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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Phoenix Suns Preview

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Bright Side of the Sun contributor Sean Sullivan stops by Blazer's Edge for a Q&A session discussing tonight's matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns.

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Afternoon Update:

LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Chris Kaman are all listed as probable for tonight's game against the Suns. Later, Batum was confirmed to be starting tonight.

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Portland Trail Blazers (45-25, No. 4 in the West) vs. Phoenix Suns (38-34, No. 9 in the West)
Friday, March 27
US Airways Center; Phoenix, AZ | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, NBATV; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum (questionable), Chris Kaman (questionable) | Out for the Suns: Marcus Thornton (day-to-day), Brandon Knight (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Bright Side of the SunTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

From time to time, Blazer's Edge collaborates with blogs that cover other NBA teams to get an in-depth view of Trail Blazers opponents from the people who follow them most. Today we'd like to welcome Bright Side of the Sun contributor Sean Sullivan to preview tonight's Blazers-Suns matchup.

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Blazer's Edge: A lot of fans may have thought the Suns were bowing out of the Western Conference playoff race when the front office shipped Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas out at the trade deadline (though the Brandon Knight deal looks nice on its face and could pay dividends well into the future). Phoenix went 3-8 in February and bottomed-out at 34-33 a couple weeks ago. They've won four of five since and the Suns are now within sniping distance of the eighth seed. What's behind this late-season surge, and do you expect it to last?

Sean Sullivan: Once the Dragic situation unfolded and came to a shocking head just 48 hours prior to the trade deadline, the playoff hopes were effectively erased, at least for this season. The Suns were still able to turn a terrible situation into a slightly less awful one by acquiring Brandon Knight, who is only 23 years old and will be a building block for years to come (Yes, they will definitely retain him this off-season). But now? It's the long kiss goodbye. The Suns had been playing great lately until the loss to the Kings last night, which was the final nail in the coffin as far as I'm concerned, but I had given up on any hopes of the post season long ago. As for what was behind this admirable, if not ultimately unfruitful surge, the answer is defense.  They haven't changed their schemes, it's just that suddenly, the players began playing with desperation and a sense of urgency, I think. Last night the Suns gave up 108 points at home to the now 27 win Kings...so I think a regression towards the mean is already in progress.

BE: Phoenix has beaten the Pelicans, Rockets and Mavs in the last week. This has been done, however, in a way that may surprise many NBA fans outside of Arizona -- over the last five games, the Suns have the No. 20 Offensive Rating in the NBA and a Defensive Rating of 93.8, which is good for No. 1 in the league. They were kind of a high-scoring offense and average defensive team from a general perspective heading into the All-Star break. The pace hasn't dropped off much at all, so what accounts for the recent results on the floor on both ends?

SS: I sort of covered this already in my prior answer, but the defense is simply a result of effort and a sense of urgency. The Suns' most underrated player is P.J. Tucker. He's not flashy at all, but he is the defensive stopper who can guard all five positions, depending on the match-up, and also gives the Suns toughness and a veteran presence on a team who is one of the youngest and most inexperienced in the entire league. In addition to setting the bar defensively, Tucker has been averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds in the month of March, so he's really been key in helping the Suns compete down the stretch, and leading by example.

BE: Eric Bledsoe has been scoring about as many points post-All-Star break (17.8 points per game) as he had before (17.2 ppg) and shooting with similar efficiency, with a slight but noticeable increase in his accuracy from outside. His assists are up but the turnovers are, as well. Is this is a result of Bledsoe being asked to handle the ball more with Thomas and Dragic gone and Knight dealing with ankle issues lately? Bledsoe's now the de facto lead ball-handler and initiator in Hornacek's offense now when he's on the floor, right?

SS: Bledsoe is still learning how to be the primary ball-handler on the team, after becoming a starter for the first time in his career just last season, and now being called upon further to carry the load with Dragic and Thomas leaving, and Knight being injured over the past few weeks.  The issue with Bledsoe and his turnovers seems to stem mostly from Eric driving to the rim and then trying to force a pass to the perimeter if he doesn't have the opportunity to score. He has a bad habit of jumping before knowing where he's going with the ball, and getting hung up in the air where he is then forced to throw the ball away. Still, he's doing a lot of good things on the court and is a threat to get a triple double on any given night (He should have had at least four this season if his teammates could simply hit some easy shots). He's in elite company being one of only four players averaging at least 17.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game with Lebron, Westbrook, and Harden being the others, and coincidentally, each of them also average around the same, and slightly more turnovers per game as well.

BE: Alex Len and Marcus Morris have received a hefty increase in minutes per game each since joining Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker and Bledsoe in the starting lineup at different points this season. How has each responded to the increase in minutes and responsibility? Has the production of either player reached a stable point yet?

SS: Alex Len is essentially in his rookie season after barely playing last year while recovering from the two ankle surgeries he had shortly after being drafted. Len has played very well this season, all things considered, but has suffered from ankle sprains once again this season that has kept him from really blossoming into the quality 7' 1" starting center that most envision he will become. Len just came back from his third ankle sprain of the season just two games ago, and seems a bit more tentative and less explosive than earlier in the year, which is understandable given his history. Brandan Wright has really stepped up his play lately though, which has helped the Suns make up for Len's injury issues. As for Marcus, he has been outstanding since being inserted back into the starting line-up over the last seven games with Knight being out. In that time, he's averaging 13.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game from the small forward postion, which has certainly helped the Suns win five out of those seven.

BE: The Suns have made due since the All-Star break with a typical bench rotation consisting of Brandan Wright, T.J. Warren, Gerald Green and Archie Goodwin, more or less. How well have Hornacek's reserves been playing lately? Who are the under-the-radar guys off the bench that Blazers fans should be concerned about, and why?

SS: Gerald Green has been mostly phased out of the rotation as the Suns have switched focus to developing their two very talented young wings, Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren. Goodwin has been patiently waiting for his opportunity to play over the past two seasons, and now that he has finally cracked the regular rotation, he is putting everyone on notice. Archie is really surging lately, averaging 10.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists over the past four games at around 18 minutes on average off the bench, and he is doing a lot of good things on the court to help the team. His speed, athleticism, and aggression in attacking the rim has given the Suns another slasher on the floor besides Bledsoe, and it's paying off. T.J. Warren is also having an effective stretch, averaging 6.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in 16.9 minutes over the past seven games. He moves extremely well without the ball and his teammates are starting to find him. He is also a very good offensive rebounder with a quick jump and seems to always be around the ball. He's another player who could have a good game that may catch Portland by surprise.

BE: Phoenix is a very solid rebounding team, particularly on the offensive end. Small forward P.J. Tucker and point guard Eric Bledsoe are the Sun's top rebounders per game behind center Alex Len since the extended break. What kind of approach does Phoenix take to rebounding, and why has it worked so well lately?

SS: The solid rebounding has been a recent development that I'm still not totally sold on them being able to sustain. However, I think it comes mostly from playing Tucker at the two and Marcus at the three over the past seven games, both of whom are averaging around eight rebounds per game...which is outstanding production from the wings. Bledsoe is also a very good rebounding guard, and Markieff has also stepped up his game lately when it comes to battling around the glass, so I think the personnel the Suns are leaning on right now are really helping to improve this area of the game for Phoenix. The Suns employ a "rebound by committee" approach, and always have, but now that the team is playing guys like Tucker and Marcus because of Knight's injury and Green's decline, it's helping their rebounding even if the scoring hasn't been as potent as it once was.

Special thanks to Sean Sullivan from Bright Side of the Sun for joining Blazer's Edge to preview tonight's matchup with Phoenix. Follow Sullivan on twitter @SeanSullivanNBA.

Check out the other half of this Q&A over at BSotS and feel free to take a listen to the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge podcast, featuring Portland native and Grant High School Alum Sean Highkin of Bleacher Report and ProBasketballTalk.com!

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter