Game Time: 7:30 P.M. TV: TNT
Hey hey! The new-old look Phoenix Suns are in town.
Unless you've been under a rock for the last couple of years you know the story. The Suns, tired of finishing just short of the Big One despite having one of the most accomplished offenses in the history of the league, decide to change their look by adding Shaquille O'Neal to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and the gunners. The offense slowed down, the pairing of Nash and Shaq was about as comfortable as watching Al Franken and Sarah Palin team up for a lambada contest, and Phoenix sank like a rock. Figuring that just missing the Big One is far superior to biting the Big One, the Suns have jettisoned the Big Distraction and returned to their old lineup, if not precisely their old ways. The result has been a 17-8 record, good for second place in the division and a solid 4th in the conference, within spitting distance of 2nd.
The Suns don't lead the league in pace. They're 4th, in a large clump with New York, Minnesota, and the L*kers. They do, however, lead the league in offensive efficiency. They're 1st in effective field goal percentage, first in three-point percentage, 3rd in overall field goal percentage (.2 points out of 1st), 10th in fastbreak points, 12th in points in the paint...the only aspects of their offense that lie outside the good-to-excellent range are drawing free throws, hitting free throws, and offensive rebounding. They're just average in those three categories. But if they were better than that it wouldn't be fair.
As you might suspect with the Suns the defense does not measure up as strongly. They're 25th in the league in defensive efficiency...a far cry from their offensive dominance. But don't sleep on them entirely, even in this area. They're average in the percentage shooting defense stats. They allow over 105 points per game because of the style they play, not because they're inherently terrible defenders. They don't have to be great at that end of the court, just passable most nights. And that they are. Defensive rebounding is another story, though. As has been typical they're quite poor on the boards. It's just not their focus. They allow a ton of opponent offensive rebounds as a result.
The main rotation has plenty of guys you'll recognize. Amare Stoudemire, once again the only big man with any claim to the paint, leads them in scoring at 19.6 per game on 55.9% shooting. Steve Nash is right behind with 18 per game, 53% shooting, 45.6% three-point shooting, 94% foul shooting, ran-the-table-again pool shooting, -18 handicap golf shooting, "one trick shot to bag my entire limit" duck shooting, "that guy on the Dos Equis commercials is only the second most interesting man" breeze shooting, oh...and 11.2 assists per game besides. Grant Hill is still around and doing fine playing 31.5 minutes per game, thank you. Jason Richardson plays Gunner of the Week for them, a role which he was born to play. Ex-Blazer Channing Frye has joined him in shooter's heaven, quite happy on a team where they specifically tell him to stay out of the paint on offense. Leandro Barbosa is still around too, but he's injured. Goran Dragic backs up Nash and Louis Amundson is the third big man off the bench. Both of them can shoot too. You just don't get a minute off against this team.
The good news for the Blazers is that you always have a chance to beat a team that doesn't defend that well, doesn't rebound, and has no shot-blockers. There are points to be had here. The bad news for the Blazers is that outside of an "Oops!" or two against the Knicks and Hornets, the teams the Suns have lost to read like a list of the league's elite: Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Orlando, Cleveland. The Blazers aren't one of those teams. No hope for the automatic road win either, as the Suns are 8-8 away from the desert. (They're an impressive 9-0 at home, by the way.)
Any way you slice it this should be an entertaining game but a significant challenge for the Blazers. We're all yearning for these kind of matchups with Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez healthy. As usual, the odds get much longer in their absence.
Keys to the Game
1. One of the first things you talk about when plotting against the Suns is tempo. You can't stop them but you can't let them dictate wholly. You have to involve them with the shot clock. Fast breaks, secondary fast breaks, and open shots after one pass are your enemy. You want them figuring out what to do with 4 seconds remaining on the clock. That means getting back in transition and moving your feet on defense for the entire possession. You also have to commit to sticking with your man. You cannot run out late to wave at their shooters and expect to find success.
2. The second thing you talk about is pick and roll. Steve Nash runs it as well as anybody and he can hit a shot or make a pass with daylight only a cat could see in. They will involve you in screens. Whatever strategy you employ to foil them--switching, jumping, fighting through--you better be committed and you better move fast. All of the defenders away from the screen also have to be aware what's going on. Nash will find teammates in a blink.
3. Amare Stoudemire scoring one-on-one is bad but not fatal. Amare Stoudemire also scoring off of feeds is much worse.
4. The Blazers need extra points tonight. The easiest way to get them is on the offensive glass. This is the night to dominate in this area. LaMarcus and Joel should both have several. (Which, by the way, implies that shooting guards and small forwards are GETTING BACK when the shot goes up!)
5. The other method of getting those extra points is penetrating and getting fouled. The Suns aren't horrible defensively as a group but several of them can be had individually. The next guy Jason Richardson defends will be his first. We've seen Channing Frye defend the post. Even Nash isn't great at staying in front of people. Portland managed to find the lane at critical moments against the Kings. Do it again. Do it more.
6. Even all of that may not be enough, but realize that when the Suns get ahead of you they will let you back in it. They tend to blow out awful teams. Mediocre or better and it's a close game. They'll go on streaks. Don't get discouraged. By the same token many a team has had a successful first quarter against Phoenix only to find them lapping the field by the fourth. If you get a lead, keep pushing. It's like the Terminator is after you. Stay on your toes or you're dead.
This isn't a game where I'd expect a win but it's one the Blazers have a chance to win. If nothing else I hope it's a good show.
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