The Phoenix Suns defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-98, at the "Moda Center" in a preseason game on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's exhibition record to 0-2.
An ejection, a marriage proposal, and a point guard to point guard alley-oop; if you're asking for more than that from a preseason game, you're asking too much.
There were sparkles of life Wednesday, jolts that were missing on Monday against the Los Angeles Clippers, thanks to the return of LaMarcus Aldridge (10 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes) and Mo Williams (9 points and 7 assists in 25 minutes) from minor injuries, and thanks to the fact that the Morris Twins play with matching 14-pound cow chips on their shoulders regardless of the setting. The Las Vegas Summer League Hall of Famers were up their usual antics, helping set a "screw it, let's just mix it up and see what happens" tone that resulted in two technicals for Thomas Robinson, a technical and six fouls for Meyers Leonard, technicals for Markieff Morris, Alex Len and LaMarcus Aldridge, and plenty of the chest-bumping and finger-pointing that you usually see in the professional wrestling ring.
Robinson was the only player shown the exit thanks to his two second quarter technicals. His first was of the double-technical variety after he got into a little scrappiness with Len, Phoenix's lottery pick center. The second came on an elbow to Marcin Gortat that many felt was a dubious decision from the guys in stripes.
"T. Rob, that's his personality, he's not taking anything from nobody," Williams said afterwards, admitting that the back-and-forth between the two teams went "overboard" but that it fit the general theme of how Portland wants to conduct itself this year.
"I think in a real game he wouldn't get ejected for that," Williams continued. "He was just being physical, that's just how it went. Preseason, the refs are getting back into it, just like us. No ill will, but at the end of the day that's who we are. We preach no lay-ups, we don't want no lay-ups by no means. We're not hurting anybody but we want them to shoot two free throws."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts wasn't worked up about Robinson's ejection, which brought an early end to a night in which he tallied 7 points and 6 rebounds in 12 minutes.
"I didn't see Thomas' second technical," Stotts said. "I was told it could have gone either way. ... I don't mind the chippiness, that's going to happen. I think we have to play with an edge. Obviously you don't want to see fights and things like that, but I like being competitive."
Of greater concern to Stotts was the fact that a man proposed to his girlfriend during a preseason game. No, wait a minute, that was the only thing everyone else in the arena could talk about, after she paused so long in responding to the kneeling query that she was whistled for an 8-second backcourt violation.
Of greater concern to Stotts was his team's slow start -- a problem that hearkens back to last year -- and his team's inability to defend Phoenix's spread line-up, which used the Morrises and Channing Frye to give Portland a different look. Stotts admitted, unprompted, that his team simply wasn't prepared to play defense against such a set-up.
"It was the style of play we hadn't really practiced for or practiced against, it was good for us to go up against it and see it, make the adjustments and things that we need to work on for the next two or three weeks," Stotts said. "Phoenix does a good job pushing the ball, they established their style of play and I thought they played well. We weren't at that stage of our preparation for guarding a team that spreads the floor like that."
While lacking in many aspects, Phoenix does has athletes to spare in its backcourt, and Portland did itself no favors by committing 17 turnovers. Damian Lillard and Williams combined for eight of the turnovers, and both noted afterwards that it was their first time playing together on the court at the same time.
Some of their shared time hinted at the firepower offense we've been expecting to see. Portland went on a fourth-quarter push that saw standout moments from both Lillard (19 points and 4 assists) and Williams, with Will Barton (13 points) and Allen Crabbe (14 points) getting in on the fun too. All told, Portland scored 31 points in the period; Williams dished six assists in the period while the other three players combined for 21 points.
The highlight of the night came when Williams found Lillard with a flick pass for an alley-oop, a quick-developing play that seemed borne of telepathy.
"That's just point guard instincts," Williams said. "I saw him and he had a break and I know he can jump so I wasn't hesitant about throwing it."
The veteran joked that while his game shares similarities with Lillard's, the second-year man was "a little better" at finishing at the rim.
"You don't see it every day," Williams said of Lillard's athletic tools. "He's special. I said that when I first got here, he's special. I'm just out there trying to enhance him with my game, take pressure off him."
Lillard added: "I just kind of looked up like this to the rim and he put it in the air. It was the same way when we had [Eric] Maynor. When I'm on the floor with another point guard, they can feel things that I feel. Mo saw the play and I saw the play and we made it happen."
The Blazers have had varied degrees of success with the two point guard look, but the Lillard/Williams combination offers more promise than previous pairings because, simply put, Williams is a far better player than anyone Portland tried in the role last season. The offensive efficiency numbers figure to be quite good with this pairing, especially with the auxiliary shooters available to Stotts.
Defending size was an issue with the Lillard/Maynor pairing, and Williams admitted that's the issue he and Lillard will need to overcome this year.
"We're going to have to take it upon ourselves to not be a burden out there for the other three players that are playing with us," he said.
Lillard's new, more physical approach to defense resulted in four first-half fouls on Wednesday after he dealt with foul trouble on Monday. He's convinced that the more assertive style will succeed when the referees loosen up a bit during the regular season. Whether that happens or not, he'll need to be stronger than he was last year when defending twos.
"You saw [Williams] in the post, they tried to back him down a few times and he was able to hold his ground," Lillard said. "My post defense is getting better. I think we'll be able to flip flop whether it's a point guard or a shooting guard."
If Lillard and Williams showed flashes of what was expected, it's fair to label Crabbe and Barton's play Wednesday night as a pleasant surprise.
Crabbe has done a nice job of playing within himself while also shooting the ball when he's supposed to. A green light is only as good as the foot on the gas pedal and he's got some lead in that foot. On one sequence, Williams pushed the ball in transition, looking off a posting up Robin Lopez to find a trailing Crabbe at the right angle. Splash. Surely the coaches will watch the play on tape and tell all the involved parties: "perfect."
The plan, Stotts said, was to give both Barton and Crabbe a real look during the preseason, like everyone else, but that look turned into a closer examination following the foot injury suffered by CJ McCollum. All of a sudden, minutes for a fourth guard in the rotation opened up, and both Blazers reserves have acquitted themselves well so far.
Crabbe, the No. 31 pick in this year's draft, said that he hasn't received any specific message from the coaching staff following McCollum's injury, but that his new-found opportunity goes without saying.
"It comes with the territory," he said. "You really don't want to see a teammate go down, somebody as talented as CJ, but it's the nature of the game sometimes, injuries happen and the next person has to come in and fill that spot. When the opportunity comes I feel like I just have to cherish this opportunity, show the coaches what I can do."
He sank two three-pointers Wednesday and also displayed a little pump fake/step-in action that will be useful when the ball reverses to him on the weakside. Stotts made a point to praise his work ethic and defensive intensity too.
"Allen has had a very good camp," he said. "I've been complimenting his defense. He doesn't make very many defensive mistakes. I think people know that he can shoot it, he's really locked into what we want defensively. He has good length. He's mentally engaged in every possession. He's usually in the right spot when he needs to be there."
It was no secret how excited Lillard was about the selection of McCollum this summer, but he struck an upbeat tone when discussing Crabbe too.
"Allen can really shoot the ball, plays really hard," he said. "Anytime you've got a guy who can shoot the ball, you can use him, especially when he plays hard on both ends."
As for Barton, the headliner was that he made two three-pointers in the same game, something he never did during a regular season game as a rookie. Of course, his 13.8 percent three-point shooting stuck out like a sore thumb last year, and it got so bad that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Barton's childhood idol, totally abandoned him during a late-season game, daring him to shoot. Yet here Barton was, burying a three from each corner.
Never bashful, the second-year guard explained that shooting was his emphasis all summer.
"When I make threes, I'm pretty unguardable," he declared. "Because I can get to the rim and make plays for others. When I make threes, I'm a tough check."
His summer work included video review that took apart his shooting motion element by element. He sought better balance, proper lift, and straight form as he went through extended daily repetitions.
"It definitely felt good to knock down some threes," he said, making it clear to everyone who was listening that he has no plans to shoot "eight or nine threes" per game. "I felt like that was something that was missing from my game last year."
Where this goes is anybody's guess but adding that floor-balancing shooting will be a key, perhaps the key, to unlocking minutes for these guys.
It might sound strange, but despite the loss at home to a Suns team that's generally regarded as the West's worst, the Blazers left this one with a lot more life. They got punched in the mouth and they punched back. They enjoyed the taste of a little blood. They enjoyed a little leg-flexing with Aldridge on the court, and the tempo and free flow that powered the fourth-quarter push.
"I think it's good for us," Barton said of the chippy play. "Getting us ramped up for the regular season. We'll see them guys again on the road to open the regular season up and we'll be looking forward to it."
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced at 12,653.
- Besides the alley-oop, Lillard's other highlight of the night was this nifty save of a broken play, in which he navigated around four different defenders after losing his handle. Video via NBAShowTimeHD2.
- Robin Lopez's lack of speed and quickness can often be worked around, but they're pretty glaring when his guards are creating turnovers. He just has no chance to get back in transition and Portland found itself a man down on a few occasions, which makes defending the oncoming play significantly more difficult.
- Barton had a nice play early, blocking a shot, pushing the ball up and then hitting Robinson with a lob dunk.
- Try not to fixate on Robinson's spin move troubles, it will consume your brain. Advice from me to you.
- The signs weren't great tonight: "We brought our Sun block" was probably the best.
- In addition to his alley-oop to Lillard, Williams found Meyers Leonard on a pretty alley-oop after the center spun from his spot on the block. That was a repeatable action that will cause problems for second-unit interior defenders.
- Some wise words from Williams: "The thing about preseason, if you look around the league, those young teams [like the Suns] are going to have pretty good records."
- Wesley Matthews' advice to Crabbe: "I'm trying to tell him, don't cut corners now, you may feel good now. This is nothing compared to what's going to happen on the 29th."
- Matthews brushed off a question about his shooting struggles so far during the preseason. He also said that he enjoys the chippy play, but: "We've got to be smart with it. Lot of fouls, putting people on the free throw line, we're playing good defense and then we're bailing them out. Not only playing chippy, but it's playing smart, and playing aggressive intelligently."
- Lillard on his foul issues: "I was just trying to guard the same way I was being guarded. It got a little chippy, some of those calls, I don't think they'll be the same when the season starts. I might be able to get away with something during the season that I'm not able to right now. I'm not really concerned with fouling out or not fouling. I just want to try to set that tone and playing a certain way."
- Crabbe is stuck carrying a bright pink backpack as part of his rookie hazing. "I knew it was coming. It's no hard feelings about it. I know it's because I'm a rookie." Is pink his color? "Not at all. Not at all."
- After missing all of last season with a heart problem, Suns forward/center Channing Frye took the court for the first time this preseason. He tweeted afterwards: "Thank you is all I can say. Thank you for everything It seemed that tonight was so far away and y'all helped me get here with your love."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's disappointing from a defensive standpoint but in some ways it was good for us to play a team like that. Phoenix plays a different style of game than the Clippers, they space the floor well with a shooting four man in most of the time. Morris or Channing Frye. It was the style of play we hadn't really practiced for or practiced against, it was good for us to go up against it and see it, make the adjustments and things that we need to work on for the next two or three weeks. Phoenix does a good job pushing the ball, they established their style of play and I thought they played well. We weren't at that stage of our preparation for guarding a team that spreads the floor like that.
I thought he made a couple of well-contested shots from three. One he probably even got fouled on. He gave us fits last year as well. He gets into the paint, he creates problems, he's a good play-maker. One of the things that's concerning for me right now is that we've gotten off to slow starts with our starters. I compliment our bench players, they've come back in both games, played well and played hard and got us back into the games. I thought this was a good learning experience for us. We'll make those adjustments, do those preparations. Next time we'll play them will be opening night and we're looking forward to that.
Both nights we've gotten off to a slow start offensively. Turnovers have been a problem. I think both tonight we had a bunch of turnovers at the beginning of the half and the end of the half, at the beginning of the second half. I think we've got to do a better job, we're kind of getting those in bunches. We struggled offensively, we haven't necessarily all played together. This was the first time Mo has really played. I'm not too concerned about our offense, but I think our offense is behind our defense right now.
I thought he played well. He showed what he can do. He's fast with the ball. I liked the way he and Damian played together, that was encouraging. I wasn't sure how much he was going to play tonight or how much they would play together but, particularly in the second half, I thought they complimented each other well, they got us a nice little spurt together.
Mo Williams pushing pace
That's what Mo has done. He's very fast with the ball. He likes pushing it up. That will help -- everybody will run along with him. He'll pass the ball ahead, as fast as he is, we'll have guys running, Nic [Batum] and Wes [Matthews] and Damian [Lillard] and whoever else is out there. I think that will give us a different look.
Allen has had a very good camp. I've been complimenting his defense. He doesn't make very many defensive mistakes. I think people know that he can shoot it, he's really locked into what we want defensively. He has good length. He's mentally engaged in every possession. He's usually in the right spot when he needs to be there.
I didn't see Thomas' second technical. I was told it -- I don't know -- I was told it could have gone either way. I haven't seen it. I don't mind the chippiness, that's going to happen. I think we have to play with an edge. Obviously you don't want to see fights and things like that, but I like being competitive. The main thing is that I don't want to distract from how we play but I don't mind if that happens in games.
Allen Crabbe and Will Barton
I thought they both had a good game tonight. Regardless of CJ's injury, those guys were going to get to play in preseason. To your point, they both played well both games.
Going into LaMarcus Aldridge after chippiness
Once things got chippy I called three or four straight post plays. I knew LaMarcus was only going to play the first six minutes, so I wanted to give him the ball and give him a chance to bang down there.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter