What do you look for in a young, developing team?
If the answer is "wins", you'll be disappointed with the Portland Trail Blazers' 101-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns tonight, especially since it was their second in as many outings to a relatively mediocre opponent. Clearly mediocre lies uphill from the Blazers right now.
But the Blazers did not surrender to Phoenix. They played with a spirit and energy that may eventually spark a rivalry between these two clubs. They adjusted from last night's blowout, daring Phoenix to beat them in a new way. The Suns did, no doubt about that. But even being able to adjust the game plan overnight is a positive sign for Portland. If you're into hope and promise at this stage instead of "W's", Portland just may be the team for you.
Last night the Suns varnished and shellacked the Blazers in the lane to the tune of 58 paint points and 42 foul shots. It was an embarrassment. From the opening tip tonight, you could tell the Blazers weren't having any of that. They still allowed their mobile bigs to roam, but Coach Mom limited their radius to about half a block instead of giving them the run of the neighborhood. When Phoenix sauntered down the lane in the first period expecting easy pickings, they found 2-3 rangy, busy-handed players awaiting them.
With that kind of backup, Portland's guards didn't look too bad. Phoenix ended up missing shots and turning over the ball. The Blazers ran off of turnovers and misses, keeping the Suns on their heels. Damian Lillard had his jaw set early in this one and made the most of the tempo, dishing the ball and draining quick-trigger jumpers.
Even with the nice adjustments and aggressive attack, the period wasn't perfect. Portland proved as bad getting back in transition as they were good on their offensive break. Turnovers exacerbated the issue. Plus, in a trend that would continue throughout the night, Portland couldn't gain an advantage on the offensive glass...something they're built to do. They'd grab the occasional rebound but those were the "tip and lunge" variety rather than "grab and jam". For a team this athletic to fall short on the offensive glass and prove slow getting back on defense at the same time speaks volumes. What were they doing in the middle ground when all the action was supposed to be happening at one rim or the other? Despite Portland's best efforts, Phoenix led 27-23 after one.
The second period featured the same offensive rebounding, recovery, and turnover issues for Portland. Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum kept Portland close anyway, hitting a beautiful array of shots.
Portland's interior defense remained solid, but Phoenix had figured out the game now. Once guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight understood that they were going to have to loosen Portland's defense with some outside marksmanship, the Blazers' weaknesses were exposed again. They contained penetration but couldn't deal with screens or close out on shooters when the ball moved inside-out. The Phoenix backcourt warmed up with good, open looks. As the half wound to a close Bledsoe found his rhythm and started hitting filthy shots. Both Suns guards made it clear as the game progressed that they had no respect for Portland's ability to defend. They looked as intimidated on their jumpers--even the covered ones--as you'd be facing off against your average fuzzy duckling. Phoenix outscored Portland 29-25 in the second and led 56-48 at the half.
Portland made a strong comeback in the third period as they finally put their defense together. The Suns found themselves shooting deeper and quicker than they had for the last 6 quarters. Almost every shot was contested, inside or out. Forced turnovers became the icing on Portland's cake, as every Blazers player looks good on the run. Portland also moved the ball nicely in the halfcourt. Behind their great defense the Blazers took a 23-18 edge in the period and trailed by only 3, 74-71, entering the final frame.
But this showed part of the problem too. Portland played their best quarter of this matchup so far and still only managed to reclaim 5 points, not even finishing the period with the lead. That's less a condemnation than a reflection of Portland's reality this year. Even when they look great there are too many holes, too many inconsistencies. Phoenix looked flustered but nowhere close to rattled.
The fourth period turned into a jump-shooting demonstration for the Blazers. Time and again they drove and dished for three-point attempts, occasionally dispensing with penetration and just jacking one as the first offensive option. They looked like they loved the three, but the three didn't love them back. It gave them indigestion instead. They hit but one in the period.
Meanwhile the Suns finally broke down Portland's interior defense, first on the drive with guards and later with big men when the Blazers went to a smaller lineup. Phoenix's layups and short shots went in more often than Portland's bombs. Lillard scored 7 points in the final 3 minutes trying to keep his team afloat but Bledsoe and Knight matched him, plus their teammates contributed. Lillard had no such help. Phoenix's 2-point shots proved more valuable than Portland's 0-point misses. The Suns streaked away, ending up with another convincing win, 101-90.
The glory and the pain are all right there in the Game Flow. Portland's interior defense was markedly better tonight. Team cohesion? Better. Controlling tempo and taking advantage of same on offense? Better. The glaring errors from the night before all but disappeared. The systemic issues, not so much.
It's really hard to win when one opposing guard shoots 52% and the other 57%, both approaching career highs, combining for 60 points. Technically the Blazers outscored the Suns 15-8 on the break but freedom for Bledsoe and Knight made it seem like the Suns were fast breaking all the time. Portland also ended up committing more turnovers than they forced on a night when TO's seemed like a strength for them.
But really, this game was lost in three areas (besides letting the opposing guards run wild):
1. The Blazers fell in love with the three, especially as a comeback device, but only ended up hitting 8-30 for 27%.
2. Perhaps not coincidentally, Portland scored only 30 points in the paint tonight. (Keep in mind they had 15 on the break.) They aren't getting enough off of their penetration to make it scary to opposing teams yet.
3. A 16-28, 57% free throw rate didn't help. After getting destroyed at the foul line last night, the Blazers actually attempted 12 more free throws than the Suns tonight. They ended up with only 4 points off of that advantage.
Damian Lillard looked impressive tonight on offense. He was one of the only Blazers doing damage off the drive, plus he hit 3 of 8 triples for 23 points overall. His 8 assists would have been 12 if his teammates could hit a three. Turnovers continue to plague him. He had 5. But defenses know where the ball starts (and often ends) for this team. Lillard will have to adjust as the season goes by. We've already mentioned what Phoenix's guards did to the Blazers. Add 5 personal fouls on Dame to the list of offenses.
CJ McCollum had some good moments, scoring 15 with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. But he committed the cardinal sin of hitting 1-6 from the three-point arc. That scuttled his overall shooting percentage (6-15) and his game.
Speaking of sinning and scuttling, Meyers Leonard missed all 4 of his three-point attempts tonight, eventually resorting to stepping inside the arc in the fourth so he could score. The Blazers need more than 9 points on 3-8 shooting from him. BUT his defense looked far better than last night's foul-plagued effort.
Mason Plumlee hit every shot he took but that only amounted to 4-4 for 8 points plus 7 rebounds. When the Blazers aren't hitting outside shots their bigs run out of options. They're not going to score 20 posting up. They're great at passing but if nobody's hitting the shot after, what matter? Plumlee pulled a Joel Przybilla tonight, getting into a scrap with Phoenix center Tyson Chandler. It's been way too long since somebody punked Chandler in Portland. It used to be a regular occurrence.
Al-Farouq Aminu continues to impress. He hit 2-4 from distance (5-14 overall) for 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. Nicolas Who? But the Blazers are making Aminu do a little too much chasing outside of his weight class, guarding bigger and smaller players. It'd be nice to see what Aminu could do with a solid lineup around him.
Allen Crabbe provided offensive punch off the bench tonight, scoring 11 points in 17 minutes off 4-8 shooting. He didn't help much on defense unless you consider 5 fouls helping.
Ed Davis continues to make the case that he's the best big man on this team right now. He grabbed 11 rebounds (3 offensive) and blocked 2 shots in 21 minutes of play. He's the only Portland big who looked unaffected by Phoenix's frontcourt.
Moe Harkless played 28 minutes with a couple of steals but couldn't help the three-point shooting (1-4).
Noah Vonleh and Tim Frazier got 6 and 5 minutes respectively. Vonleh had 4 rebounds.
Links and Things
Reports from the Moda Center indicate Meyers Leonard continues to suffer lingering numbness on a finger in his non-shooting hand.
Bright Side Of The Sun covers the Suns for SBNation.
Our ticket agent informs us that we collected 100 tickets in the first 48 hours after announcing Blazer's Edge Night 2016. That's a great start. We are looking to send 2000 underprivileged kids to the March 28th game versus the Sacramento Kings. Click here to see how you can send someone who might otherwise never get to see a game!
The Blazers face the Minnesota Timberwolves Monday at 5:00 p.m. Pacific.