It was a weird one between the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns at Talking Sticks Resort Arena on Friday. Phoenix took Portland down 125-114 in a game that’ll lead to one question being passed down for generations: where were you during the Aron Baynes game? Okay, people probably won’t ask that, but it was still an unbelievable night as the Phoenix center hit nine threes on his way to a career-high 37 points. He was the BAYNE(s) (sorry, couldn’t resist) of Portland’s existence.
CJ McCollum led the Blazers in scoring with 25 points. Damian Lillard had 24 in his second game back from injury while Hassan Whiteside put up a 20-20 game with 24 points and 20 rebounds along with four blocks. All Suns starters scored in double-digits, with Baynes leading the way followed by Dario Saric with 24 and Devin Booker with 23 and 12 assists.
It was not an ideal start for Portland. The first two plays were indicative of how the quarter would go: Lillard missed a fade-away jumper badly along the baseline while Booker went down and drains a three. Lillard looked like he was still trying to get in the groove of things after missing some games, bricking the contested threes and jumpshots that he usually nails. Almost every Blazer shot looked like someone forgot to take the lid off the hoop. While Carmelo Anthony and Lillard had zero combined field goals in the first quarter, Aron Baynes scored 19 points and had five threes (including one step-back) through one. Portland shot 32% from the floor while Phoenix shot 54%, and the Blazers found themselves down 34-22 going into the second.
It looked like it was going to be more of the same for Portland in the second quarter. The Blazers continued to miss shot after shot while letting Phoenix get seemingly whatever they wanted. Four Suns players scored in double digits in the first half, with Baynes leading all scorers with 22 points. But the Blazers finally showed some life towards the end of the quarter. After being down by as much as 23, Portland went on a 20-0 run to bring the score within three at 59-56. The lid finally came off as they pushed the ball in transition and capitalized on their good looks. CJ McCollum stayed hot, scoring 16 points with five assists as well as a block and a steal. But good offense only matters so much when you play poor defense. The Suns shot 50% from three and overall, maintaining a 67-58 lead at the half.
The third quarter showed how much this game was one of runs. It looked at first like the Blazers doomed themselves with turnovers. They only had four turnovers in the first half but coughed the ball up eight times in the third, resulting in plenty of scoring opportunities for Phoenix. The Suns were able to turn those turnovers into a 16-0 run, building a 26-point cushion for themselves in the process. But then Portland went on a 17-3 run, sparked primarily by the defense of Gary Trent Jr. and the cleanup ability of Hassan Whiteside. That run gave Portland a chance, but they still found themselves in a significant hole down 95-82 with one to play.
Phoenix managed to build a gap to big for the Blazers to close. They swapped buckets for most of the quarter in what was a physical final 12 minutes. Lillard, who struggled most of the game, tried to do what he could to get Portland back in the game, working as both a distributor and a scorer to make a dent in Phoenix’s lead. He found his range finally and made some key threes to keep Portland afloat. But of course an Aron Baynes three proved to be the dagger Phoenix needed, as Portland fell 127-117.
Look, I get it. Aron Baynes is not going to hit nine threes every night. But it has become almost a guarantee that the Blazers are going to give up a ton of open looks from outside. Phoenix shot 45% from outside tonight, making 19-of-42 threes. Blazer fans are probably well aware of the fact that Portland is just porous on defense. Their ranked 27th in defensive rating and give up so many open shots that it allows guys like Baynes to get great looks. When shots aren’t falling for Portland, games get ugly, but maybe with Jusuf Nurkic expected to return on March 15 the Blazers can start to figure things out on that end.
Lillard struggles until they need him most
While he did a great job getting to the free-throw line and still managed 24 points, Lillard had to work to find his rhythm in this one. He struggled to begin the game, forcing bad passes and never really finding his shot until late. He looked like he was still trying to feel his way back into the game, not getting totally comfortable until late. That makes sense considering he’s coming off an injury that sidelined him for six games, but Portland needs Lillard to shake that rust off ASAP for the playoff push.
Can’t lose games like this
Speaking of the playoffs, these are the kinds of games that the Blazers simply can’t afford to lose. Baynes’s big night might be an anomaly, but it’s a costly loss regardless. Portland has one of the easiest schedules going down the stretch, and games like this where the opponent is missing key players such as Deandre Ayton and Kelly Oubre are absolutely must-wins for Portland. While it helps that Memphis and San Antonio also lost big, New Orleans snapped their losing streak with a win against Miami on Friday. The pressure is still on Portland to take advantage of their soft end to the regular season.
The Blazers will be right back at it on Saturday as they return home to take on the Sacramento Kings. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. PT.