Game Time: 7:00 p.m. Pacific TV: KGW and NBA TV
We said before the last game that the playoffs were all about adjustments. The losing team from the last game bears the burden of adjusting, more so when they were the victims of a blowout romp. So let's dive into the Blazers' game plan right away.
We've defined this series multiple times as a war of tempo. Don't let that fool you into thinking the Blazers need to bog down the game, though. This isn't a contest of slow versus fast, it's a contest of first versus last. In both games the winning team has been the first one down the court going both directions. In order to win the Blazers need to recapture that distinction which the Suns so easily ripped from them in the last game. If the Blazers are back on defense the Suns lose 10 easy points off the top plus they're forced to run an offense and take time off the clock. If the Blazers are out on offense equal to or ahead of the Suns they get to exploit Phoenix's individual defensive weaknesses instead of whatever corporate defensive strength they can muster. The good news for Portland is that this is more about effort than talent or personnel. Nicolas Batum is out or wounded? Run, Martell! Run! No Brandon Roy? We may actually have gotten faster. If Portland does not have this commitment, however, the game might be lost already. This is the single most important factor for them. You will be able to tell how this game is progressing simply by watching which uniforms get ahead of the others most often.
Second, the Blazers did a miserable job of developing their halfcourt offense in Game 2. An unsung yet important part of that failure came from the lack of effective screening. The Suns switched a couple defensive assignments and Portland (the guards in particular) looked hell-bent on proving they could score against these new guys one-on-one. Even when they were effective half of the team sat and watched and the Suns were in easy position to help or rebound. At no time did Phoenix have to move out of their comfort zone defensively. At no time were they forced to make decisions. Very few times did they pay for double-teaming. There's no single cure for this but setting and using screens is a start. Grant Hill is on Andre Miller. So you bring over a big man and run that screen right. If you're fortunate and get the switch then Jarron Collins or Amare Stoudemire are on Andre Miller and Hill is on Camby or Aldridge. That's a much better matchup. Given Miller's skills Hill would probably go below that screen every time, but then you roll with the big guy aggressively trying to make them commit. Or 'Dre loops around the screen hard, driving right past the big and at the still-moving back defender trying to draw a foul or at least make them think. Or maybe you run that play with Rudy as he has a chance to hit the "J" if they go under. The Blazers need to set their off-ball screens harder too: the cross screens, the down screens, the curls. These are your keys to creating the matchups you want instead of hitting your head against the brick-wall matchups they want.
The Blazers have not yet had a good rebounding game, particularly on the defensive end. Camby has done yeoman's work but he can't do it alone. Some are going to scream, "Dave! You just said the Blazers need to get down the court quickly on offense!" But you don't need all five guys to get out. More like two and a half, tops. Those other 2-3 guys have got to crash the boards whether they're guards or forwards. Part of the issue on Tuesday was effort. How many times did two Blazers stand flat-footed by the rim while a medium-sized Sun grabbed the offensive board? But part of it is recognition. You have to know who is in position to run out and who has to stay back and dive for that ball. You have to understand that long shots carom long and anyone on the side of the court the ball's coming to needs to be prepared. Nobody except Marcus Camby has complete responsibility for the rebounding but nobody (period) is absolved of it.
This is also true to a lesser extent on the offensive end. Portland's offensive confusion also led to rebounding confusion for most of that second game. When nobody knew where the shot was coming from nobody knew whether they were going in or getting back. They tended to do neither. Just as you only need 2.5 guys to run effectively you only need three or so to stop the opposing break. Camby isn't one of those. That leaves one other guy on a given play free to assault the rim and three to hustle back. Which three ought to be obvious as long as the offense runs in reasonable fashion. If Miller just drove it ain't gonna be him so the two forwards and the off guard better run as soon as the ball leaves his fingertips. Miller and Camby are still underneath to try and retrieve a miss. The other guys are back in position. Everybody is assigned to a rim instead of floating around in the space in between.
The Blazers need to get a bunch of assisted jumpers within people's comfort zone in order to break that collapsing Phoenix defense. The Suns just guarded the painted area for much of thesecond game. Hopefully the home rims will reawaken LaMarcus Aldridge's face-up jumper. We'd all prefer to see him scoring in the paint but him taking 20 shots, 14 of which are jumpers, is far better than him taking 8 of any variety. Once Phoenix has to guard him from 20 feet the floor will open up for him and everyone else playing alongside. If Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Martell Webster don't hit open shots Portland can pretty much pack it in for the night. The Suns will simply continue running extra players at whichever of Miller and Aldridge happens to be handling the ball at the moment. Portland makes its victory points on the break and in the paint but they'll never get the chance if their bread-and-butter jumpers aren't falling too.
It may seem strange to talk so much about offense following a game where the Suns scored 119 but there are a couple good reasons for doing so. First, Portland's offensive failures on Tuesday made it easy for the Suns to get out, and thus into their own offense, confidently and quickly. They never had to worry about defending or rebounding. Eventually they didn't even have to worry about protecting their lead. Second, most of the things we're talking about are predicated on focus, comfort, and energy. Those three factors all come more naturally for Portland when the offense is clicking and come harder when it stalls. Besides, the Blazers will never just defend themselves into a win against this team. They also have to score well and rebound.
Portland's defensive adjustments remain the same as they were before the last game. They have to be ready for Phoenix to move quickly against mismatches. Switches have to be sharp and aggressive. Help and recovery better be quick and well-timed. Feet have to move more than hands to avoid the fouls that hamstrung them in Game 2. The point guards have to find some way to stay in front of their man. This isn't exactly defensive calculus but truth be told the Blazers don't need calculus to eke out a win over Phoenix. They just need to play decently and rebound the misses. If they can manage to keep the Suns from running out, getting second-chance points, and parading to the foul line they can live with Phoenix shooting 48% and hitting a bunch of threes. The key is to take pressure off of your defense by doing those other things well.
One seldom-mentioned defensive key which will be critical for Portland tonight is communication. It didn't look like there was ANY the other night. This is especially important if you're playing different guys (or the same guys in different spots) because of injury. You can talk about putting Martell in instead of Rudy but unless the right hand knows what the left is doing it won't matter. You ought to hear plenty of chatter on that end if you're in the front rows at the Rose Garden. If not, you might want to tell them to start talking.
The other HUGE difference between the first and second games was Phoenix's turnovers. This is where Rudy Fernandez and Andre Miller can make the biggest impact on defense. The Suns will turn the ball over. The Blazers need to force them. Everything was so easy for Phoenix Tuesday night that Portland had no chance to. Getting back is the first key...slowing the offense down enough that they have an opportunity to make a mistake. But this is where the back-row guys can reward the perimeter players in return for the perimeter guys agreeing to stay in front of their men most of the time. If Portland can keep the Phoenix players from cutting to and through the paint with ease the passing angles become more difficult and you start forcing three or four passes per possession instead of one.
In other words every time you see the Suns get down the floor quickly, make one dribble, then whip the ball to an open guy at the rim who dunks it you need to cringe for far more than the two points given up. The opportunities lost in such a possession go farther than a single bucket. However if the shots come over the top after some time elapsing and some passes going back and forth then it's a good possession even if the shot goes in. Somewhere, sometime the Blazers are going to get their hands on one of those passes or rebound a shot that misses long or at least have a chance to score bucket-for-bucket on the other end.
As far as picking their poison, the Blazers' priority list probably reads as it always has: Stoudemire, Nash, Richardson, Everyone Else. Containing Amare remains the biggest key, as him dropping 30 on you will involve plenty of those inside break-down plays and foul shots you're trying to avoid. Nash and Richardson are 2 and 2A. You're fine with Nash shooting as it means he's not passing. But you want his shots to come hard. If he's scoring freely your defense isn't moving. You're also OK with Richardson scoring as long as it's not on the break or inside, as that means he's dominating the ball. Even better would be the folks on the "Everyone Else" list. When in doubt the Blazers need to prioritize their defense accordingly.
One more overarching factor to consider tonight is the homecourt. Being in Portland isn't going to be an advantage for the Blazers simply because of a different paint color. Phoenix is a good road team. Portland's home record isn't rock-solid. However given how many times we've mentioned energy-related factors here you have to believe that the home crowd could be a factor. If you want to be...that is. The Blazers need to hear it not only at the beginning of the game or when they score, but every time Phoenix goes on a 7-point run or after the Suns score on the break. The arena needs to be loud and the love needs to be unconditional (barring another 30-point deficit in the fourth). Remember that Phoenix plays in streaks. In order for the Blazers to answer them and to keep confidence they need to hear it when the streak puts them at their lowest. It wouldn't hurt to give a riotous ovation for every single Portland rebound either. I wouldn't say this about most games. In fact even having to cite the crowd means your team is probably in trouble. But with all the injuries and facing this kind of opponent the Blazers could easily get in trouble. Seldom have opportunity and need to give a team a lift met so clearly. Let's hope the Rose Garden crowd is up to it. WAY up to it.
As always, you can check out the Phoenix lead-up at BrightSideoftheSun.
P.S. If the Rose Garden sound board folks are listening, do give the crowd a chance tonight, eh? Honest emotion means a little less need for obnoxiously loud cues from the scoreboard. If the Blazers go down 20 and it's quiet, by all means hit that "DE-FENSE!" button. But if the Garden is rockin' you don't need as much of that. Stick to the rowdy timeout anthems and we'll all be fine.
P.P.S. The Jersey Contest playoffs had a small snafu in Game 1 so it was voided. All 34 participants are alive and well until the end of this game. If you'd like to see your Hoss' score from Game 2 you can click here and look at the right side of the page. Those scores will be added to the scores from tonight's game to determine the top 16 who will proceed to Game 4. Only pre-selected Jersey Contest playoff participants are allowed to enter these forms, so please don't even if you can find the address. It makes scoring much easier.
P.P.P.S. Someone e-mailed and asked if this was a must-win for the Blazers. It would sure make things easier but I wouldn't call it that yet. Obviously you'd love the Blazers to win this in 5 or 6 but 5 is going to be nigh impossible and I'm not even ready to hope for 6 yet. My vision of a Portland series win, if it's possible, is the Blazers pushing it to a Game 7 and Brandon Roy taking the floor for that game. A split of these two home games and a split of the following two could make that happen. So the series isn't over if the Blazers lose tonight any more than it's over if they win tonight but lose Saturday. Both games matter. Winning both would put Portland in the catbird seat. But we're not to true "must win" time yet.