Remember way back at the beginning of the season when each game was a feeling-out process, when the Portland Trail Blazers had a full quarter (if not two or three) to work woe upon their opponents before their schemes and desires got sniffed out? If any doubt remains that those salad days--and their attendant wins--are long gone, tonight's matchup between the Blazers and the Phoenix Suns dissolved it. The Blazers walked up the stairwell tonight, keys jingling, only to find the Suns waiting for them. Jeff Hornacek said, "Jerry". Terry Stotts replied, "Newman". And the knock-down, drag-out, brawl of the century was on. Unfortunately for Portland, the tubby mailman won this round as the Suns owned the final surge in a game filled with them, kicking the Blazers to the curb in a 109-93 romp.
Those folks who whine every spring that the NCAA Tournament is "so much better" than NBA Basketball because those college kids "care so much" and "fight for every possession" while NBA players are "lazy and overpaid" should be forced to watch the first couple quarters of this game. You will not find a finer example of two teams who, though limited, fought with every inch of their ability to put the ball in the bucket and deny each other daylight. It was like they replaced the sideline Gatorade with Red Bull. Everybody had wings.
Phoenix came out slicing right into Portland's weak spots. They moved the ball for big-man jumpers, which mostly missed. Then they said, "Screw it" and just let their guards drive into the teeth of Portland's defense. That worked. And how. When the Blazers adjusted by packing the middle the Suns switched to three-pointers. They were less successful from range but they still managed to keep the Blazers moving. Rebounding stayed strong for Phoenix, obviously a point of emphasis against Portland. The Suns also benefited from reserve guard Gerald Green going red-line-level crazy as the quarter came to a close, pouring in 10 points in the final 5 minutes.
The Blazers were no slouches themselves. They hit the offensive glass, made good use of Robin Lopez's big body, moved the ball quickly, and shot freely. Whenever the Suns got ahead by more than 2 the Blazers would just pour in another jumper. Both teams acquitted themselves fairly well in the first. Phoenix walked with a 28-26 lead.
Cracks in Portland's facade began to widen in the early- to mid-second period. Portland's second unit still scored reasonably thanks to the overtime-working Lopez, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright. But the Blazers couldn't stop any of Phoenix's smaller players. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe gave way to Green and Ish Smith.
The key to Phoenix's attack was as simple as it was brilliant. Portland relies on offensive rebounds, meaning 1-3 players will hang back on nearly every Blazer shot attempt. That Phoenix managed to grab those boards away from the Blazers was admirable, but not in itself devastating. Opponents have done so before. But Phoenix made the Blazers pay for missing those offensive rebounds by extending their outlet passes vertically. You never saw a Phoenix guard take the standard position near the sideline to receive the pass after a rebound. Instead they sent their wings farther down and straighter out. The Phoenix defender would rebound, whirl, and whip a pass straight ahead to a teammate already on the run. By the time Portland's former offensive rebounders turned around, the Suns had the ball at halfcourt, often with a man advantage. This left Portland with a choice: go for offensive boards or defend in transition. They couldn't do both. After watching Phoenix score in transition repeatedly in the second quarter, the Blazers had to ease up on the glass. This took the heart out of their game.
Even more, keeping the Blazers from scoring off the glass as the game progressed allowed Phoenix to get away with playing smaller lineups, eliminating another of Portland's advantages. The couldn't muscle with Lopez or out-duel Aldridge, so they just went with what they had. The Blazers never made them pay for those undersized, and high-scoring, lineups. Portland did end up with 13 offensive rebounds on the night, which isn't shabby. But with Phoenix fielding drivers and shooters instead of power bigs, that number could have been half again as big. The Blazers never solved this riddle, though. It would plague them throughout the second half.
A strong run by Portland's starters at the end of the second period put the home team on top 54-51 as the half ended but nothing was solved yet. Halftime provided a chance for everybody to catch their breath, spectators included. The fight was going to get worse.
As the second half opened the Blazers took a solid lead behind the machine-gun shooting of LaMarcus Aldridge. It was as if Portland said, "You want to see matchup basketball? Here's a matchup for you." Aldridge would score 6 in the first 3:30 of the third, en route to a dozen in the period. Nicolas Batum added some slash and jump to the offense and Portland carved out a 10-point lead by the 7:00 mark. Nobody over 6'6" could score for the Suns. Their guards drifted farther out on the court and lost their mojo. It looked like Portland had discovered the winning formula.
Finding no success outside, Phoenix went back to what had worked in the first half: vertical outlets, fast offense, drive with guards. Bingo! They started scoring again. Oddly enough--and perhaps betraying a lack of experience in general and with playoff-intensity basketball--the Blazers seemed to relax after they built their lead. Carelessness crept in: a turnover here, a bad shot there, going too early in the clock with the last possession of the quarter. Mistakes were small, but numerous. Once again the Blazers seemed to know that they often win games without remembering how they often win games, as if they could say, "We did something good. Time for you to lose now!" and watch the other team surrender.
The Suns were in no such mood. They closed the gap to just 1, 79-80, at the end of the third. Then, if there were any doubt that they would fight for the victory, Green dispelled it with a soul-destroying dunk at the top of the fourth...an off-the-backboard self-alley-oop out of trouble that left Green jumping for joy and Lopez saying, "What the Frizzy Hairdo just happened???" All of a sudden every Phoenix player looked like Superman and every Trail Blazer like Scrappy Doo, minus the scrap. The Blazers defended with all the alacrity of a late-career Andy Rooney, rebounded with all the might of Cousin Oliver, and moved around the court like a busted Segway. The Suns took full advantage, finding another defensive gear that the Blazers lacked. Portland's shots came farther out and harder-contested. Phoenix scored at the cup and made the Blazers look helpless...nowhere more so than on the glass, where the Suns plucked their own rebounds like they were tulip buds in a spring field. Blazer's Edge Legend Shavlik Randolph looked like a BEAST compared to his Portland counterparts. If they'd have had Luke Babbitt, he would have posted 20 and 10.
Portland earned 13 points for the fruits of their fourth-quarter labor while the Suns scored 30. That was more than enough for the win...a sad, 109-93 ending to an otherwise entertaining game. Unless, of course, you're a Suns fan. Then it was just about perfect.
Want to know what the Blazers did wrong? How much time do you have?
As we've said before, Portland's plan is clear and statistically impeccable: make your shots worth more than those your opponent takes and get up more of them. If you can manage that you'll overcome shooting percentage deficits and other weaknesses.
The Blazers attempted 85 shots tonight, the Suns 97. That's beyond "ouch". That's, "Give me morphine now or I'm going to pass out." 23 offensive rebounds for the Suns--the undersized, perimeter-oriented Suns--didn't help. They average just above 11 per game. Both teams shot 6-21, 29%, from beyond the arc. No advantage there. The Blazers drew 27 foul shots and Phoenix 31 but the Suns shot 81% from the line while Portland fired an uncharacteristically low 63%. It's like some Miles Plumlee got stuck to the ball and the Blazers couldn't get it off their hands. In any case, not only did they not gain an advantage at the line, they ceded one to the opponent. At that point we hardly need to discuss Phoenix being +18 on the break, +16 in the paint, and +6 in points after turnovers. Do the Suns care that the Blazers ended up shooting 43% while they, themselves shot only 40%? No, they do not. Portland taught them that. You want to beat The Rock? Might as well Rock Bottom him. What the hay? Why not use a Stone-Cold Stunner too.
That's pretty much what the Suns did tonight. All of a sudden the high-flying Blazers register a little stunned and rock-bottom in the aftermath of this manhandling...not so much for fear of playoff seeding position but for fear of what might happen once they get there.
One thing's for sure: they're fortunate they won't be facing the Suns. Not only do they have Portland's number, they just walked out of the arena with the damn cell phone.
In a turn-around from recent outings, LaMarcus Aldridge's game was completely uninteresting tonight. Aside from that third-quarter flurry and some forced misses from Phoenix bigs you'd hardly know he existed tonight. I'm not sure if the team got too wrapped up in the moment and never settled with him or if he never settled himself. He did end up with 18 shot attempts but hit only 8, scoring 18 with 7 rebounds.
Damian Lillard had moments, but every good moment seemed to precede an unsuccessful attempt to repeat it. Lillard's offensive game looked forced, though his 7 assists were nice. (I wonder if he didn't get a little homecourt credit there.) His 5-13, 2-6 from distance, 3-6 from the line line was much less nice. Lillard was also the red cape to the charging bull of those Phoenix guards. Phoenix commentator Eddie Johnson said flat-out, "Damian Lillard can't guard anybody." This was funny because...well...Eddie Johnson. All they needed to do was cut to Hornacek nodding on the sideline to complete the irony. That said, Lillard did little to disprove the assertion tonight.
Wesley Matthews probably didn't either. And he shot only 3-9 for 9 points.
Nicolas Batum at least shot 6-12 for 13 points but he went 1-6 from the all-important three-point arc. Batum was also rebounding with 11 plus he dished 6 assists. His defense might have been marginally better than his teammates'? But that's somewhat like saying a raisin dipped in rabbit poop tastes marginally better than just plain rabbit poop.
Robin Lopez did what he could, which frankly was plenty considering the stylistic mismatch Phoenix causes for him. Outside-shooting centers, lightning-fast guards, teammates who can't stop anybody...what's he going to do? Lopez had a few "I'm Bigger Than You" moments but they weren't near enough to tell. 18 points on 6-9 shooting, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks. But if Lopez were asked to sing the Sesame Street, "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?" song tonight, he'd be forced to name every member of the Suns roster. Plus he'd have to admit that they kept stealing his stuff and none of his friends cared. Stupid friends. Big Bird needs to smack Cookie Monster and Grover back in that locker room to get them straight.
Portland's bench? Ugh. 20 points on 7-20 shooting combined, 5 assists, 8 turnovers, 14 rebounds, 8 personal fouls, and a serious walk of shame. The only guy who might be able to hold his head up is Thomas Robinson, responsible for 10 of those 14 boards plus one monster block. But he also committed 4 turnovers and didn't end up helping much overall.
So now, Portland's 50th win will have to wait until Sunday night when the New Orleans Pelicans come to town. They have Anthony Davis and potentially-scary guards (to both sides) but they can't hit outside so Portland should be able to pack the paint, rebound, and find much more success than they did this evening. We'll all feel better then.
The Boxscore in case you're a masochist.
Timmay's Instant Recap and GameDay Thread Review in case you're a double-masochist.
Bright Side Of The Sun in case you're a flat-out sicko.
The Playoff Standings in case you also like to be nervous.
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