Portland's 11-game winning streak and excellent November came to an end with a resounding splat tonight in a contest that saw the Blazers play the role they have forced so many other teams into this season: cruising and losing. The Blazers hopped out to a 32-21 lead after the first quarter, making the Suns look impotent in the process. Phoenix ranged from a step slow to flat-out immobile on defense in the period. The Blazers toyed with them, flipping the ball to whomever the Suns left open for an easy two. Made shots ranged from dunks to three-pointers, though notably only two of the latter in the period. But with that kind of scoring, the Blazers hardly needed to fire from long range. The lane and mid-range jumpers were being kind to them. LaMarcus Aldridge personally owned anybody who stepped into his vicinity. Life was good.
But something happened on the way to the easy win. Multiple opponents have gotten up big on the Blazers this season then figured that a quarter or two was the whole ball game. Portland's energy and marksmanship taught them different and they weren't able to recover. Phoenix taught the same lesson to Portland in the second period and then never let them out of the dunce corner to take the test again.
The period started fine, with Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, and Dorell Wright getting after it. But it soon became apparent that spunky efforts from role players were the only things the Blazers had going for them. The Suns held a real-time clinic on how to beat the Blazers.
Lesson #1: Control the boards. Once Phoenix eliminated Lopez's basket of offensive rebounds the Blazers pretty near goose-egged the glass. The late second period was bad but the third was near-astonishing. The Suns bullied, slid, and hopped their way to total rebounding dominance. Unable to secure the ball on the defensive glass, Portland couldn't generate any tempo. Unable to secure it on the offensive end, they lost a key source of easy buckets. Over the last few games--notably against Chicago and tonight--it's become pretty clear that if you take rebounds from the Blazers you will prosper.
Lesson #2: Push the pace and make 'em scramble. Phoenix didn't get a ton of fast break points tonight. The Blazers committed few turnovers and got a man or two back on defense. But the Suns started firing earlier in the clock as the game progressed. In the first quarter they went 1-on-1, dribbling divots into the court before attempting a shot. From the second period on they attacked with the pass in Blazer-esque fashion. Now Portland looked slow on defense, vainly chasing shots that were already on their way to falling. Ironically enough, those shots included Thanksgiving-sized plates of three-pointers. The Suns dropped the leg on Hulk Hogan tonight, beating Portland with Portland's own finisher.
Lesson #3: Use your star to create pressure on the defense then find the open man when it caves. If you've got a point guard, you might as well use him against Portland. Goran Dragic blitzed the Blazers to the tune of 31 points and 10 assists on 10-18 shooting, 4-5 from distance, 7-8 from the line. The Blazers just couldn't guard him. And every time they sent help, Dragic found Channing Frye or some other willing target for the swish. A side effect of Dragic running wild inside and out while Portland's backcourt screamed for help was Lopez getting stuck chasing him. Lopez was foul-free early but he drew a ton in the second half, leading to bench time. Then the entire star scenario got played out again in miniature as Joel Freeland tried to guard Markieff Morris.
Lesson #4: The Blazers bigs are mostly landlines, so if you've got mobile bigs, take advantage. Miles Plumlee got some traction tonight, but Frye and the Morris twins really went off. Channing had a season-high 25 points on 10-12 shooting, 3-5 from range because Portland couldn't risk covering him and leaving the lane open. Markieff Morris scored 19 in 25 minutes, his brother Marcus 15 in 24 minutes. Combined the Phoenix bigs hit 24 of 38 shots, a 63% clip. Considering most of those shots were face-up jumpers, some quite deep, you can see how little Portland's bigs threatened them tonight.
Lesson #5: Don't make the idiotic mistake of leaving Portland shooters open on the weak side. Phoenix was guilty of this early, even getting caught in a couple triple teams on Aldridge that resulted in Portland's own triples. But in the second half they decided to mostly live with Aldridge scoring, doubling from high if at all and not shifting players from the other side. The Blazers didn't get clear shots and never threatened the trademark long-bomb comeback.
With rebounding, tempo, field goal percentage, free throw attempts, and even three-point percentage all going the Suns' way, the Blazers didn't have much to fall back on. Aldridge and Nicolas Batum made game attempts to carry the offense on their own. Damian Lillard made a couple attempts that were slightly less game. But Portland going 1-on-1 after pounding the ball wasn't any more productive against Phoenix than Phoenix doing the same earlier had been against Portland. The Blazers scored, just not near enough to make up for the points they were leaking.
Besides allowing 120 points, 99 of those in the final three periods, the Blazers let the Suns shoot 52% from the field and shoot 31 free throws compared to 24 for Portland. Phoenix attempted more threes (31-24) and shot a higher percentage (42%-37%). When that happens you can measure Portland's chances with a microscope.
It's not like the Blazers played horribly. Several individual players had good nights and most every other category besides those just mentioned came out even. But Phoenix took away everything Portland uses to win games, most especially energy and urgency, and that made the difference.
Considering he was hounded unmercifully by the Suns in the first half and then used as a liferaft by his teammates in the second, LaMarcus Aldridge's 10-18 clip and 24 points was more than good. Aldridge had issues on the other end tonight though. He grabbed only 4 rebounds total--a rare lack for him lately--and you've already seen the opposing forwards' scoring rate.
Damian Lillard had a night to forget...quickly. He scored 16 on 5-12 shooting and 3-5 on three-pointers but that was the only thing that went even semi-right for him. He got roasted like tomorrow's turkey on defense. His drives ended in snuffs so bad that Tony Soprano would wince and look away in revulsion. He had 1 assists, 0 rebounds, and 3 turnovers.
Nicolas Batum gave a heroic effort trying to get points on the board and trying to stop the defensive leak, but he was a one-man band for much of the night. His teammates just weren't helping him enough. That one-man band also missed 5 of 6 three-pointers, which didn't help. 15 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds.
Wesley Matthews was on fire tonight, shooting 50% from the floor and the arc both. Unfortunately the blaze was contained to dimensions suitable for Girl Scouts to roast marshmallows over. He attempted only 6 shots total, scoring 8. Credit Phoenix for recognizing the weak-side threat and shutting it down. Matthews did have 5 rebounds, one of the few Blazers to live up to his boarding responsibilities.
Robin Lopez was another of those, netting 10 rebounds. The asterisk here, good and bad, was that 8 were offensive, leaving him only 2 defensive rebounds all night. Even when the Suns missed he was often chasing around on defense and couldn't make it back for the retrieval. He had 10 points, mostly opportunity shots. He also had 4 turnovers as the Suns honed in on those. Most importantly, he couldn't stay in the game, first because of foul trouble but ultimately because his teammates weren't doing the things that allow him to be an effective defender. You can't expect Lopez to handle the guy you just let loose in the lane, nor can you expect him to take your guard on a switch, nor can you ask him to close on a three-point shooter when you made him stay by the rim to prevent your guy from a layup. Ultimately the Blazers ended up running a smaller, center-free lineup. This didn't help them on the boards and didn't help their offense much either. Portland needs a center, which means they need to commit enough defensively to allow Lopez to stay in the game.
Joel Freeland had a really good first stint, playing active defense, hitting a couple nice shots, and looking like the Freeland we saw as the season kicked off. His second-half effort against people named Morris should go unmentioned. He's not built to stop them.
Dorell Wright had a similar arc, playing nicely early in the game but ultimately becoming a non-factor even when inserted as part of the small lineup.
Thomas Robinson had a good stat line with 5-8 shooting, 10 points, and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes but it looks prettier than his game actually was. A couple of those buckets were a combination of late-game charity and the Suns figuring if Robinson was wide-open shooting that meant that other Blazers weren't.
Mo Williams had a Shadow-Mo night, firing 1-8 from the field, scoring 3 points in 24 minutes. His defense was Regular Mo, though...meaning the other guy scored.
Due to the blowout Coach Stotts got some cobweb-covered bench players a little run in this game. Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Will Barton played alongside Earl Watson in the closing minutes. All looked good (and all but Earl looked overjoyed to see the court) but it was the last 5 minutes of a blowout loss, so no lasting lessons unfurled before our eyes. It was nice to see the young guys hit the floor though.
Thud-inducing ending aside, the Blazers just completed one of the best months in their history and at 13-3, gave fans and observers around the league something to talk about. All hail November! Let's hope Santa saved a few more W's for their Advent Calendar and Christmas.
Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review, now with 89% less wooting.
Bright Side Of The Sun wishes the Suns played the Blazers every night.