The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t play a bad game against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. They didn’t play a particularly good one, either. Damian Lillard scored 28, but he was eclipsed by a career-high 31 from Frank Kaminsky III, of all people. Combine that with allowing the Suns to shoot 52.7% from the field and Portland shooting 23.3% from the three-point arc, and you have a 119-109 Phoenix win that kept the Blazers without a road victory this season.
After slicing through Phoenix’s defense with 50 3-point attempts during the Oct. 23 matchup, the Blazers showed the multiplicity of ways in which they could score inside the arc to begin this one. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought the two teams were trying to one-up one another on who could create open shots curling off of off-ball screens the best. Midrange shots came in abundance, giving the game a mid-2000s-type vibe, with the likes of CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and later Chris Paul, showcasing their three-level scoring ability.
The game remained nip-and-tuck as each teams’ reserves took the floor, a welcome development with how potent Phoenix’s reserves have become over the last two seasons. For comparison’s sake, the Blazers haven’t had a second unit finish among the NBA’s top-half in scoring since 2011-12, when James Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year, and Damian Lillard was a Weber State Wildcat. Through Nassir Little’s energy — six points and four rebounds in just six minutes — plus Anfernee Simons’ creation, Portland held their own, trailing just 27-26.
How about a petition to add a new nickname for Nassir Little? How about “The Shade?” Something about the Suns. Coincidence it may be, but his already-sky-high intensity level seemed to ratchet another level. (His second-highest point per game average is against Phoenix, of course). He had noticeable highlight plays, including an intuitive weak side block and a fast break jam that kept Portland within reach with the starters resting.
It was almost enough to make one forget that the Blazers opened this game shooting 0-of-11 from 3-point range. Almost. Phoenix modestly grappled away at the lead, largely through the guile of Paul and Booker. It didn’t help that Kaminsky turned back the clock to his Wisconsin days to turn in 18 first-half points. Pick-and-pop? Pick-and-roll? How about pick-and-score. It just didn’t matter.
On the backs of those three, Phoenix went on a 22-10 run over the latter half of the quarter. Lillard gave another valiant effort through pain. He appeared visibly shaken up by an injury. He stuffed the stat sheet admirably and scored efficiently, yet Portland trailed 60-47.
The third period started slower than a tortoise in molasses, with weird whistles predominating. The good news for Portland is that Phoenix couldn’t get any momentum. But neither could the Blazers. Being behind double-digits, they’re the ones who needed it. But Phoenix just seemed to have that one extra play in them: loose ball, offensive rebound, break-away dunk. The Blazers trotted down, moved the ball a little, maybe set a screen, and shot a three. That was it. With three pointers falling about as often as snowballs in Sudan, the strategy proved problematic.
As the period wound on—and every minute lasted an hour—McCollum and Norman Powell went inside, drawing foul shots. At least that provided some scoring. Portland crawled within 5 mid-frame.
Every time they got into trouble, though, Phoenix went to “Superstar” Frank Kaminsky. The Blazers didn’t have the height or defensive energy to counter him. One of those situations is endemic to the roster, the other is all but inexcusable.
Lillard kept his team in contact with some nifty moves for drives and mid-range pull-ups. He clearly tried to take over the game. No matter how much he scored, Portland’s defense allowed Phoenix that much and more. Phoenix led 87-77 after three.
Portland’s second unit FINALLY provided some defensive sparkle at the start of the fourth. They couldn’t contain JaVale McGee when he did straight-up center things. Everybody else, they stopped. A few rebounds, some nifty passing. and the Blazers were back within four with just less than 8:00 remaining. It’s amazing what defense can do!
Unfortunately, the first unit had to check back in sometime. When the reserves left the court, so did the “D”. The Suns scored on 5 straight possessions and the lead went back to 11. When Kaminsky and Chris Paul hit threes a couple minutes later, the game was OVER like an Iron Chef Sakai fish battle.
Stay tuned for the extended analysis of tonight’s game.
The Blazers set their sights to battle the Houston Rockets (1-10) Friday night, the third matchup in a four-game road trip.