The Phoenix Suns defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 109-93, at the Moda Center on Friday night, dropping Portland's record to 49-28.
When a team plays aggressively through two weeks of Las Vegas Summer League in July and takes no prisoners when the real season opens in October, you can bet it will go for broke when its improbable shot at the playoffs is slipping away in April.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek responsibly enjoyed beers in the Moda Center's media dining room after witnessing Phoenix blow open a competitive game with a 30-13 fourth quarter, a door-slamming stretch that helped the Suns remain even with the Grizzlies for the West's final playoff spot. On April 4 last year, the Suns had a 23-52 record and were about to part ways with interim coach Lindsey Hunter and GM Lance Blanks; meanwhile, McDonough was a relatively anonymous Celtics executive and Hornacek was an assistant coach with the Jazz. A few months later, the pair was personally overseeing the start of the franchise's turnaround in Vegas while staring down the barrel of a possible 20-win season.
In one season, McDonough and Hornacek transformed an underachieving roster with mish-mashed incentives and some questionable personalities into your over-competitive cousin who needs to win every last board game at Thanksgiving and Christmas, regardless of how many family members leave with their feelings hurt. You know, the guy who insists on no bathroom breaks and absolutely no rule-bending, not even for the pre-teenage cousins. You wouldn't want to face the Suns in Scrabble, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Hearts, seven-card stud and definitely not Risk. Can you imagine how quickly Eric Bledsoe would conquer Australia? Would you really want to endlessly tussle with the Morris Twins for control of the Middle East?
Facing such a resolute opponent that had backed itself into a corner with two straight losses, the Blazers simply fled the scene when push came to shove in the final period. Sometimes you think twice about making a statement like that. Friday night wasn't one of those times, as Portland came out and admitted as much themselves.
"We did a pretty good in the first half, first 10 minutes of the third," said Nicolas Batum, after posting 13 points (on 6-for-12 shooting), 11 rebounds and six assists. "I don't know why we stopped, but we did stop. We can't do that with two weeks before the playoffs."
In the final period, Portland shot 5-16 (31.3 percent), lost the rebounding battle 15-7 and lost the free-throw attempts battle 13-4. They shot 1-for-10 from outside 10 feet, went nearly six minutes without a field goal, and conceded 11 second-chance points. The Blazers entered the fourth leading by one point and wound up waving the white flag with more than a minute remaining in the game. Three quarters of quality effort just went poof.
"They outplayed us, I don't know," coach Terry Stotts said, struggling for words after his team let its first opportunity to clinch a playoff spot slip away. "Maybe it's just a bad match-up for us, I don't know. I don't know [what happened in the fourth quarter]. I don't know how I would describe it."
Philosophically, the Suns' modus operandi is straightforward: they want to force you to match their insane energy and to beat them on talent and/or experience. Stylistically, they have a lot going on. When Bledsoe and Goran Dragic hit the open court, "running downhill" -- a football term -- doesn't quite go far enough. The two guards are riding a ski jump slope or an extended funnel straight to the rim, and they possess just enough burst and unorthodox twists once they get to the basket area to make defending them that much more difficult.
"When they get a rebound, they're gone," Batum lamented, and the same can be said for Phoenix's ability to take turnovers to the house.
Damian Lillard added: "We haven't been able to stop them in transition. We allowed them to get out and hit threes, get into the paint and make plays. We haven't been able to take that away from them the whole season."
As for the Suns' offensive rebounding -- 23 on the night to produce 19 second-chance points -- it's easy to envision these guys practicing all afternoon in a high school gym, with Hornacek lobbing loose balls and shouting things like, "First team with five players bleeding due to court burns wins!" Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge both compared Bledsoe's rebounding to that of Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook after he generated, and then converted, multiple scoring opportunities by hitting the glass hard during the final period. Bledsoe would finish with a career-high 30 points (on 9-for-17 shooting), seven rebounds and three assists.
"We did a good job with the initial possessions but we've got to close it out on them," Robin Lopez said of Portland's defense. "They had way too many second-chance opportunities, any NBA team is going to put the ball in the bucket when they get that many opportunities. I can't stress it enough. They just had more opportunities than us. They shot the ball worse than us, but they shot close to 100 times."
Indeed, Phoenix's 97 field goal attempts tied for the fourth-most attempted by a Portland opponent in a non-overtime game this season. Had Portland's three-point shooting or its ability to convert from the stripe been on, perhaps this contest could have had a different outcome. Instead, it was the third double-digit loss to the Suns this season, another game where phrases like "out-hustled," "out-worked" and "outplayed" were scattered throughout Portland's post-game comments.
The spark that first lit the Suns' fuse was Gerald Green, who scored 32 points (on 12-for-20 shooting) and added five rebounds and two assists. The former Dunk Contest champion is what happens when you take a video game character and set his leaping ability, self-confidence and tunnel vision ratings to 99; he tossed an alley-oop to himself off the backboard for a dunk and poured in points from seemingly everywhere down the stretch. All told, Green and Bledsoe combined for 26 fourth-quarter points, leaving the Blazers with no answers.
"I saw him play a game similar to that, he had 40," Lillard said, referencing Green's career-high 41-point effort against the Thunder back in March. "We knew he was an explosive scorer, shooting the ball really well this year. He got on one. He started to make everything, he was feeling it, he played a great game."
Pure compliments; no answers.
Rather than riding to an officially clinched postseason spot on a five-game winning streak, the Blazers deserted the locker room quickly with the knowledge that they can play for another day. The defeat, coupled with a Houston victory over Oklahoma City, makes it exceedingly unlikely that the Blazers will be able to claim homecourt advantage in a series against the Rockets. The past few weeks have seen Portland alternate between looking backwards and forward as if they are parallel parking, and their attention now must shift backwards again, with their lead over the Warriors cut to 1.5 games after Golden State thrashed Sacramento.
"We're at the point now where we can't have any lulls right now," Aldridge said, although his flat tone could have put a child to sleep. "We lost this one and we definitely didn't want to lose it. We don't feel good about it. We've got to learn from it and bounce back."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 20,089 (a sellout). Some portions of the crowd were late-arriving but it was otherwise a packed house.
- Here are video highlights via YouTube user NBAshowtimeHD10.
- Prior to the game, I conducted an extended interview with Blazers president Chris McGowan for a feature that will run in a periodical later this month. McGowan was very gracious with his time -- chatting for more than an hour -- and he agreed to take questions on every subject, only saying that he didn't want to speak directly about specific statements or decisions made by his predecessor, Larry Miller.
- A few items of note. First, the playoff tickets, which are set to go on sale on Monday. The Blazers do not expect the tickets to sell out immediately, as sometimes happens with high-demand tickets that are sold online. In response to a direct question about pricing -- the cheapest playoff tickets sold individually run $60 -- McGowan said that the pricing was set to cut down on gouging by Stubhub and that the prices were in line with the variable prices charged for a premier regular season game, like when the Heat come to town. He also emphasized a point made back when he met with reporters in February: season ticket holders who renewed their tickets for next season were given access to cheaper rates for the playoff tickets. He painted that savings as another carrot for value-seeking fans to sign up for season tickets.
- Here's a cool nugget that came out of doing some background research for the story on McGowan. Remember when Blazers owner Paul Allen was caught on camera during a game with a white board? Many speculated that he was drawing up a play or somehow partaking in a basketball strategy session. In fact, Allen was sketching out a t-shirt design concept that the Blazers will be rolling out during the playoffs. I have seen mock-ups of the shirts -- which will be available in different models for each of the starters -- and they look excellent.
- I also saw preliminary plans for what the 200 level will look like after some of the big renovations that Allen has agreed to fund take place. Things aren't finalized so I can't really go into specifics (the specifics aren't set yet) but the plan is for the club level buffet concept to be replaced by a setup with many, many more dining options.
- McGowan said it is possible that the Blazers will remove more seats from the Moda Center next year. Those seats would come from the back of the 200 level if they are removed.
- McGowan admitted to being nervous and wishing he could have a do-over on his introductory press conference so that he could have set a clearer tone for his administration from the start. At the same time, it is obvious that he doesn't spent a lot of time dwelling on the past. Most of the conversation centered around what's next for the Rose Quarter, how the Blazers and the Moda Center can improve, how he can attract more sponsors, how they can grow the season ticket holder base, what it will take to achieve his long-term goals, and so forth.
- Staffing-wise, McGowan said the Blazers are at a point of stability and will stay that way for some time. He said internal morale, which is tracked by anonymous employee surveys, has picked up as more time has passed since the most recent layoffs last year.
- There's plenty more to come from the interview. I'll be posting a transcript at some point this month. My major takeaway: any training wheels that were on during his initial adjustment to Portland and the NBA are now fully off and he's ramped up to full speed.
- I caught up with Blazersedge Legend Shavlik Randolph after the game. What a great organization for him to land with after another season spent in China. He was one of many excited Suns players after the win, considering the stakes for their season.
- Randolph asked me a great question, unprompted: Which team is better, this year's Blazers (heading for 52 or so wins) or the 2009 Blazers (54 wins)? Randolph, who only played 37 minutes for that 2009 team, remembered that group -- and Brandon Roy in particular -- fondly. Those five years have flown right by. Personally, I take the 2009 team over the 2014 team.
- Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (Insider) reports on Twitter that his computer model has the Rockets claiming homecourt advantage in 96 percent of the simulations.
- Many in the local media are rooting for the Clippers rather than the Rockets as the first-round playoff opponent because of easier travel logistics. From a pure basketball standpoint, Rockets/Blazers has tons of potential, which I went into right here. It's likely that Houston and Portland would be the closest first-round match-up by point differential, as the two teams entered Friday separated by less than a point.
- Matt Moore of CBSSports.com tweeted a GIF of Gerald Green's off-the-glass self alley-oop.
- A bird found its way into the building and Bruce Ely of The Oregonian was all over it, as you would expect.
- I found myself in a new situation this evening. The heel on my right dress shoe snapped off (maybe someone stepped on my heel from behind while I walked on the concourse?). I didn't even know that could really happen. I was walking along and thinking, "I definitely stepped in a huge pile of gum" because it felt like my shoe wasn't balanced and, before too long, it felt like I was walking with one normal shoe and one foot with golf spikes. So I examined the shoe and I found out that the bottom layer of the heel is gone, exposing little nails that are acting like spikes and making for a slippery sensation. Of course, the rubber heel part is long gone at this point so I can't try to fix it. Somehow, I forgot to bring a spare rubber heel with me. Drats.
- Murphy's Law started kicking in: "Oh no, I have all these stairs to walk up to get to my seat and I'm all wobbly and off-kilter like I was born with one longer leg Greg Oden-style, this isn't going to end well." Anyway, I'm trying to play it cool until I hit about the third step and -- slip -- I'm Tonya Harding in the Olympics (no tears and I didn't actually fall, but a legit trip). Within a matter of seconds, the tweet to complete Murphy's Law rolled in: "Just saw Ben Golliver trip on the stairs." Twitter is unparalleled at reinforcing nightmare scenarios. I somehow made it through the rest of the night without injuring myself or anyone else. Anyway, time for me to Google "shoe repair" and also time for me to get out more. These were fairly new shoes too...
- Signs: "Rolo for sholo," Suns set tonight," "Eclipse the Suns," "Dame puts the shame in ur game," "Block out the Suns," "Here in Rip City, team is everything," "Damian's da man," "Allez Batum," "Suns don't shine in Portland," "Blazers outshine the Suns" and "Mo Williams = Mo Problems 4 Phoenix."
- A few fun Portland highlights: Mo Williams hit LaMarcus Aldridge on the alley-oop cutting behind Goran Dragic; Thomas Robinson executed an emphatic, revenge chasedown block; Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum connected on a nice extra pass (touch pass!) that set up for three-pointer.
- There really wasn't too much despair after this one in the locker room. Aldridge: "We lost. You win some, you lose some, I don't know. They played hungry, like they needed it. They had more energy."
- Damian Lillard (15 points, 5-for-13 shooting, seven assists) on Eric Bledsoe: "He's fast. He's crafty, strong, he always has the ball in his hands. You're chasing him around on pick and roll after pick and roll. The floor is spaced because they have shooters out there. That makes it tough."
- Lillard on clinching the playoffs: "We would have liked to do it tonight. We've got four more home games, hopefully we'll have another opportunity."
- Nicolas Batum nodded when asked if the Blazers simply ran into a more desperate opponent: "They may go home in two weeks if they lose that game."
- Aldridge (18 points, 8-for-18 shooting, seven rebounds) on clinching a playoff spot: "I think everybody wanted to. Everybody knew if we did win, we would clinch. I thought everybody wanted it to happen but it just didn't. [Making the playoffs] is not our main goal. We came into the season wanting to be in the playoffs, but we're not going to be satisfied by just getting in."
- There are only four certainties in life: death, taxes, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Morris Twins picking up at least one technical foul.
- I heard from Sam Tongue last week about his experiences covering his first NBA game and it definitely made me a little nostalgic. Check out his rundown of Blazers/Bulls from the "my first time doing this" perspective. It's a fun read.
- Earlier this week I included Damian Lillard on my "All-Spotlight Team" of guards that can enhance their standing around the league during the upcoming postseason.
- No chance at a Chalupa/McMuffin chant in this one.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I'm glad we don't have to play Phoenix any more. They just really play well against us. They average above 40 points in second-chance points and fast break points against us, they pushed the tempo, they were active on the offensive glass, extra possessions hurt us. Usually I like our chances when we hold a team to 40 percent shooting. Give them credit, Gerald Green got it going, he played a fantastic game. Bledsoe was very aggressive going to the basket, making his plays. They outplayed us. I don't know. Maybe it's just a bad matchup for us, I don't know.
I don't know. I don't know how I would describe it. We struggled scoring, Gerald made some big momentum plays that energized them. We got down 10 or 12. We couldn't mount a charge after that.
Probably a little bit of everything. There's some boxing out, they went and got some of them, some of them we had the ball in our hands and didn't secure it, sometimes it was a 50/50 ball and they came up with it. Some of that's them. Some of that's us. When you give up 23 offensive rebounds, there's probably a host of reasons.
Gerald is a wild card, he can get it going. First two shots he hit, it came off a flare and he hit a three. He came down and hit another three. Hit one in transition later. He's the type of player that can get hot for them. When he gets it going, he elevates, it's a difficult shot to defend when he gets it going. I've seen him do that before.
Nicolas Batum's defense on Goran Dragic
I thought we did a good job on Dragic. They kind of went away from him a little bit. The second half was more [Eric] Bledsoe and ball screens. Our defense -- you hold them to 40 percent shooting and you take the three out with 28 percent from three. They were aggressive, got to the free-throw line, the extra possessions hurt us.
Other playoff teams that present same challenges as Phoenix
I don't know but I'm not going to talk about the playoffs right now.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter