The Portland Trail Blazers have not been good enough to “flip a switch” and pull away from lesser opponents this season, in general, but they managed the feat tonight against the lowly Phoenix Suns. The Blazers held the Suns to only 8 points over the final 6:37 and sprinted away with a 110-101 win.
The victory, however, was not entirely without obstacle. The Blazers played solidly in the first half and had a big lead at the intermission (66-50). However, much like last night’s game against the Washington Wizards, mindbogglingly lazy defense and wayward offense let the Suns back into it in the third quarter. But unlike last night, there was no overtime and, more importantly, no major officiating blunders so the blown lead proved mostly inconsequential.
Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 39 points, and CJ McCollum worked his magic in the clutch, scoring 12 of his 26 in the final quarter. Jusuf Nurkic was the third Blazer in double figures with 12 points and added 11 rebounds. Devin Booker topped the Suns with 28 points and Eric Bledsoe scored 19.
The Blazers initially looked like they were still recovering from last night’s heartbreaking loss - the Suns took advantage and jumped out to an early 13-6 lead. Portland eventually shook off their hangover and a particularly nice three-play sequence (incredible Vonleh drive and dish, Crabbe steal and dunk, Nurkic steal and dunk) reversed the momentum.
From there, some cranked up defensive pressure and Lillard realizing he could easily attack the heart of the Suns’ defense (15 points in the quarter) triggered a 17-2 run to end the quarter. Blazers lead 33-18 heading into the second.
The offenses battled to a complete standstill in the second quarter. Both teams shot over 50 percent from the field and scored more than 30 points. Lillard did much of the damage for the Blazers with 13 more points, good for 28 in the half. The Suns spread the scoring around and got 4 or more points from five different players. When the dust had cleared, the Blazers led 66-50 at the half.
The third quarter turned very ugly for the Blazers. Booker began making multiple Portland defenders, most notably Allen Crabbe and McCollum, look silly and scored easily in multiple ways. Meanwhile, the Suns also spread out the offense to neutralize Nurkic’s inside presence and the Blazers could not rotate quickly enough to adjust. The Suns shot only 9-for-26 from the field, but the Blazers were an even worse 6-for-23. The lead had been cut to 3 (82-79) heading into the final frame.
The third quarter carried over into the the fourth quarter and even Tyler Ulis started to make the Blazers look silly on defense.
The offense looked similarly atrocious - all movement had stagnated and no effort was made to get the ball to the primary scorers. At one point, it looked like the offense was running primarily through Al-Farouq Aminu. Then, in the closing minutes, the Blazers snapped to attention and renewed their defensive energy. Booker and Bledsoe still scored, but less easily, and the Suns stumbled to only additional 8 points after a Ulis jumper gave them a 93-92 edge with 6:37 remaining. On offense, Lillard opted not to force the issue after scoring 35 in the first three quarters and instead let McCollum score 9 points, all around the basket, in the closing minutes to push the Blazers to a 110-101 lead.
Late in the third quarter Aminu committed an atrocious turnover but then recovered to make a very nice block in transition which created an open triple for Lillard. Those who have followed the Blazers closely are familiar with Aminu’s penchant for infuriatingly sloppy ball control, which he balances with stellar one-on-one defense. Color Commentator Lamar Hurd noted that “we should not be surprised at all” by the play. “He atones!” exclaimed Play-by-play Announcer Kevin Calabro in agreement.
The play and the commentary serve as a perfect symbol for tonight’s game, specifically, and the 2016-17 Blazers, in general.
The Blazers spent much of the game exerting as little energy as possible and seemed completely content to squander a big lead. Their worst habits were on display: A revolving door of defense completely incapable of even bothering opposing guards (Phoenix scored 30 of their 51 second half points in the paint, Booker and Bledsoe combined for 47 of the Suns’ 101 points), and a willingness to settle for stagnated offense from secondary options as soon as Lillard and/or McCollum were bottled up (only 14 assists on 43 field goals). This style of play is no less maddening than Aminu’s repeated blunders, and has shown up just as frequently all year.
But they balanced it out by putting forth a complete effort for enough possessions to create the illusion of competence and win the game. Much like with Aminu’s recovery block, when the chips were down the Blazers offset the harm caused by bad habits. McCollum was able to harass Booker into a bad shot or two, and the Suns defense could do nothing to stop McLillard (65 combined points!).
On the grander scale, the optimists will be eager to classify this game into the “every win counts!” category as the Blazers make a playoff push. The corollary will be that the Blazers may have blown a lead, but they were still good enough down the stretch to win a rare road contest. Aminu may have committed a turnover, but ultimately he recovered on the play and no harm was done.
Alternatively, for the pessimists, tonight’s game is a reminder that the Blazers can’t string together a consistent enough effort to play up to their supposed talent level. If Tyson Chandler had played and shut down even a couple of Portland’s forays to the hoop, the Blazers might very well have lost this game. Bluntly, the effort and focus on display tonight will beat very few NBA teams. Similarly, Aminu’s recovery defense is nice, but not committing a turnover is even nicer.
Damian Lillard did his thing on offense tonight. He continues a remarkable post all-star tear on offense and the Blazers needed every one of his 35 points in the first three quarters. He did have one bizarrely atrocious 3-point airball in the first quarter. Weird.
CJ McCollum saved the day down the stretch. He barely even needed to fake a jumper as his handle proved more than enough to get to the rim easily.
Jusuf Nurkic had a double-double but he also picked up 5 fouls in less than 30 minutes of play. For the second consecutive game, opposing guards also absolutely torched the Blazers’ defense. A reminder that although Nurkic adds new wrinkles to the team, he will not be a savior that fundamentally alters Portland’s trajectory this year.
Al-Farouq Aminu was his usual self. Some bad decisions and missed shots on offense cancelled out by 12 rebounds and nice work on defense down the stretch as the Blazers clamped down.
Noah Vonleh had 7 points and 7 rebounds. He was active and able to take advantage of the Suns’ young frontcourt on occasion.
Maurice Harkless barely registered with only 2 points and 2 rebounds.
Allen Crabbe continues to benefit from the fact that the Blazers are required to play five players at all times and nobody else on the team has bothered to assert himself.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @EricG_NBA