The Blazers host the Phoenix Suns tonight, the fourth and final meeting between the two teams this regular season.
The Suns recently had a six-game win streak snapped, losing consecutive games to the Lakers and Clippers earlier this week. Those two losses left Phoenix knotted with the Mavericks and Grizzlies at 44-31, though both teams possess tie-breakers with the Suns. That considered, Phoenix is currently No. 9 in the Western Conference rankings, a spot out of the playoffs.
Leading the NBA in fast break points per game this year, the Suns are led by the starting backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
Dragic has become one of the most dynamic point guards in the league this year, improving in just about every relevant offensive statistic in his sixth season. Over his last five games, he's hit half of his 15.2 field-goal attempts a night. Dragic is known for pushing the pace, able to score consistently off the dribble as a great finisher inside and good pull-up shooter in the mid-range. He's expanded his game out beyond the arc this year, attempting over five three-pointers per contest his last five and connecting on over 39 percent of them.
Bledsoe -- a 34.4 percent outside shooter for the season -- has discovered his touch from long-range the last couple weeks, hitting 52.9 percent of his threes. He's also a reliable scorer inside, able to take it to the hole and finish. Bledsoe's mid-range jumper is average at best, though he goes to it somewhat regularly.
Both Dragic and Bledsoe have had turnover issues the last several games, averaging 3.4 and 4.2 a night, respectively. This has actually been a season-long problem for the team, continuing down the stretch.
Guard Gerald Green comes off the bench as a high-volume shooter, putting up 14.8 points a game his last five on about 42 percent shooting. He's a willing outside shooter, over half his 11 shots a night coming from deep where he's good for about a 39 percent conversion rate. Green can get it to the hoop and finish, but actually prefers his jump-shot when he's not launching from deep.
Forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris both play a reserve role but a large part in Suns coach Jeff Hornacek's offense. Marcus is more of a stretch-four who loves the corner three, though he's only hit about a quarter of his outside shots the last five games. In that span, Markieff has been electric from the floor, hitting over half his shots. Many of them come inside, though he has a solid jumper he uses often.
Starting power forward Channing Frye shoots over a half-dozen shots a game from deep, though he's only been good for a third of them the last couple weeks. Miles Plumlee gets the start at center and has nailed almost 70 percent of his shots the last several games, but his number of attempts can be counted on one hand. Small forward P.J. Tucker, also a starter, has only made 38.1 percent of his field-goals and 29.4 percent of his threes the last five outings.
Hornacek employs about an eight-man rotation. The Suns love to get out in transition and also shoot more three-pointers than almost any team in the league. Phoenix has been an average shooting team from both inside and outside the arc the last five games, struggling with turnovers.
The Suns' defense has been pretty pedestrian the last couple of weeks, allowing 100.6 points, 45.5 percent shooting and 34.2 percent from deep. They don't defend in transition well, can be taken advantage of easily in the paint and put opponents at the free-throw line often.
Portland has rediscovered some of its early season success moving the ball, with three players averaging at least 4.6 assists a night going back to the loss in Orlando five games ago. Since then, the Blazers have reintroduced power forward LaMarcus Aldridge back into the lineup after a seven-game absence, making 45 percent of their shots, 38.1 percent of their threes and riding a four-game win streak.
Portland's also found more success on the defensive end recently, allowing 92.8 points a night the last five games. True, match-ups with the low-scoring Grizzlies and Bulls are included in those numbers, but the Blazers have only allowed 42.9 percent shooting from the field in that span (No. 8 in the NBA) and 29.6 percent from deep (No. 3). They've also found some success in not putting opposing teams at the free-throw line, allowing just 17.2 foul-shots a game over the last five.
After a quiet stretch of outings with Aldridge back in the lineup, point guard Damian Lillard finally came uncorked against the Lakers Tuesday night, draining 10-of-22 shots, 5-of-10 threes and 9-of-9 free-throws for 34 points. Eight assists weren't bad, either. Since the Orlando game, Lillard's shooting 41 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from outside.
Aldridge joined Lillard in the 30-point club Tuesday night, making 12 of his 20 shots for 31 points. He's back to his season averages since he returned to the lineup against the Hawks last week, averaging over 22 points on 46.5 percent shooting. Aldridge's presence on the court changes the complexion of coach Terry Stotts' offense, as he puts up almost 20 shots a night and takes up a huge portion of the opposing defense's attention.
Guard Wesley Matthews has struggled from the floor the last several outings, making just 37.5 percent of his attempts. His three-pointer has kept him afloat in that time, good 40 percent of the time -- though he did go 2-7 from deep in Los Angeles a few nights ago. Wingman Nicolas Batum had no trouble hitting his threes against the Lakers, sinking 4-of-5. Pulling in 4.6 assists a game, Batum has also been a capable shooter from the floor at 43.4 percent his last five contests and has gone 43.5 percent from deep.
Guard Mo Williams struggled off the bench in L.A., but he's consistently made almost half his shots the last couple weeks and 35.3 percent of his threes. Starting center Robin Lopez chips in over a dozen points a game, good for two-thirds of his attempts.
Stotts' tight bench rotation past Williams has consisted of wing Will Barton, Forward Dorell Wright and big man Thomas Robinson. Barton has shown bursts of the brilliance that's earned him minutes down the stretch over rookie guard C.J. McCollum, but he's been inconsistent otherwise. Wright can't find success shooting from anywhere the last couple weeks, missing three-quarters of all his shots in that time, including threes. Robinson has garnered almost 16 minutes a night the last several games, making the most out of his extended time by canning an even two-thirds of his shots.
The Suns have been demolishing teams on the glass the last five contests, led by Plumlee, Tucker and the Brothers Morris while Frye gets involved on the defensive side. Portland has recently been edging teams on the boards, too, good for No. 2 in the NBA in total rebounds a game the last five with 46.6. Known largely for their offensive rebounding prowess -- spearheaded by Lopez -- the Blazers also clean up the defensive glass with dominant numbers from Aldridge and contributions from Batum, Wright and Robinson. Portland probably has the rebounding edge in regards to totals and percentages tonight, but the Suns do have an impressive rebounding differential of +7.6 a game the last five, a stat that's hard to ignore.
The Blazers will again likely have no answer for Dragic, who's averaged 23.7 points, 6.7 assists, 52.9 percent field-goal shooting and a staggering 58.3 percent from deep in three games this year against Portland. Bledsoe's made over half his shots and bullied his way to the free-throw line en route to a 22.5 point scoring average in two match-ups with the Blazers this year. Frye and the Morris twins will also make life difficult for Lopez tonight on defense, who will be needed to man the paint and defend against guard penetration. If he's chasing Frye or one of the Morris brothers around, it'll be open season in the middle for Phoenix. Aldridge's defensive presence will be huge tonight, too.
Expect a lot of drives to the rim, with kick-outs and three-pointers from both sides. Stopping the Suns' fast break would go a long way tonight for Portland, though that's easier said than done. Phoenix also turns the ball over like crazy and struggles defending the break, so the Blazers should also push the tempo when possible.
The Suns need a victory to get back in the playoffs and build some momentum heading down a difficult closing stretch. Likewise, Portland has just a two-and-a-half game lead on the Warriors for the fifth seed out West and sits only a game behind No. 4 Houston (though the Rockets hold the tie-breaker). With playoff implications on the line tonight at the Moda Center, you can bet both the Suns and Blazers will fight tooth-and-nail in the final matchup of a four-game series that has overwhelmingly been in Phoenix' favor so far this season.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter