun cleaning Jabba the Hutt's restroom than you would reviewing the first two quarters of this game.
All season we've been wondering what would happen if Portland's three-point attack went sour. The Suns doubled LaMarcus Aldridge early while keeping three men zoning to cover any passing outlets. This forced Aldridge into a 1-7 first half while his teammates attempted only 4 three-pointers, making but 1. The result was an anemic 41-point total for Portland at halftime.
Two things went right for the Blazers in the opening stanzas. They rebounded well, a trend which would hold them in good stead all night long. Also Mo Williams said, "To heck with the rest of you and your slump-fest, I'm scoring."
Fortunately for the Blazers the Suns fared no better...another trend which would continue through most of the game. The Blazers opted to pack the paint defensively, making every possession inside a scrum. This took away Miles Plumlee and penetration from Phoenix's quick guards. The Suns had to rely on turnovers and fast break points...yet another game-long trend. They got a few, but not enough. Like the Blazers, their half consisted of plenty of bricks and constipated play. They managed 43 to lead Portland by 2 going into the break.
A couple more things went right for Portland in the early third period. Aldridge finally hit a couple shots and Robin Lopez made a couple inside as well. Making the Suns respect the paint and post freed up open shots. Unfortunately the Blazers missed them. Badly. Then they started missing inside again too. Phoenix picked up loose balls and ran like heck, stretching a lead which would be stemmed only by a couple late threes from Williams...the last one at the third-quarter buzzer, a shot that missed so badly it banked and went in. The Blazers were lucky to emerge from the period down only 6.
The fourth period saw a third Blazer come to the fore: the long-lost Thomas Robinson. T-Rob looked more confident tonight than usual, perhaps because he was matched up against his old friends, the Morris Twins. Robinson had been rebounding well and defending adequately all night...enough that he drew extra minutes alongside Aldridge in the fourth. He proceeded to go berserk, mauling the Suns on defense, mauling the rim on offense, mauling the glass on both ends. This jolt of energy helped the Blazers close the gap to 2 with 10:00 remaining and kept them on course even when the Suns surged back afterwards.
The Suns did surge back, however. Goran Dragic exposed a game-long flaw in Portland's defense: guards who played lazy, clueless, or just carelessly. As you'd expect with mobile, good-shooting bigs facing up against Lopez, Phoenix drew Portland into high screens for their money plays. The Blazers coped well enough early but as the game progressed Portland's guards got less and less diligent about getting around the picks. The disturbing result: Robin Lopez against a guard in isolation 20 feet from the hoop with no help in sight. Dragic took full advantage in the early fourth, draining two threes and preserving Phoenix's lead.
Just when trouble was starting to rear its head, Portland caught another break. The suddenly-hot Dragic and Williams banged heads going for a loose ball. Williams walked away. Dragic went to the bench with a forehead cut serious enough to require stitches, taking him out of the game for good. At that point it was all scratch and claw on both ends. Robinson, Aldridge, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Plumlee, Wesley Matthews...anybody who had a shot had to take it because neither offense was generating predictably. This game had already been scrappy, but it was the classic, "Each guy throws his exhausted haymaker then takes the same from the opponent" finish.
Phoenix ended up on top of the pile for a moment at the 51 second mark when Plumlee hit a cramped layup off of a Bledsoe dish to make the score 89-88. Nobody scored for the next 40 seconds. Portland had the ball with 11 seconds, down 1. They screened for Lillard and Channing Frye completely blew the coverage, letting Damian free unopposed down the lane when his guard got tangled in the pick. Lillard calmly finished the possession and Portland led by 1...beautiful for Portland, appropriately ugly for Phoenix. The Blazers needed a great defensive stand on the last possession. They got half of one. They forced Bledsoe to miss a layup, but having to commit to stopping the penetration left P.J. Tucker with a chippy tip-in, which he missed. Markieff Morris rose above traffic with another tip attempt...which he missed. Nicolas Batum may have had his hand in the rim but even if the refs missed it...hey, everybody else had an ugly night too, so why not? The Blazers walked away with a very hard-fought but generally poorly- executed victory while the Suns walked away with a very hard-fought but generally poorly-executed loss.
Several story lines connected the evening. Portland rebounded very well and kept the paint clogged up. That saved them from Phoenix's fast-break advantage. The Blazers went -16 in transition but actually managed a 2-point advantage in the paint. After a rough and tentative first half, Portland managed to right the ship from the arc, finishing 6-15, 40%. Field goal percentages were low on each side: 43% for Phoenix, 42% for the Blazers. Assists were non-existent: Phoenix 16, Portland 15. Portland won the foul-line battle, generating 23 FTA's to 13 for the Suns. The Blazers squandered that advantage by shooting only 61%, hitting 14 of 23.
Also interesting in this game: use of help defense and spacing. Phoenix's approach to Aldridge was not unexpected given the way the Blazers have been generating points this season. Surprisingly the Blazers joined in the double-teaming fun, eschewing their usual solo-matchup ways. Collapsing in the paint isn't an unusual tactic for Portland but sending an extra man to harry post-ups is. They didn't respect Phoenix's ball movement and weak-side jump shooting...a fairly safe bet as it turned out. Hanging Lopez out to dry on the high screens was also a change, this time for the worse. The Blazers will need to go back to class on that one. It'll be interesting to see whether these developments will continue as opponents become more familiar with attacking the Blazers or whether this game was just a chaotic aberration.
Long story short, you have to win this way too if you're going to be good in the NBA. The Blazers managed it tonight. 6-2 is a nice record to take out on the upcoming road trip.
Let's credit the guys who carried the game tonight first.
Mo Williams can be great and Mo Williams can be frustrating. On a night like this, though, when every teammate on the court looked tentative and frustrated, Mo's complete lack of concern about shooting can be a godsend. You could almost hear him saying, "Guys...this isn't that hard!" as he wove his way into space for a pull-up jumper. The fact that he hit that desperation banked three-pointer at the end of the third when the final margin of the game was 1 point is icing on the cake. We should all chip in and buy him a t-shirt so when people ask why he plays the way he plays he can point to the words, "Because I'm Mo!" 5-10 shooting, 2-3 from distance, 12 points.
Thomas Robinson blasted everything in his path with 6-9 shooting, a team-high 15 points, 8 rebounds, a steal, and a block in 17 minutes. You know how you light an M80 several times but it doesn't seem to catch, yet you don't know if the fuse is really burning or not? You think it might be, but it might not be, so you tell everybody to stay away and watch it doing nothing? That's been T-Rob so far this season. Snick. Snick. Snick. "Is it lit? I don't know. Stay back just in case." The Phoenix Suns didn't listen. It was lit.
Robin Lopez was nasty on the boards tonight, grabbing 15 and batting around a bunch more. He also provided 13 points of offense in a nice boost against smaller Phoenix defenders. His teammates depended on him in the paint and didn't help him that much outside of it but he still delivered. Great game.
Dorell Wright hit a couple of shots for 5 points and had 3 rebounds in 12 minutes but the defense wasn't clicking when he was in. Ditto Joel Freeland.
Now we get to the tough paragraphs.
LaMarcus Aldridge just got disposed of in the first half. The Suns bodied him outside of his comfort zone, sent the extra man, forced him into tough turn-arounds, and he even got in his own head getting rim-checked on a dunk. He did help re-establish the Blazers in the third period and late in the fourth, but this was not one for the archives. Basically Phoenix tried to cut off the head of the snake--Aldridge, not Lillard--and succeeded and it sent Portland into a tailpsin that they barely pulled out of. 5-19 shooting, 12 points, 4 turnovers. The good news for Aldridge: 12 rebounds. The Blazers needed those.
Damian Lillard couldn't do much to take the pressure off of Aldridge. Lillard shot 4-13, scored 11, and got used on defense. He did have 8 of Portland's 15 assists. Nobody else had more than 3. (Though it seemed like home-cooking could have been involved in a couple of those assist credits.)
Nicolas Batum had 0 assists, 3 turnovers, and shot 3-10 for 9 points. His good news was some decent defense on Phoenix guards that nobody else could stop.
Wesley Matthews at least shot decently, 4-9 and 2-4 from distance for 11 points. Both of his threes came in the fourth...timely. One was a vicious step-back that made you think that all would be right with the world even though things were crumbling everywhere, which it actually turned out to be.
The four-game road trip starts in Boston on Friday.
Bright Side Of The Sun will be full of "drats" and "golly-gee's"