Portland Trail Blazers (47-25, No. 4 in the West)
Monday, March 30
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, NBATV; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Suns: Kendal Marshall, Marcus Thornton (day-to-day), Brandon Knight (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Bright Side of the Sun | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers host the Phoenix Suns tonight in what is the second matchup between the two teams in the last four days. Portland dispatched the Suns Friday night in Phoenix, 87-81.
On Saturday, the Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets at home, 120-114. The Suns fell to the Thunder last night at US Airways Center, 109-97, putting them a full four games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race and in the No. 10 spot, behind the New Orleans Pelicans at 39-34.
For all intents and purposes, Phoenix' hopes of slipping into the last spot in the playoffs were all but dashed with the loss to OKC (courtesy AP, via ESPN.com):
"I told the guys, this is mathematically not over," [coach Jeff] Hornacek said.
But Hornacek made it clear before the game that it was "really a do or die moment for us to have any hope, any chance" of reaching the playoffs. As if it wasn't clear what he meant, he added: "We have to win tonight. It's as simple as that"
"This is a tough blow," Markieff Morris said.
That was the second disheartening loss the Suns had absorbed in as many outings. Against the Thunder yesterday, Phoenix' lead ballooned to 20 at one point in the first half before OKC ran away with the game down the stretch, winning by 12. On Friday, Portland shot just 40.4 percent from the field, 26.9 percent from deep, 44.4 percent from the free throw line, scored just 24 points in the paint and registered only 15 assists. But Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- who scored 27 points and needed 26 attempts to get there -- turned it on down the stretch and helped Portland pull away in the fourth as the Suns went ice cold.
And that's been the story for Phoenix lately -- the team has had solid gameplanning, preparation and implementation heading into and during big matchups recently. But the Suns have suffered through some poor shooting stretches at the worst times, even when their defense has generally pulled through.
Bright Side of the Sun's Dave King has coverage from Phoenix' locker room after the loss to Portland Friday:
(The Blazers') entire scheme is to lull you into jumpers anywhere from 10-22 feet. If you can make those jumpers, you can beat them. The Suns couldn't make those jumpers.
"Yeah, the way they play back (sagging into the paint), we've had good success in the past of just coming off (of screens) and shooting it in," coach Hornacek said. "Eric didn't make many and Brandon (Knight) wasn't in there to do it either. That's what they're going to live and die with, giving you that shot. If we had another shooter there, that position would come off and maybe it was easier."
Marcus Morris lamented the Suns inability to make those shots too.
"I thought so, man," Mook said afterward of whether they got open shots. "They were in-and-out. They just didn't fall in. I thought that we defended them well the entire game and the fourth quarter could have went either way."
"I thought they were great shots," [Eric] Bledsoe chimed in. "They just didn't fall. Everybody got a good look at the rim and they were missing, especially me."
The Suns defended Aldridge well all night on Friday, generally putting Markieff Morris on him and bringing help from the weakside in an effort to force him into contested, turnaround jumpers. For much of the game, the plan worked. But Aldridge eventually started hitting his shots, contested as they were, and the Blazers were able to squeak by on a night when they were outperformed in more than one area by Phoenix.
The big question tonight, then, is which Suns team will show up at the Moda Center? Before this past weekend's two losses, Phoenix' hopes of cashing in a late-season playoff bid were still alive. Now, with eight games remaining for both teams, any combination of four Thunder wins and Suns losses will mathematically eliminate them from the postseason.
Phoenix could still conceivably slide into the playoffs behind a mammoth effort of their own the next eight games; OKC's bound to lose a few, too. Plus, if Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook gets one more technical foul -- which would be No. 16 of the season -- he'd be suspended for the next game, according to NBA rules. So Oklahoma City's path to clinching the final playoff spot out West won't come without obstacles of its own.
But then you take a glance at the Suns' upcoming slate of games to finish the season, and reality sets in. The games, in order: @ Portland, @ Golden State, vs. Utah, @ Atlanta, @ Dallas, @ San Antonio and vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. Even if the Thunder lost every single one of their remaining games and ended the season at 42-40, Phoenix would have to somehow navigate the aforementioned season-ending, eight-game gauntlet at 5-3 or better (OKC owns the head-to-head tie-breaker) to miraculously slip into the playoffs.
The Blazers, on the other hand, still have plenty to play for. Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net breaks down the playoff implications of Portland's remaining regular season schedule:
With the win the Trail Blazers are now 47-25 on the season and 29-7 at home. The Trail Blazers magic number to ensure their second-straight trip to the playoffs is down to one. The victory, along with the Oklahoma City Thunder losing earlier in the evening, decreased Portland’s magic number to win the Northwest Division down to three.
The Trail Blazers remain a half game behind the Los Angeles Clippers in the race for homecourt advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The Suns have dropped three in a row, fallen four games out of the playoffs and have the steepest of climbs just to get into the eighth seed as the first-round, sacrificial lamb for the Warriors. The Blazers have an opportunity tonight to not only stamp their ticket to the postseason but also gain some ground on the Clippers in the hunt for first-round homecourt advantage, which would be a boon for a team that not long ago had dropped five straight games.
Phoenix won't come out tonight and roll over; The Suns are well-coached, and players like Eric Bledsoe, the Morris brothers and P.J. Tucker will have too much pride to not put up a fight down the stretch of another promising-but-ultimately-unfruitful year.
But Aldridge didn't postpone surgery on his injured thumb until the offseason to limp into the playoffs and get dispatched easily in the first round. Even with Wesley Matthews gone for the season, Aldridge -- along with the rest of the Blazers and their coaching staff -- have their eyes set on finishing the season strong and rolling into the postseason with some momentum. That starts tonight when they have the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot at home against the Suns, with 1,151 kids in attendance who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to see their favorite team in-person this year.
Thank you, Blazer's Edge readers, for helping make Blazer's Edge Night a reality once again.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: