Long Story Short: The Suns did plenty to keep Portland in this game but in the end Blazer blunders, lack of sustained aggression from Portland, and some hot shooting from the three-point arc by Phoenix put the Suns (deservedly) over the top and on to the next round.
The Suns came out blistering hot in this contest behind Jason Richardson and Amare Stoudemire. Each stalwart took turns drawing the Portland defense and creating opportunities for the other. The Suns quickly mastered a skill which eluded the Blazers for most of the game: reversing the court. The Blazers couldn't cover the strong side and recover quickly enough to the weak side to get a hand in the face of Phoenix shooters. The result was a Phoenix assault on the nets from 20 feet and beyond, peppered occasionally by free throws off of penetration. The Blazers, meanwhile, practiced dribbling and standing on offense. Unlike the Suns, Portland would not move the ball side-to-side. Able to concentrate only on the strong side of the floor, Phoenix eagerly doubled Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge whenever they touched the ball. If anyone else threatened the Suns simply shifted down into the lane, clogging the rim area and daring Portland to beat them over the top. The only thing that gave Portland life in the first period was a bevy of turnovers from Steve Nash, who handled the ball with the same vigor most of us handle a toilet brush. Unfortunately the Blazers weren't running the floor well either way early on. Between that and their own turnovers Portland was unable to take advantage of Phoenix's miscues. The Suns led 24-17 after one. In what would become the theme of the evening the 24 points allowed was fine, but 17 off of horrid offense was not.
The second period saw a head-to-head matchup of second units. After waiting for five full games the Blazers finally got production out of their bench, owing largely to the aggression of Martell Webster and Rudy Fernandez, both of whom were going for broke in this game. Their shooting opened up the floor for LaMarcus Aldridge. Slumming with the reserves he saw open shots and as a result notched one of his few decent runs of the game. A hot early run by those three worthies brought Portland to within 3 despite Phoenix continuing to torch their outside shots. Phoenix continued to leave the door open in the period as, predictably, their outside shooting cooled. This was exactly in tune with Portland's game plan. You knew the Suns would not win from the perimeter alone. Unfortunately the Blazers couldn't capitalize. They let the Suns rule the boards in the quarter, settling for one shot while Phoenix got many. When the starting lineup re-entered the game after the 6:00 mark the offense went back to its slow, staid roots...so much so that you could almost typify it as passive. One guy would dribble the ball while four stood. At this point Phoenix was free to pack the middle again and the Blazers got a couple of layups swatted back. After that Portland joined Phoenix in shooting deep. The Suns won that battle. Combined with the rebounding woes Portland's lack of offense let Phoenix extend the lead to 12, 53-41 at the half. Again 53 points was not a disaster. 41 wasn't making it, though.
The Blazers actually turned up the defense a notch at the beginning of the third, registering some of the all-too-few effective rotations they threw all night. Under pressure Phoenix reverted to a morass of turnovers and jumpers. Once again, though, Portland's offense failed. LaMarcus Aldridge got handcuffed completely one-on-one. His passes out of double-teams came so late that Phoenix had a laughably easy time recovering. Brandon Roy was no more effective with his isolation moves. Despite Phoenix cooling the Blazers had managed to erase but a single point off of the lead by the 6:00 mark. When Channing Frye hit a three with 5:22 left Portland trailed by 14. At that point Nate called timeout and put some of the bench players back in. Jerryd Bayless made a game attempt at aggression but the set Phoenix defense smothered him. But the energy on defense increased with the reserves and Portland began shutting down the middle and getting rebounds themselves. Roy and Aldridge managed a couple free throws apiece late and Martell Webster hit back-to-back threes and all of a sudden Portland was down but 4 with 34 seconds left. Just when hope reared its seductive head Jared Dudley hit a three in the corner right in front of a painfully-slow-closing Brandon Roy. Roy compounded his lack of mobility by fouling Dudley, who fortunately missed the ensuing foul shot. Despite 14 full seconds to work with the best the Blazers could manage was a desperation three from a stationary Roy. The three missed when further disaster ensued. Dudley grabbed the rebound and Juwan Howard fouled him at the horn. Dudley made both foul shots and a four-point deficit ballooned to 9. Given the tenor of the game the Blazers were now in need of a miracle finish.
Right on cue Portland's bench struck up the miracle band to start the fourth. Martell Webster hit a three off of a Bayless assist. Then Rudy hit another off of a Bayless assist. Then Webster was fouled on a three attempt, hitting 2 of the free throws. Then Bayless hit a long two. Meanwhile the Suns missed 4 of their first 5 attempts and Portland was within 1, 76-75 with 9:20 left to play. Rip City was roaring. For the first time all night the Blazers started getting some weak-side reaction on defense. They forced Channing Frye into a turnover, blocked an Amare Stoudemire shot, and rebounded a Stoudemire miss in traffic. The game was tied at 76 with 8:00 left when Aldridge hit 1 of 2 free throws. At that point Brandon Roy got off the bench and made his way to the scorer's table.
It's a cruel, cruel joke that after all Brandon has meant to this team over the years--including the incredible scoring average, the clutch shots, the emotional leadership...right down to the Game 4 lift--that I have to type these sentences. But I do. Roy did not belong out there tonight. He helped in subtle ways but when the game was on the line he did not have the mobility, the lift, the physicality to take it to the Suns or to prevent them from doing what they wanted. The younger guys, the oddballs, had spread the floor, passed the ball, dented and then obliterated the Phoenix lead. Maybe you couldn't ride with them all quarter. But 8:00 in turned out to be too soon to cut them off. 8:00 left turned out to be too much court time for Brandon. Almost immediately after he came in the rotations slowed again, the defensive help faded, and the offense ground to a halt. Only Martell Webster still looked alive in the same way. Juwan Howard was no substitute for Jerryd Bayless. Andre Miller couldn't bring the shooting Rudy Fernandez had provided. To make matters worse the Suns brought Jason Richardson back in the game. An already-stressed Blazer defense broke as Richardson went to town. Over the course of the next four minutes the Suns pushed the lead back to 9. Eventually all of the energy players made their way back in but it was too late. The Suns pushed the lead to 12 before the Blazers brought it back to 7 behind a Bayless layup and a couple of Fernandez threes. Steve Nash hit 2 catch-up free throws before the Blazers ran out of clock. The final margin was 99-90 Suns and Phoenix advances.
The Blazers had plenty of opportunities to wrest this game from Phoenix ranging from the early Suns turnovers to the late Portland shooting. The Suns relied mostly on perimeter shooting. At different times it failed them, as it always does over the course of 48 minutes. But in the end Portland's recognition was too late, their feet moved too slow, and most of all their offense was too stagnant to take advantage. The little team that could just couldn't. Portland ended up shooting 38% for the game. They couldn't carve out a rebounding advantage, scored 8 fewer points in the paint than the Suns did, and went only +4 on turnover-based points. Combined that wasn't enough to overcome a shooting disparity over 9%. The Blazers did stay nearly even in three-pointers made, had a 2-point advantage at the foul line, and only trailed in fast-break points by 1. They stayed close with the Suns in most of the categories that matter to Phoenix. They just couldn't excel enough in the categories that mattered to Portland.
The Blazers' two stars, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, didn't have nearly enough effect on this game despite occupying two of the top four scoring spots. Aldridge had some nice moments on defense, garnering 5 blocks, 2 steals, and 8 defensive rebounds. But he was unable to contain 1-on-1 and he was as late as anyone else rotating when the starters were in. His energy picked up measurably with the bench. Phoenix turned his night into an offensive nightmare with the double-teams. He went 5-17 and managed only 16 points despite hitting 6 of 8 from the line. Roy fared even worse on both ends, shooting 4-16, and managing only 14 despite 5 made charity tosses. He did manage to pass out of pressure better than Aldridge, garnering 4 assists in the process.
Andre Miller was victimized by the Phoenix lane-packing, going 2-10 for 4 points plus 3 assists in only 18 minutes.
Nicolas Batum was a non-factor despite a couple of decent defensive possessions on Nash early. He scored 3 in 14 minutes with 1 assist and no rebounds.
Marcus Camby was also surprisingly non-effective. In his defense he didn't receive much help from his friends and he appeared to bang his elbow pretty hard in a fall midway through the game. But Amare took him to school a couple times and Camby finished with 4 rebounds and 4 points.
Juwan Howard played 16 minutes with 1 rebound.
To their everlasting credit four Blazers brought it hard, rain or shine, just like you're supposed to do in an elimination game. Whatever chance the Blazers had tonight came courtesy of Martell Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, and Dante Cunningham. The Blazers were remarkably non-physical all night in a game in which the refs were allowing contact. These guys started off as confused as anyone but they adjusted their play and started banging their counterparts. They were the bright spot in an otherwise hazy, gray outing.
Webster went 6-10, 3-4 from the arc, 4-5 from the line for a team-high 19 points plus 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 33 minutes. He was about the only guy who managed to give the Suns' defense trouble from multiple positions on the floor.
Jerryd Bayless suffered the same fate as Andre Miller at the hands of the collapsing Phoenix "D". He got layup attempts rejected and got bumped into missing more. He ended up just 4-12 on the evening for 12 points. But he dished 7 assists and got 4 rebounds.
Rudy Fernandez wasn't as physically aggressive or defensively apt as his fellow reserves but he got plenty aggressive from the arc, lauching laser threes at the drop of a hat. He finished 5-6 on the night, every attempt from distance, and posted 16 much-needed points. This was the cocky Rudy we've been missing.
Dante Cunningham looked born for playoff basketball, carrying himself well, throwing his body around, tallying 5 rebounds and 2 steals in 9 minutes. If every Blazer had that ability this game might have been different.
Here's the boxscore if you care to see it.
And so ends a crazy, roller-coaster season. We'll have plenty of reflection on this series, the year overall, player performances, and what the future holds as the next few days go by. For now my gut reaction is simple acceptance, both for tonight and of the season as a whole. The Blazers didn't really play like they deserved to win this game. To me it's a lot easier to lose when you needed a miracle and didn't get one than it is to lose when you feel like you deserved to win. I would have loved a Game 7. I would have loved a series victory. But Portland didn't play well enough to make that happen and Phoenix did. I'm fine with that. I've also had a love/hate relationship with 2009-10. I've hated all of the injuries, the resulting patchwork lineups, the lack of cohesion and coherence, the sense of fighting so hard to get somewhere and only ending up on a treadmill in the end. On the other hand I've loved the resolve and grit, the never-say-die attitude that the Blazers have shown through this, the most challenging and frustrating season they've faced in recent memory. When we look back 2009-10 will be a season to be proud of. 50 wins and the 6th seed were miraculous achievements. Going to 6 games with Phoenix (as we're continually reminded one of the hottest teams in the league) in the absence of Brandon Roy was a feat in itself. The Blazers have nothing to hang their heads about. They have plenty to look forward to. As do we, the fans who have lived and died with every game.
Here's to 2009-10, another season in the books. It was a great effort. It was a privilege to experience. Standing ovation to the Portland Trail Blazers and all involved. And congratulations to the Suns too. They did make it over the bar no matter what we tried to throw at them. Well done.