Phoenix Suns (28-22, No. 8 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (33-16, No. 4 in the West)
Thursday, February 5
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: TNT; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Suns: Gerald Green (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Bright Side of the Sun | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers host the Phoenix Suns tonight at the Moda Center. Portland has dropped six of its last eight contests against the Suns, dating back to the 2012-13 season.
Phoenix features one of the fastest-paced offenses in the NBA, led by its point guard trio of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. On the season, the Suns are No. 2 in the league in fast break points per game (19.5), No. 5 in field goal attempts per game (86.3) and No. 3 in three-point attempts per game (26.7), according to TeamRankings.com.
With a 28-22 record, Phoenix currently holds the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. However, the Suns have lost three games at the buzzer this year and have a 2-8 record in games decided by three points or less. Some have called it bad luck, others an inability to closeout tightly contested games, but either way, the Suns would be nipping at the Blazers' heels right now in the playoff standings had just a few more of those games gone their way.
The most recent heartbreaker for Phoenix was a 102-101 stinger Monday night against the Grizzlies in which Memphis stormed back from a late-game deficit to steal one on the road. Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas combined for 60 of the Suns' 101 points that night and the team was able to manufacture 27 points off of fast breaks, to no avail.
The Suns have dropped three of their last five contests, averaging just 98.6 points per game in that span, down from the 106.6 per game they've put up on the year. They've been average to below average in field goal shooting, three-point shooting, assists and turnovers lately, also not drawing many fouls.
Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun broke down some of Phoenix' struggles to draw fouls this season in a piece published yesterday:
A year ago, the Suns got to the line 29% of the time on their shots (a shooting foul called, or 'FTr'), good for 12th in the league.
This year, with the same coach, same players and same scheme, the Suns get to the free throw line on just 25% of their shots, ranking 26th in the league.
Could the refs be swallowing their whistles on Suns drives this year? Or is this just a function of the Suns offense changing?
The Suns are driving to the hole more often than ever. Last year, they averaged 25 drives per game (not including fast breaks), while this year it's up to 28.8 drives per game. These are just half-court drives, not including those that come naturally on fast breaks. The Suns again score a ton on fast breaks too, just like last year.
Phoenix leads the league, by far, in player technical fouls this season with 38 -- the next closest team in that category, the Thunder, have just 32. Four of the NBA's top-20 recipients of technicals this year reside on the Suns' roster: Forward Markieff Morris (11 T's), Bledsoe (7), forward Marcus Morris (6) and forward P.J. Tucker (6).
So, yeah, Phoenix has an issue with challenging officials on their calls. The results are a ton of technicals and speculation that the NBA's referees are biased against the Suns and their proclivity for arguing after the whistle has blown.
Free throw disparity or not, both Dragic and Thomas both have struggled from the field lately, putting a sizable dent in the team's point production. Dragic, who's scored 43.4 percent of his baskets in fast break situations the last five games, has struggled to finish inside in that span. Thomas is hitting a respectable 38.2 percent of his threes the last several outings but is also struggling to finish in the paint and has been misfiring on his jumper lately.
Bledsoe's probably been the most consistent backcourt catalyst for the Suns this year, earning praise for his court-vision and ability to setup teammates recently. He's a bulldog when he gets in the paint, converting on 85.7 percent of his attempts at the rim the last five games, and his three-point shot has been much improved recently, as well.
Markieff Morris is one of those players who helps make everyone around him better, but his 41.1 percent shooting the last couple weeks -- down from 48.8 percent on the season -- isn't helping the team as much right now, as he attempts more field goals per game than all but Dragic. Markieff's brother, Marcus, helps stretch the floor as a dependable outside shooter off the bench in fewer minutes.
Tucker's been going through a rough patch of games, making just a third of his field goals and 26.7 percent of his threes. Starting center Alex Len has made over half his shots the last five games, but he went 0-for-2 against the Grizzlies Monday and he may be tiring out a bit with his increased workload.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek plays a nine-man rotation, as wing Gerald Green has apparently fallen in bad favor with the boss lately, playing just three minutes in the Memphis loss. Thomas and Marcus Morris pave the way for the reserves, along with big men Miles Plumlee and Brandan Wright. Plumlee has been pretty inactive offensively lately, though Wright has surged; Over the last five games, he's made over 76.7 percent of his 5.3 shots a night, almost all of them coming right at the rim.
Phoenix' defense has been mediocre at best recently. The Suns struggle to defend the paint, the three-point line and in transition. The last time these two teams met, a 118-113 win for Phoenix, the Blazers scored 17 fast break points and 42 points in the middle, both well above their season averages -- and that was without big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez in Portland's lineup.
Tonight, the Blazers will be as close to full-strength as they've been in almost two months. Though the team has lost eight of 11 dating back to mid-January, Portland benefited mightily from having Lopez -- its best rim-protector -- back in the starting lineup for the first time in 23 games in a win over the Jazz on Tuesday.
Chief among the beneficiaries in Lopez' return was forward Nicolas Batum, who finished 2-of-7 from the field but came away from the game with 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes. Batum and Lopez had their two-man game going offensively, and Lopez finished an efficient 5-of-9 from the floor. Three weeks ago against Phoenix, Batum had his best game of the season with 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on 6-for-8 shooting from outside.
Lopez' size and ability to set screens helped spur Portland's offense Tuesday night, and guard Damian Lillard was able to rattle off 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting. An 0-for-6 line from deep was a blemish on an otherwise solid night for the third-year point guard, who's still struggling with his outside shot.
Aldridge hit eight of his 16 attempts against the Jazz and registered 22 points. In four games against the Suns last year -- he missed the two teams' only matchup so far this season -- Aldridge played pretty close to his averages with 20.5 points on 45.5 percent shooting.
You have to figure, though, that he should be able to take Markieff Morris down low and frustrate him by drawing fouls. Aldridge is already afforded a fairly liberal use of his off-hand to clear space for himself when shooting in the lane; Against Markieff Morris, who leads the NBA in technical fouls this year and probably isn't getting the benefit of the doubt from the referees at this point, Aldridge will likely be able to create plenty of room to operate. He should also be able to get his jumper off over the shorter Marcus Morris and Wright is a pretty bad defender, so Aldridge may be in line for a big game tonight.
Guard Wesley Matthews had an efficient 21 points against Utah, making six of his 10 field goals and three of his five shots from outside, along with 6-of-7 free throws. Matthews' should be able to shoot over the Suns' short backcourt, as the tallest Phoenix guard who's getting rotational minutes right now is Dragic, at 6-foot-3. If Green plays, his height and length could make things more difficult for Matthews around the perimeter, but he's a very poor defender in general. Matthews should find ways to be effective regardless, even if that means a few more cuts to the rim from the weakside to catch Green sleeping.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts went with a 10-man rotation Tuesday night, leaving forwards Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Dorell Wright with DNP-CDs. Between guards Steve Blake and CJ McCollum, centers Meyers Leonard and Chris Kaman and wing Allen Crabbe, only 14 total points were produced off the bench against the Jazz. Blake had a couple of nice three-pointers, but other than that, Stotts' reserves didn't do much at all. Phoenix loves to push the tempo, so Leonard, Robinson, Barton and McCollum may be trotted out off the bench tonight if the Blazers need some youthful athleticism and energy.
The Suns are a poor rebounding team, particularly on the offensive side, but Markieff Morris, Wright and Len aren't bad individually. Portland's not a great rebounding team right now, either, but the return of Lopez should help mightily on that front. The Blazers need to keep an eye on Wright, who is solid at grabbing his own team's misses and even better at converting on putbacks.
Bledsoe and Thomas combined for 60 of the Suns 118 points on 22-for-38 shooting when the Suns beat Portland three weeks ago at US Airways Center. If the Blazers let them get away with that kind of backcourt performance again, they'll be hard to stop. Still, Phoenix shot 51.1 percent as a team that night and scored 50 points in the paint, so you have to figure Lopez' presence should be enough to prevent a repeat.
Portland can attack some of the Suns' defensive weaknesses with good ball movement, three-point shooting and free throws, but Phoenix can counter with backcourt scoring, a fast tempo and plenty of buckets in the paint. Whichever team forces its style of play most on the other tonight will have the inside track at a victory. Recent history between the two teams has been far more kind to the Suns, but Aldridge is due for a big game against them and the Blazers are intent on going into next week's All-Star break with a head of steam instead of a limp.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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