The Blazers carry their 11-game winning streak into the desert tonight to take on the surprising Phoenix Suns, off to a 7-7 start after many experts predicted them to be the worst team in the Western Conference. They now sit just a half game outside the eighth seed of the playoffs, though the Suns have lost three of their last five games with guard Eric Bledsoe nursing a shin injury.
If you were among the fans who considered recent contests against the lowly Knicks, Bucks and Nets "trap games," then you're probably more than a bit fearful the Suns will put a screeching halt to Portland's win streak before they notch their twelfth-straight victory. After all, Phoenix is one of just two teams to defeat the Blazers this season, and Portland needed a go-ahead layup by guard Damian Lillard and three subsequent misses by the Suns in the final six seconds to defeat them 90-89 when they met two weeks ago at the Moda Center.
Also consider the Blazers have not won a game in Phoenix since December of 2010. For some reason, the Suns just seem to have Portland's number when playing them at home lately.
Even so, Phoenix will likely be at less than full strength tomorrow night with Bledsoe either in a suit or coming back from a painful injury. In the absence of Bledsoe, wing Gerald Green has been inserted into the Suns' starting lineup opposite guard Goran Dragic. The 27-year-old Green has had a few hot outings in that five-game stretch, scoring 20 points or more three times behind a 40 percent start to the season on his three-point attempts. He went 2-4 from outside in the most recent game against the Blazers, scoring 17 points. Kris Habbas of Bright Side of the Sun points out how much better Green is in the starting lineup than coming off the bench, averaging more points, rebounds and assists to go with higher percentages on two-pointers, threes and free-throw attempts.
Portland guard Wesley Matthews will likely draw the assignment of defending Green, and even if he locks him down from the perimeter, Phoenix has five other players who have hit 35 percent or more of their three-point attempts on the season -- guard Dionte Christmas and forwards P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. Tucker actually has an edge over Matthews in three-point percentage at 51.3 vs. 50.6 percent, and Marcus Morris is knocking down 43.2 percent of his outside attempts.
Needless to say, the Suns are a capable deep-shooting team. Don't let their mediocre team-wide performance from downtown fool you, because oddly enough, their usual starting backcourt of Bledsoe and Dragic drastically pulls down the team average with a combined 27.5 percent on 6.9 attempts per contest. Outside of those two, Phoenix fields five good-to-elite perimeter shooters who play at least 23 minutes a game. The Blazers' No. 1 overall defense against the three-point line will be tested tonight, for sure, but it's worth nothing that Portland managed to hold the Suns well below their team average from behind the arc in the first two meetings this year.
When they're not launching threes in their halfcourt offense, Phoenix loves to get out on the break. The Suns enjoy pushing the tempo so much, in fact, that they're the best team in the NBA in scoring fastbreak points. Again, the Blazers match up well against a strength of the Suns; Portland is a top-five team at defending the fastbreak due to Blazers coach Terry Stotts' insistence that his guys hustle back on defense after missed shots to prevent easy transition points by opponents.
Continuing the odd trend of countering each other's strengths is Phoenix' own defense of the three-point line. It's pretty well known by now that the Blazers have all but abandoned inside scoring attempts -- they're still No. 30 overall in the NBA in points in the paint -- in favor of attacking from the outside behind the deep-shooting abilities of Matthews, Lillard and forwards Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. The Suns actually pressure the three-point line almost as well as the Blazers, keeping both opponents' attempts and percentages low.
You remember the ball movement that gets the Blazers all those open three-point looks, right? Well, Phoenix' players love to get hands in the passing lanes on defense, slowing down opposing teams' ball movement and forcing a decent amount of steals. Portland will have to be aware of the pressure the Suns are capable of putting on opposing ballhandlers -- the use of iPads on the bench should help -- in order to keep Phoenix from taking the ball away and streaking out for easy fastbreak points.
The Suns' weaknesses are rebounding, their team ball movement, turning the ball over and their inability to draw fouls and convert at the line. Portland is better in all these areas, though pretty negligibly at the foul line. Even so, Blazers center Robin Lopez and forward LaMarcus Aldridge should feast on the boards against a Phoenix frontcourt that can be pushed around. Suns starting center Miles Plumlee has come back a little closer to Earth after an unexpected impressive start to the year, and the Suns' power forward rotation of Frye and Markieff Morris can be underwhelming on the glass.
Portland's perimeter defenders should stymy the Suns' ball movement, but Dragic and backup Ish Smith are still very capable passers. The point guards of Phoenix will look to crack the defense of Lillard and Mo Williams, getting into the lane and hitting teammates for open looks. Batum and Wright will have to shadow Tucker due to his scorching outside shooting, and Aldridge will have to stay active to keep up while defending Frye, who -- as Portland fans know from his time in the Rose City -- operates largely on the perimeter. He's not a huge part of Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek's offense and he hasn't played well against the Blazers so far this year, but the Frye-Aldridge matchup is worth keeping an eye on.
Speaking of Aldridge, he's played with conviction the last couple games, largely sparked by the fight against the Golden State Warriors Saturday night. If he goes to work against Phoenix in the paint, they may submit behind an interior defense that is only just a hair better than Portland's. Aldridge's backup, forward Thomas Robinson, torched the Suns a couple weeks ago and may have another impressive outing against Frye and Markieff Morris. This would be a good game to establish the "in" portion of Portland's outside-in attack.
No matter what happens, though, you can probably expect another dogfight. The Suns still have a chip on their shoulders from being written off before the season even started and Green has been on a tear since replacing Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Likewise, the Blazers do not want to drop another game to Phoenix this year and will look to snare their first win at the U.S. Airways Center in almost three full seasons.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter