Portland Trail Blazers (31-11, No. 2 in the West) vs. Phoenix Suns (25-18, No. 8 in the West)
Wednesday, January 21
US Airways Center; Phoenix, AZ | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Suns: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Bright Side of the Sun | Timmay's Viewing Guide | BE's 2014-15 Suns Season Preview | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers make their way to Phoenix tonight to take on the Suns. Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- who injured his left thumb in the first half of Monday night's 98-94 win over the Kings -- won't be with the team and will be re-evaluated toward the end of the week after X-ray results were negative following the game.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has done a little rotation shuffling of his own recently, inserting second-year, 7-foot-1 center Alex Len into the starting lineup almost 20 games back. The results have been solid, and Phoenix has won three games in a row heading into tonight's matchup.
Last season, the Suns beat the Blazers in three of their four meetings, with an average point differential of 10.5. Portland took one game from Phoenix last year, a 90-89 win at the Moda Center in November that required a late go-ahead layup by Blazers guard Damian Lillard and a missed shot in the lane by Suns guard Eric Bledsoe in the closing seconds. Otherwise, Phoenix smacked Portland around consistently last season as a team that just seemed to always have the Blazers' number.
Portland coach Terry Stotts, already down to his third starting center after injuries to big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland have kept them in suits for several weeks, is now tasked with finding a way to fill Aldridge's minutes in the frontcourt rotation.
Center Chris Kaman has started in the middle the last eight games, with big man Meyers Leonard playing big minutes behind him. Stotts left forward Dorell Wright in Aldridge's place to end the first half after the thumb injury sent him to the lockerroom, then came out in the third quarter with seldom-used forward Victor Claver starting. Power forward Thomas Robinson, who's been in and out of the rotation all season, finished the game and helped spur the Blazers to victory with his effort and energy, particularly on the defensive end.
Kaman, Leonard, Wright, Claver and Robinson make up Stotts' frontcourt rotation tonight, and don't be surprised to see a variety of lineups down low as the the third-year Portland coach will be mixing-and-matching his big men to see who will respond best.
Hornacek often employs a small-ball lineup -- point guards Goran Dragic and Bledsoe form the starting backcourt, next to small forward P.J. Tucker, power forward Markieff Morris and Len in the middle. Former starting center Miles Plumlee has been relegated to spot minutes, as newly-acquired big Brandan Wright has been integrated into the rotation. Guards Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green, along with forward Marcus Morris round out Hornacek's 10-man rotation.
Phoenix shoots very well within the arc and scores a lot of points inside, running up the scoreboard to the tune of over 107 points per game. The Suns score a lot of those points off the dribble and have trouble with turnovers occasionally, but that's a result of pushing the tempo, which also brings a potent fastbreak attack that's led by Dragic, one of the best open-court scorers in the NBA.
Hornacek often plays a three point guard lineup of Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas. Bledsoe is a pretty bad outside shooter -- though he's been much better lately -- and Dragic is serviceable from deep, while Thomas has hit almost 40 percent of his three-pointers this year.
Even though the one-two-three punch of Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas isn't exactly a Murderer's Row from the outside, fans in Phoenix call them the "Slash Bros." for a reason -- all three can penetrate and score at the rim. They all can find teammates for scores via kickouts, too, each an adept passer.
Many of Markieff Morris' shots are midrange jumpers and threes, where he's been able to connect on over 42 percent of his tries the last five games. He also has a nice touch down low. Markieff's twin brother, Marcus, comes off the bench to help spread the floor, shooting more threes than his sibling but connecting on a lower percentage and playing fewer minutes while scoring about half as many points. Tucker is a good finisher inside but usually attempts half his shots from deep, where he's normally pretty solid even though he's not shooting well from outside lately. Reserve guard Gerald Green has been a lights-out shooter from long-range for the Suns, but like Tucker, he's experienced some issues with his shot the last couple weeks.
Len and Brandan Wright are both fairly explosive scorers in the frontcourt in limited attempts, and Hornacek has been working the pick-and-roll with Wright a little more often lately as he adjusts to his new teammates after being acquired by the Suns just last week. Plumlee's production has dropped off a cliff since he was relegated to the end of the rotation and multiple sources have indicated that the 6-foot-10, third-year center out of Duke is being shopped by Phoenix' front office.
The Suns play much better defense than offense, giving up a lot of points in transition and in the paint. They force a lot of turnovers via steals, but good ball movement can be had fairly easily against them and they don't defend the three-point line very well.
The Blazers will be without their highest individual scorer, rebounder and most integral member of their offense tonight with Aldridge back home dealing with his thumb injury. Opponents have to gameplan specifically to slow down Aldridge and his unique skillset, which allows his teammates to find open looks around the perimeter as defenses often double the All-Star power forward or send extra help when he touches the ball.
Without Aldridge, the Blazers will have to move the ball effectively to find better shots, also likely using Lillard's ability to penetrate to find looks around the perimeter. Bledsoe is a stout individual defender, but the Suns do not defend the basket well and none of the froncourt players in Hornacek's rotation is a good rim-protector. When Phoenix is going with the ultra-small three-guard lineup, expect the Blazers to exploit the 5-foot-9 Thomas' lack of height with whomever he's guarding.
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews finished the Kings game splitting lead offensive duties with Lillard, though they combined to finish just 4-of-21 from deep and 13-for-39 from the field. Matthews has a height advantage on anyone Hornacek's likely to send at him besides Green, so don't be surprised to see him post up his defender to get buckets closer to the hoop, particularly when Thomas and Dragic are in the game together.
Forward Nicolas Batum has adjusted his shot to compensate for the lack of mobility in his injured wrist, and the results haven't been very positive in-game recently as he's suffered through one of the worst shooting stretches in his career. Still, his passing will be key tonight, as the Blazers will likely have to move the ball more than normal to find open shots without Aldridge in the game and Batum is one of the team's best distributors when focused and not trying too hard to force difficult passes.
Though Kaman's struggled a bit lately as a starter, he should be able to use his range and veteran savvy down low to finesse shots into the hoop around the inexperienced Len and the defensively deficient Brandan Wright. Leonard's extended shooting range should also bother Phoenix and Robinson could also get a few extra points on the Suns' soft interior if his energy is focused.
Wing Allen Crabbe was left out of the Sacramento contest but guards Steve Blake, Will Barton and CJ McCollum all saw plenty of court time. Not one is scoring with regularity, but Blake's been a solid distributor while the other two have shown bursts of being able to score off the dribble.
Dorell Wright and Claver should both see some time in the frontcourt tonight and will likely be used by Stotts as stretch power forwards. Neither needs to score big individual numbers but they both should be ready to put up a few catch-and-shoot shots around the perimeter tonight, where the Suns struggle to defend effectively.
Phoenix is an average rebounding team at best and doesn't do well on the defensive end, in particular. Outside of Len, Hornacek doesn't have any real threats on the boards in his rotation. Unfortunately for the Blazers, though, they'd already been pretty bad on the glass without Lopez and Freeland; Minus Aldridge tonight, things look even more dire. Still, Leonard and Kaman have been solid and Robinson -- who can be a terror on the glass for the opposition -- will be eager to make the most of his extra minutes, especially playing against the Morris twins, his former teammates at Kansas.
The Blazers have some key adjustments to make offensively without Aldridge and the defense will no doubt suffer due to the dinged-up frontcourt, as slowing the high-scoring Suns would be a difficult task even for a healthy lineup. Still, Portland has the ball movement to find good shots around the perimeter and outside of Len, Phoenix lacks the height to control the paint defensively. Expect a big game from Lillard as his three-point shooting, penetration and passing will all be key as the undermanned Blazers try to cool down a rejuvenated Suns team that has been a thorn in their side since early last season.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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