After an incredibly impressive opening game of the season against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers carried an undefeated record into the desert tonight to face the Phoenix Suns. As it turned out, the locale was appropriate. Portland's defense deserted them in the first period and appeared as elusive as a mirage throughout the game. Nice offensive runs dotted the landscape like so many oases, but no matter how many points the Blazers put up they couldn't keep the Suns from scoring more in return. Not long after the defense took a hike, the undefeated record followed. Portland fell 110-92 to even their season at 1-1.
The Suns started the game with a simple, predictable game plan: make Portland's backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum prove they could defend. Before the game was 5 minutes old, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton proposed making the lane a toll highway, figuring the city could fund street repairs and pay off that now-useless "LaMarcus Aldridge to the Suns" sign. Stanton also opened a carpool lane for players 6'9" or taller, as Phoenix bigs ran in near-continuous loops through the paint, scoring regularly off of passes or offensive rebounds.
The casualties of this phenomenon were two:
1. Phoenix's scoreboard operator got a callous pressing the "2 points" button on his keyboard.
2. As Portland's big men scrambled to recover and help their guards, the refs rung them up like church bells on Sunday. When the Suns weren't converting layups they were shooting free throws. And more free throws. And still more free throws.
On the rare occasions the Blazers got enough big men inside to shut down Phoenix's penetration and rebounding fest, the Suns calmly found open shooters. But honestly, this didn't happen that much. Why take an 18-footer when layups are so easy?
Portland's offense didn't look that bad...they had moments. But as the Blazers fell behind they started playing quicker, forcing possessions. Portland is devastating in the open floor on clear fast breaks. But they had multiple possessions where guards shot extremely early in the shot clock. Those quasi-breaks did not work well. The shots were bad and the results worse.
Despite that, the Blazers managed a respectable 49 points at the half. They allowed Phoenix 55. If they could guard against penetration better, protecting their bigs from getting abused by their counterparts and the refs, the Blazers still had a chance.
Portland certainly had ample time to discuss the second-half game plan during intermission. Former Suns point guard Steve Nash was inducted into their Ring of Honor tonight. Thanks to the ceremony, halftime lasted almost as long as Nash's career.
When the teams finally resumed play, it became clear that the Blazers were not coming back in this one. Instead of solidifying their attack they took more desperate gambles. Instead of bonding as a team they tried to take control individually. Damian Lillard found mixed success going it alone. He hit brilliant shots and drew free throws, but he also committed multiple turnovers.
If defense was Portland's bugaboo in the first half, those TO's scuttled the second. Now Phoenix didn't even have to work for their paint points. They just beat Portland down the court.
"Beating" became the theme of the night. The Blazers took one as the Suns extended their lead by 8 in the crucial third quarter. Portland never threatened in the fourth. Phoenix ended up winning very period on their way to a 110-92 romp.
On Wednesday night we saw the good side of Portland's roster and game plan. Tonight we saw the shadow sides.
The root cause of Portland's loss tonight was guard play. As brilliant as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are on offense, they expose their team to the elements on the other end. If they score enough it doesn't matter. Tonight they didn't. Lillard poured in a fantastic 24, McCollum only 16. More importantly they shot a combined 14-42, 5-15 from the arc. Their defense causes Portland to start every game standing on a down escalator. The guards have to generate enough momentum to allow the team to ascend anyway. Between turnovers and missed shots, they just didn't tonight. Nearly every attempt looked forced. Every moment of success resembled a breath into a balloon that already had a hole at the other end.
Portland's big men fought hard and had a few shining moments, but they looked overmatched against their Phoenix counterparts. It wasn't their fault. Had the perimeter defense contained at all, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, and company might have looked great against the bigger, more ground-bound Phoenix bigs. But instead of being able to shade and help against penetration, Portland's interior defenders found themselves the only line of defense. By the time they got to the lane it was too late. Fouls outnumbered clean stops.
Defenders are supposed to keep their heads on a swivel but Portand's big men would have needed necks like merry-go-rounds to keep up with all the players they were asked to stop tonight. On a good night Portland's big men look quick. Tonight they just looked small.
Portland managed to carve out an edge in three-point shooting, 9-24 vs. 4-18 for the Suns. But that was it. They grabbed 11 offensive rebounds but gave up the same to the Suns. They scored 17 fast break points but gave up 18. They forced an incredible 19 turnovers but committed an even more incredible 23. Plus they were outscored in the lane 58-40 and gave up 42 foul shots while taking only 19. For a team whose attack starts at the rim, that cannot happen. But it did.
We've already talked about Lillard and McCollum. We'll simply add these numbers. Damian Lillard: 7 turnovers. No member of the starting lineup escaped this game with fewer than 4 fouls.
Meyers Leonard played only 18 minutes tonight, collecting 5 personal fouls and hitting 0 shots. That wasn't his fault. He's less equipped than any other Blazers big to compensate when the defense falls apart around him. You have to support Meyers if you want Meyers to support you.
Phoenix did a pretty good job harrying Mason Plumlee when he caught the ball at the foul line tonight but he gave them fits worming and squirming down low. Watching him move around people is a pleasure. 7-13 for 15 points and 3 steals.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a good night. He registered a couple of monster stand-alone blocks, grabbed 10 rebounds, and scored 16 on 5-9 shooting. 6 turnovers provided the only blemish on his pretty evening, but Portland's offense devolved into "me-ball" which suits nobody on that front line. Those turnovers were more a side effect of the game going south than a cause.
The main thing you can say about Portland's bench tonight was that they weren't as bad as the starters. Ed Davis showed a little bit of perimeter defense, Allen Crabbe poked away 3 steals, Moe Harkless hit 4-6, Noah Vonleh grabbed 6 rebounds. This was like hanging ornaments on a Charlie Brown tree. However pretty their moments looked, the team's overall performance wouldn't support them. Bench players ended up rolling around on the floor aimlessly, only to be put away and brought out again tomorrow night.
Links and Things
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The Blazers and Suns play again tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. at the Moda Center.
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