On October 30th and 31st of this year the Portland Trail Blazers played a back-to-back series with the Phoenix Suns. Centering the pair of games around Halloween seemed appropriate; they were a never-ending nightmare for the Blazers. Phoenix guards carved holes in Portland's defense and the Blazers suffered two of the more humiliating losses of the season.
Not this time.
Tonight the Trail Blazers returned the favor, making good with their own guards and shut down the Suns late in the game, treating Phoenix to a 10-point loss on their own home floor. Allen Crabbe's shot is sweet, but revenge is even sweeter.
The Blazers started out this game like they were fixing to throw it away, turning over the ball on their first three possessions, not even getting a shot attempt up until the 9:56 mark of the first. You could see the Suns smiling as if they had it in the bag. They played defense accordingly.
After Phoenix jumped out to a 6-0 lead the Blazers shook out of their funk and ripped up the court with their guard play. CJ McCollum started the proceedings, scoring 8 points in just over 2 minutes midway through the quarter. Damian Lillard added a couple of courtesy layups, then it was time for the All-You-Can-Eat Crabbe Buffet. Crabbe has put up a stellar two-week run for the Blazers, but never has he shone as bright as he did tonight. He hit step-up jumpers, step-back jumpers, step-on-your-head jumpers, "Step off before I touch you with this burning hot hand and leave a mark on your pretty face" jumpers...you name it, he sent it through the net. He scored 10 points in the final 3:40 of the first to put the Blazers ahead 33-26 after one.
The rules of space and time bent during the second period of this game. The Suns attempted 7 straight three-pointers to start the quarter, connecting on 5 of them. They'd make good on 7 total before the period ended. The Blazers started out inside but eventually succumbed to Phoenix's invitation, hitting 3 triples of their own for a total of 10 made between the teams in the period. With the tempo fast and the shots coming free and easy, the Suns settled into rhythm and pasted 35 on the Blazers, taking a 61-57 lead into the half.
Phoenix started the third period as they had the first, trying to press their size advantage by featuring shots from their big men. It worked well, but it wasn't long before Eric Bledsoe had seen enough and went on a tear and limbered up the tempo again. But the Blazers saw Bledsoe score and said, "Yeah, yeah...watch this." Lillard, McCollum, and Crabbe combined for a dozen in the period. Bledsoe's normal scoring partner, Brandon Knight, was nowhere to be found...as in 0-12 night...as in "My buddy and I combined for 32 points. He got 31 of them." Portland's guards ended up evening out Blesdoe's third-period scoring run and the Suns retained their 4-point lead, 82-78, after three.
Midway through the third quarter I wrote in my game notes, "The first team to play defense will win this game." That phrase isn't usually hopeful for the Blazers. It was tonight as Portland indeed became the first (and, as it turned out, only) team to play defense. Sure, Portland's guards scored 16 in the fourth period, but that wasn't the story. Despite Bledsoe's best efforts to take over, the Blazers held Phoenix to 14 points in the frame...winning the game by grinding down the pace, forcing shot-clock violations, and getting hands in faces during desperate heaves.
Let's say that again: The Blazers...won this game...with defense.
Granted, Knight's shot falling down a well made Portland's defensive task easier, but this was easily the best lock-down job Portland's three-guard lineup has done all season and it may be the defensive stretch of the year, period. Every time Phoenix lit a candle, the Blazers snuffed it out. Challenged in the lane, contested at the arc, nobody on the Phoenix side looked comfortable.
Normally Portland's made shots feel like cross-court forehands, extending back-and-forth volleys with the opponent. Bearing down on the Suns defensively made every splashed three-pointer feel like an overhead smash for a winner. The Blazers didn't even score that many points in the fourth by their standards: 28. But the effect of McCollum and Crabbe going off while the opponent struggled was, "15-love, 30-love, 30-15, 40-15, and...game." Phoenix never came back and never stood a chance down the stretch. The Blazers won 106-96.
For maybe the first time all season the Blazers stopped looking like young, energetic, plucky guys on a run and started looking like an honest-to-goodness professional basketball team. This wasn't their most convincing win of the season but it should convince them that the power of defense is amazing. Defense is the salt and butter on the extra-large offensive popcorn they order every game. Without it, the bucket is barely worth eating. With it those buckets taste delicious.
How many times this season have we seen the Blazers hit a three-pointer only to watch the other team score 5 right back at them? Imagine if those score-backs got cut in half. The Blazers would turn from hopefuls to juggernauts.
That's not going to happen, of course. Phoenix took the Blazers lightly and never got their heads in the game on either end. They expected Portland to fold. Despite the Halloween bookend losses, that's one thing the Blazers never do. The Suns made a mistake and paid for it. But it was still nice to see a 12-minute preview of what the Blazers could be someday.
Phoenix actually hit more threes and free throws than the Blazers tonight. By virtue of an offensive rebounding edge, a turnover edge, and a shooting percentage edge, Portland won the old fashioned way: hitting more shots overall than the opponent. That's another way of saying Portland worked harder for the win and they got it.
This game belonged to four players.
CJ McCollum took the lead on offense, burning the Suns while they were watching Damian Lillard. CJ's dribbling and shot selection were impeccable. This may have been his best all-around game of the season. 10-15 shooting, 5-8 from distance, 26 points, 4 assists, and 3 steals.
Allen Crabbe pushed McCollum for game ball honors, skewering Phoenix's second unit early and finishing the fourth quarter strong. The Suns had no answer for him. He slipped into cracks, caught the ball, and shot like he couldn't miss. 8-14 for 18 points in 28 minutes off the bench made Portland's offense look powerful.
Ed Davis punished the Suns with 5 offensive rebounds in 21 minutes. Phoenix was dominating with their big guys for most of the game, first inside and then from the arc. Davis put a stop to that, less by defending them (though he did some of that as well) than making them worry about him instead. He is a force of nature right now.
Damian Lillard didn't end up leading scorer in this game. He shot 1-7 from distance, 8-21 overall for 18 points. But that was 17 more points than Knight scored and the threat of Lillard opened up scoring for everybody else. Phoenix watched him closely while the rest of the Blazers flanked them and beat them.
Al-Farouq Aminu had 13 rebounds and 3 steals in 30 minutes.
Mason Plumlee actually showed off a couple of offensive moves tonight. Meyers Leonard (1-8 in 17 minutes) did not.
Gerald Henderson shot 3-10 but his leaping power is coming back strong enough that he almost makes you forget the percentage.
Links and Notes
Bright Side Of The Sun just found out the Blazers can play.
Portland gets no rest, returning home to face the New York Knicks tomorrow at 7 p.m. Pacific.
As you may have seen, some of our friends came over from Phoenix to challenge Blazer's Edge to a wager on this game, putting up 50 tickets total to send underprivileged kids to Blazer's Edge Night if the Suns lost. Thanks to Seth, Dave, and SunsFan for being so generous. It may have been a loss for your team, but it'll be a win 50 times over on March 28th.
Speaking of, here's how you can help:
We invite you to help send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. Your ticket donations make this possible. You can donate through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge