Game Time: 7:30 p.m. TV: KGW
If you have been under a rock in Botswana for the last four years, your eyesight was a little fuzzy, and you discounted perimeter shooting you might be excused for wondering why the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns had switched uniforms in this contest. In 2011-12 both teams have gone a new direction, playing against type. This is not your grandfather's Portland-Phoenix matchup. Or maybe it is, just in reverse.
The Suns used to evoke images of dashing, flinging guard play, of long shots tickling twine, of athletically gifted forwards jamming 50 points of dunks down your throat. Now 7 of the top 9 rotation players for Phoenix are forwards or centers. Steve Nash is the only true guard playing more than 19 minutes per game. Their tempo is slow. They prevent fast break points instead of scoring them. Eschewing stars, they distribute minutes and shots in communist fashion. Everybody gets a turn, nobody excels.
Their lineup is a recital of other teams' fourth-best players, guys about whom, "We'd love to keep him but we just can't" was once uttered. Marcin Gortat is the great hope at center, averaging 11 points on 57% shooting with 6.5 rebounds in 25 minutes. Hakim Warrick is a craft low block guy. Jared Dudley defends and shoots threes, the former well and the latter not so much. Shannon Brown is here from L.A., so far failing whatever star potential he thought he had. (Running more than the Suns do would help.) Channing Frye starts alongside Gortat and provides the team's rebounds. Newcomer Markieff Morris is doing surprisingly well. Old-timer Grant Hill is not. Josh Childress, Robin "Not the Right" Lopez, Ronnie Price, Sebastian Telfair...the list goes on and on. You recognize every name from somewhere yet each one evokes shrugs. Only Dudley earns as much as 32 minutes. Nobody scores more than Gortat's 13 points. Meh.
The straw that stirs the Suns' cocktail has always been Steve Nash. The calculus of rebuilding is catching up to him, however. It's not just the 37 years, it's the lack of running robbing his strong suit, it's the lack of shooters and scorers to dish to, it's likely the inescapable feeling that the best days of the marriage between him and the Suns are behind him, never to return. The 49% career field goal shooter is shooting 42% this year. His career three-point percentage reads 43% but his current rate is 32%. His assists are down from 11.4 last year to 8.7. There's no salvation coming from this quarter.
Phoenix is an anemic offensive team compared to their glory days. They don't score on the break, they're bad from the three-point arc, they don't generate foul shots. Their best offense comes in the halfcourt. They look to minimize mistakes rather than exploit opportunities. Their overall defense is middle-of-the-road. Their slower pace prevents fast break points. They're weak in the paint defensively. In other words they're looking every bit like the 2-4 team we've seen so far this year. There's nothing to make you think a resurgence is coming.
The Blazers, meanwhile, trade on fast break points, forced turnovers, athletic forwards, and jump shots. They're the polar opposite of the Suns in many respects. The name quality of their players is also higher...more like the second-best players on most teams. Portland has gotten out of the gate hot. Portland has swagger and confidence. Portland isn't set up to take advantage of Phoenix's biggest defensive weakness, interior defense. The Blazers could, however, feast on the Suns' poor defensive rebounding. Offensive boards are a crucial source of easy points for the Blazers. They should get them tonight.
While victory for the Blazers might seem a fait accompli, based on record and talent, the danger points for the Blazers are three:
1. It's a road game.
2. It's a road game in which the Blazers will be tired, tempted to not defend and to feed on halfcourt jumpers only.
3. Because the Suns do play to different strengths they could wrest the game from the Blazers simply by playing their style well: keeping it a halfcourt affair, taking care of the ball, keeping their deep rotation fresh while Portland struggles on the second night of a back-to-back. It's like a good puncher versus an average wrestler in a fight. The puncher will probably win based on talent alone but you always worry about the submission factor. If the wrestler gets his paws on in the right hold those punches will do no good.
This isn't the most dangerous game the Blazers have played but it's more dangerous than you think.
Head on over to BrightSideoftheSun to see how Phoenix folks think.
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