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Game 14 Preview: Blazers vs. Suns

OK, here’s the question for Blazer fans:  Does the feel-good ride continue or does it all come crashing down tonight?  Part of the uptick we’ve experienced in the last couple of weeks is precisely because we haven’t been playing Western contenders like we did during our first six games.  No doubt the Blazers are more fluid, confident, and better prepared than they were the last time they faced the Suns.  But then again these are still the Suns and good, veteran teams like this have a way of making other teams look less coordinated, confident, and prepared than they otherwise do.  This will be a good test for the Blazers.


A Look at the Suns


Thirteen games into the season you can say with some confidence that these are not Mike D’Antoni’s Suns any longer.  The single, glorious holdover is that this team still shoots on average better than anyone else in the NBA.  But mostly they’ve normalized the offense, upped the defense, and committed to rebounding.  They try to control the game instead of running you out of it.  They’re taking 9 fewer shots per game this season than they averaged last year and their opponents are taking 7 fewer.  They’re actually 29th in the league in field goal attempts this year.  Quite an adjustment.


But it’s a good adjustment.  They’re relying on their frontcourt, including Shaq, to create good scoring opportunities.  Their backcourt blends and facilitates instead of dominating.  Nobody embodies this more than Steve Nash.  His personal stats are way down from last season, causing considerable angst among Suns fans, but his frontcourt is still doing well and his teammates are getting clear looks.  The Suns are winning games without him averaging 20 and 11.  In the short term it looks bad but in the long run they may be better off being able to win without him having to win 20 and 11.


One guy who hasn’t suffered from the return to convention in the Valley of the Sun is Amare Stoudemire.  His job is to break down the defense so everybody else can slip through the cracks.  He’s a one-man wrecking crew again this year, averaging 23+ points on 56% shooting.  He’s also pulling down 8.3 boards while Shaq grabs 7.9 per game and small forward Matt Barnes--defensive guru, shooter, and all-around tough guy--nabs 5.9.  Having the starting frontcourt account for 22 rebounds right off the bat shows the change in the Suns’ attitude.


Other than that the Suns still carry most of the names you remember.  Raja Bell fills in the fourth starting spot.  Grant Hill, Boris Diaw, and Leandro Barbosa come off the bench.  It’s a solid lineup.  They may not dominate but they’re not going to come close to handing you the game either.  You either take it from them or you don’t get it.


As a team the Suns rely on their good shooting and solid defensive rebounding plus a few more foul shots than you to get by.  All of their smalls can shoot the three and you have to watch out for that as well, though they don’t employ it as much as they used to.  They are not without weaknesses.  They get no offensive rebounds.  They turn the ball over way too much for this veteran and talented of a team.  They don’t defend against the three.  You can still get by their smalls on the drive too.


Long story short, the Suns are an experiment in cost-benefit analysis right now.  They know what they used to do and it didn’t get them where they wanted to go.  They needed to involve Shaq in order to be successful.  This style accomplishes that.  They’re not going to tan your hide and leave you crying behind the woodshed anymore, but they’re also going to make the playoffs playing this way and they hope to have better success there than they have in years past.  In the meantime they’re still more than capable of taking care of young upstarts like the Blazers.


Keys to the Game


1.  A lot of the offensive rebound putbacks that Portland has thrived on in its recent victories probably aren’t going to be there tonight.  The Blazers will have to compensate by hitting a high percentage of their shots.  If we miss a lot we lose tonight.


2.   When we played the Suns a couple weeks ago we let them shoot 55%.  That will kill us too.  The biggest culprit was our inability to deal with Steve Nash coming off of screens.  We had to over-commit to handle Nash and we left his cohorts with easy looks.  Point of attack defense by our point guards plus aggressive show-and-retreats by our big men will be crucial tonight.


3.  Phoenix draws fouls.  Our big guys tend to commit fouls.  That’ll not only give them extra points, it’ll commit our bigs to the bench and force us to field weaker defensive players against Shaq and Amare.  We’ve got to find a way to keep in front of their smaller players while giving reasonable help to our bigger guys.  Normally it’s the job of center and power forward to cover for the wing players on defense.  Tonight our wing players have to return the favor.


4.  The Suns have lost to New Orleans, Chicago, Houston, Utah, and the L*kers.  Most of those were committed defensive teams.  All held them below 100 points.  They have not won when scoring fewer than 100.  They have not lost when going over.  Slow the game down, go punch for punch, rebound hard, play tough, and hope for a chance to win it in the fourth quarter.


5.  If we keep shooting three-pointers like we have we’ll always have a chance.  As long as they’re coming off of penetration and passing and they’re open, go for it!


6.  Points off turnovers could be an area of significant advantage for the Blazers.  We’ll need every advantage we can get.


Storylines to Watch


1.  Past vs. Future


Is there a bigger storyline in the NBA tonight than Shaq vs. Oden?  Keep in mind that Shaq has played almost three times as many NBA seasons as Oden has played NBA games.  Plus Greg isn’t light on his feet yet and Shaq is as big and strong as he.  This is not a battle of titans.  This is like playing Halo against your friend when he knows the map and you’ve never seen it.  You may be pretty good at the game but he’s going to have an advantage.  The storyline is likely to have a disappointing anticlimax.  Any signs of Greg holding his own and contributing are going to be great.  We don’t need him to score 20 to win this game.  Just learn to bang with the big fella a little and don’t let him take you out of the game.


2.  Suns on a Rampage?


The Suns have lost two straight, getting whacked in Utah and then losing an even more disappointing game to the L*kers at home.  Having been slapped across the face twice by honest Western contenders they’re not going to want to take another blow from whippersnappers like us.  They’re likely to come out focused and angry.  Weathering the initial blow and coming back will be important.  The quickest way for the Blazers to lose this game in a bad way will be for them to lose confidence.


3.  Honor Nate McMillan?


To have a chance tonight we’re going to have to come up with some pretty nifty schemes.  You can’t just key on one Suns player and choke off the whole team that way.  The Blazers will have to deal with inside threats and outside from a team that’s committed to halfcourt offense but can still run.  They’ve got great bigs to match ours.  Their supporting cast are the players we hope some of our young guys will develop into someday.  It’s going to take some major wizardry to cope with all of that without breaking down or checking out.  I’ll be interested to see what, if anything, our staff can come up with.


Final Thoughts


We’ve just had two blowout wins over teams we could handle.  No tears if we don’t manage this one.  Big props if we do.  Either way winning two out of three will get you in the playoffs.


Check out the Suns’ side of things at BrightSideoftheSun.


Enter the Jersey Contest form for this game here.


--Dave (