This is our third and final installment of the Portland-Phoenix series preview. In case you missed them you can click through to find Part 1: The Numbers and Part 2: The Matchups.
Today we're going to throw in all the odds and ends plus give what everyone's been asking for...a prediction.
Phoenix had the best run in the league since the All-Star break. From March 14th to April 14th they posted a 13-2 record, falling only to the Bucks and Thunder on the road. Only 3 of those 13 victories were decided by less than a double-digit margin. 7 of those 13 victories came against playoff-bound teams, including the one over Portland. Phoenix is hot. Phoenix is confident. The Blazers? All they did was finish their season 12-4. That includes the final, completely throw-away loss to Golden State in which Portland played their non-rotation players most of the game. The other three losses came to Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas. Portland snagged victories over Dallas, the Thunder twice, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Those are the only four playoff-bound teams the Blazers beat in that stretch, however. Portland has been hot, but not as hot as the Suns. The victories did serve to galvanize what had been a fractured team, however. It's no accident that the final run of the season coincided with the first extended period Portland played with a stable lineup. The upside is that most of the rotation carries over. The downside, of course, is Roy's injury breaking that stability. Portland success still provides momentum going into the post-season,however. This is not a team that made the playoffs by backing in. They won the right to be where they are despite incredible odds, earning all the confidence that goes with such status. They're not going to roll over no matter how big the Suns' streak is. Win or lose, this will be a fight to the end. You'd certainly rather have Phoenix's recent record that Portland's, if nothing else because they faced and beat more good teams. But Portland has nothing to hang their heads about.
One of the jolly things about having an online record of every game the Blazers play is being able to reference at the drop of a hat.
You can read about the December 18th game which the Blazers won 105-102. Portland attacked strong inside, drew more foul shots than the Suns, shot incredibly well from distance, and kept Phoenix shooting mid-range jumpers all game. This was one of the earliest outbreaks for B-Rex as well.
You can read about Portland's 108-101 victory on February 10th, this one in Phoenix. The Suns went sleepwalking through a game that featured rancid "efense". (See what we did there?) Portland shot 58.4% for the game, mostly on mid-range jumpers. They didn't rely on the three much at all. They did rely on 10 steals and 20 points off of turnovers. Brandon Roy did not play in this contest.
You can read about the Suns' lone win, and 87-93 junk-fest on March 21st during which Phoenix played at Portland's tempo and the Blazers played sloppy no matter what the tempo. Phoenix won on a late run keyed by a zone defense that Portland was completely unable to handle.
Both teams can claim that yesterday is just that...the past. Phoenix fans will rightfully assert that there's no way their team will come unprepared as they were in the second game. Portland fans will rightfully look at that zone defense line from the third contest and say, "Maybe you didn't hear about it, you've been away a long time. They didn't go up there and tell you. I don't shine shoes anymore." If anything the first game of the year is probably the most indicative of how the upcoming games will be played: Portland trying to pound Phoenix and hold them back, the Suns trying to streak away. The Blazers will also need the kind of marksmanship they had in that game to repeat its success, which is simultaneously a glimmer of hope for Portland that it can be done and an assurance for Phoenix that it probably won't be done. Phoenix, on the other hand, has to watch Portland's inside play and their own turnovers.
Ben did an excellent job of getting many of the game strategies straight from the horses' mouths in his Friday Practice Report. That's the first place to start. We also referenced some strategy in the previous previews. Here are some important specifics.
Phoenix is going to milk the pick and roll for all it's worth. Not only is it their best play, it's a play Portland has serious trouble handling. The Blazers compensate for their weak defensive backcourt by switching constantly. This often leaves them in mismatches. The bright side for Portland is that the current roster is filled with agile big men and tall smaller guys who are somewhat interchangeable. That doesn't change the fact that this will be a thorn in Portland's side. The trouble isn't just the scoring that guys like Nash and Stoudemire are capable of. It's that the Blazers have a hard time recovering once the defense breaks down. If I had a nickel for every time Portland defenders have had to make half-hearted stabs at closing out on three-point shooters after scrambling to protect the middle from a screen play I could afford a lot fancier font for this blog. That won't wash against the best three-point shooting team in the league. Heck, if you leave their floor mop kids open they'll probably pop a three on you. Portland is going to have to be quicker, more energetic, more aware and focused on defense than they're used to. The Blazers can play stretches of great defense but this will require close to 48 minutes for (hopefully) close to seven games.
Phoenix is going to push with Amare Stoudemire because he is their best scoring option and Portland's lineup is paper thin. Two early fouls on LaMarcus Aldridge or Marcus Camby put the Blazers in a world of hurt. Whenever they get in the halfcourt look for Amare to be their guy.
Phoenix is going to pressure and trap anytime Andre Miller has to sit. (And as we mentioned in Part 2 of the preview they're going to try and make Miller sit a LOT. They'll want him down even before Portland's bigs.) They're going to force somebody with less experience to make a play with the clock ticking ever onward. They probably will want to see if anyone else can even handle the ball competently.
Phoenix is going to test Portland's resolve in getting back. From an effort standpoint this has seldom been a problem for the Blazers this year. Their best-in-league fast break points allowed ranking isn't only because of pace. The Blazers do hustle. Recognition of who is supposed to get back can be a problem, however. That could be exacerbated by the likely-strange lineups this series will feature.
Phoenix is going to love, love, LOVE any extra points they can get off of Portland, be they from the free throw line, three-point arc, or off of offensive rebounds. Their regular offense will be like a shove to Portland's chest. Those extra points will be the daggers in the back. Stab enough times and the Blazers will run out of energy and willpower before they can catch up.
Phoenix wants these games to be pretty and sharp. Portland cannot win with quickness. Portland cannot win via skill. Portland cannot win in an uninhibited shootout. Phoenix does not want this to become a contestof strength, pounding the ball, rebounding, grit, or any kind of physicality beyond Stoudemire viciously slamming the ball through the hoop over LaMarcus Aldridge's shaking frame.
If the game gets down to one possession, look for the Suns to run a screen for Nash and let him create.
Portland, on the other hand, has to pull off several tasks simultaneously. They need to score as many points as they can without making the game into a full-on score-fest. That means they'll need to run on Phoenix whenever possible without letting Phoenix run back on them. The amount of energy necessary to do that, hustling full-out both ways, is huge. Nevertheless the best chance for Blazer success is for them to be the first team down the floor both ways: speeding up their own offense whenever possible, beating Phoenix to the spot defensively to slow them down, making them pay for every point with sweat, bruises, and time elapsed.
Portland will have to take advantage of mismatches: Miller posting their point guards, LaMarcus shooting over or driving past their big forwards, Marcus Camby dominating their centers on the boards. The Blazers will need to hit their jump shots, particularly their threes, without relying on them solely. They'll need to get the ball inside on most possessions, letting their jump shots flow from there. We already mentioned the need for quick help and recovery on defense. Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster, and Marcus Camby will be depended upon to defend multiple positions on the same possession. The Blazers HAVE to stay out of foul trouble. They'll need solid-to-great games from several key supporting players to stay in this series but they'll need to play those players on their own terms at the right times, not because they're forced to by the whistles.
Portland wants the opposite of Phoenix: ugly games based on punishment, grit, rebounding, muscling to the bucket...games where every jumper they hit (and keep in mind this is basically a mid-range jump-shooting team) makes the Suns go, "Good God! They're hitting those too?!?"
If the game gets down to one possession, look for the Blazers to try to start Andre Miller on the drive. What happens after that is potluck. One plausible positive outcome is a missed shot followed by Marcus Camby sneaking in to put the ball right back in.
Most of all Portland will have to play with intelligence, poise, and perseverance. Intelligence is key in any contest where energy is a factor. The easiest way to keep fresh is to make the smart play the first time, cutting down on the amount of chasing you have to do. Poise is important because the Suns can make huge runs on you at any time but they can also give them back. The Blazers are going to get down big in a game at least once. The Blazers are going to be on the wrong end of 10-2 runs. I find it incredibly plausible that the Suns come out and win the first game handily. Runs don't mean a game is over though, nor does the first game mean the series is over. The Suns are just as likely to get overconfident as the Blazers are to give up. If Portland avoids the latter they can take advantage of the former. They take advantage of it precisely by playing their style and trusting they have the ability to win. That's where the perseverance comes in as well. This is going to be a long series. The blue-collar guys have to keep their noses to the grindstone throughout the process. If they do, they'll at least make a contest of it. But they're going to have to fight fatigue, trust each other, and give everything they have in order to have a chance.
Portland needs to keep in mind that the best way to turn a fancy fight into an all-out brawl is simply to pop the other guy straight in the nose. The Blazers need to come out and just jump all over the Suns, blasting their way to the rim and ripping rebounds out from their hands. Part of the Phoenix story is that they have been on that roll. They probably don't remember what life was like before it. The Blazers need to remind them. Portland needs to plant those seeds of doubt that maybe they aren't as good as they've looked lately...maybe Amare isn't an unblemished asset...maybe those wings don't defend that well...maybe shooting isn't enough to get it done. Who knows if the Suns will fall for it, but it would be a shame if Portland never offered them the opportunity. If you don't rattle Phoenix in some way you have no chance in this series.
One interesting sideline to this series will be the chances afforded to Blazer players to make their mark. This will be a proving ground for guys like Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum, even Andre Miller in the sense that he hasn't had post-season success or Marcus Camby as he shows how indispensible he could be to the Blazers or someone else. The door is wide open for these guys to make their mark. It's not inconceivable that several Blazers' futures could be influenced by the next 4-7 games they play.
We've been blessed with competitive Superbowls lately, but anyone who has watched for more than 4-5 years will know what I'm talking about when I reference the Superbowl Media Phenomenon. This occurs when there's a semi-obvious mismatch going into the game. When you first find out who the teams are you say that Favored Team A will beat Team B. Then for two weeks people discuss what Team B has to do to stand a chance in the game. With enough repetition "what a team has to do" becomes "what a team could do" and finally "what a team will do". By the time the actual game rolls around you've talked so much about Team B that Favored Team A almost seems like the underdog. Then comes kickoff.
I want to believe that the Blazers could win this series, especially since I can describe how they could. And let's be real...they DO have a chance. That team in purple and orange isn't insurmountable. They've got weaknesses. Most would be surprised to see them come out of the West. But this is still a tall order for Portland.
Let's put the shoe on another foot. Let's say the Blazers were almost fully healthy, had just made a huge run to end the season, and had captured the 3rd seed. Let's also say the Lakers had just finished a gritty, yet disappointing, season. Andrew Bynum had been out most of the year and wasn't coming back. Ron Artest and Lamar Odom had been out but now were back, which is why they were able to salvage the 6th seed. But a couple games before the playoffs started Kobe Bryant tore his meniscus and was out, recovering from surgery. Naturally the Lakers still have talent: Paul Gasol, Artest, Odom. But the Blazers are healthy. The Blazers have won. The Blazers were better this year. Without Byum or Bryant, how much of a chance would we give L.A.? A couple of games, sure. But something would have to go wrong (in our estimation anyway) in order for the Lakers to take the series. We'd be plenty disappointed if they did it.
That's about where this series is. The Blazers still have talent: Aldridge, Miller, Camby, some potentially good supporting players. But something's going to have to go wrong with Phoenix for Portland to actually take it. If the Blazers had all of their weapons I'd take this series every day and twice on Sunday. A healthy Brandon Roy alone would make a big difference, let alone healthy Oden and healthy Przybilla. But without them--without that depth, the backup plan, the extra scoring, the overwhelming physicality--every whistle sounds like the knell of doom, every missed jumper is like a knife in the heart, every Phoenix break twists your stomach. You can win games under those conditions, but four? That's a tall order. Phoenix needs some things to go right in order to win. Portland needs most things to go right. Some beats most in that situation.
My instinct tells me that the Blazers are going to do better than most pundits (and nearly all Phoenix fans) expect but worse than Portland fans want. Two wins for Portland sounds about right. I'd pick that number without reservation except it means losing the series with Game 6 at home. But two is where I'll put the over/under. A single win would be disappointing (as zero would be, obviously). Three wins and a forced Game 7 would be marvelous. Two would be acceptable. That final home loss aside, let's go with it.
See what's cooking over at BrightSideoftheSun.