The Portland Trail Blazers had the better of the Phoenix Suns for three quarters tonight in their first game following the NBA All-Star Break. A second-quarter three-point barrage staked the Blazers to a double-digit lead that they spent most of the game trying to re-inflate after constant Phoenix runs. But the bubble popped in the fourth as the game got serious. Forced into a halfcourt game—playing possession for possession instead of splurging on three-point sprees—the Blazers found themselves at a defensive disadvantage. Phoenix scored consistently; Portland had to work half again as hard. Under those conditions, the lead evaporated, then inverted. The Suns opened up a double-digit lead of their own, one Portland couldn’t overcome, and earned a 127-121 victory.
Damian Lillard scored 30 in the loss. Devin Booker outdid him with 35.
Portland hit 18 of their 43 three-point attempts, an incredible 40.5% success rate. They just couldn’t survive Phoenix’s 13-24, 54.2% clip, nor 56 points in the paint for the Suns.
The Blazers and Suns shot so hot in the first 6:00 of the first quarter, people in a five-block radius of the Moda Center broke into a spontaneous sweat. Neither team defended the rim well and Phoenix had a hard time watching the arc after Portland made a simple pass or two. It wasn’t hard to imagine each team going for 40 in the opening frame. It wasn’t just a Lillard-vs.-Booker show either. The ball moved at every juncture with barely a breath between touches. It was beautiful to everyone except the unlucky souls who bet the under on this game. Enes Kanter gave Portland a huge advantage in offensive rebounding. That was enough to give them a 33-30 edge after one.
Portland LINED UP to shoot threes at the start of the second like the court was a cafeteria and triples were mashed potatoes. Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent, Jr., and Robert Covington all stroked from deep, staking their team to a 10-point, 47-37 lead. It was one of the most impressive second-unit stretches of the season. When Carmelo Anthony hit one from straight away while covered. you got the sense that the quarter wasn’t going to be fair. That was confirmed when Simons hit another one seconds later. The Blazers just don’t care anymore. If you’re going to shoot X percentage on threes, the only way to increase production is shoot them quicker, getting more in. It’s simple, but in this case it was also effective. The barrage kept up throughout the period.
The Suns managed to cut into the lead by scoring big in the paint as the half approached, clawing back any way they could. Incredibly, they did. A long Simons two at the buzzer gave Portland a 62-60 edge at intermission. The offense giveth and the defense taketh away. Each team had three players in double figures at the half.
Kanter came up big at the start of the third, tattooing the rim with short shots and put-backs. Portland took a page from Phoenix’s book, scoring down inside with impunity. The Suns slowed down a bit and worked for mid-range shots in the halfcourt offense. Portland’s attack was more effective, but there was a method to the Suns’ madness. The Blazers couldn’t streak away if they weren’t taking 72 shots per minute like they had in the second quarter. But Dame had other ideas. He hit a pair of threes mid-quarter to push Portland’s lead to 10 once again. Down by a bit, the Suns tried to up the tempo and score quicker. Their lack of patience kept Portland in the driver’s seat. Nassir Little dunked and Derrick Jones, Jr. hit a dipsy-doodle, adding to the fun. Only in the final seconds of the period did Phoenix catch up, courtesy of a three by Booker and a bucket in the paint by Dario Saric. Portland led 94-90 after three. It seemed like the Blazers should have been up 15 instead, which was somewhat worrisome.
If Portland took up Phoenix’s tactics to start the third, Phoenix stole a page out of Portland’s book at the start of the fourth. Cameron Payne and Abdel Nader swished home deep shots, and all of a sudden Phoenix took the lead against a suddenly-weak-seeming second unit for the Blazers. At that point both teams stopped messing around. They pulled out their best plays, generally with their best players, settling into a chess match of lane penetration, free throws, and crafty screens. Little by little, the Suns began to stretch out their lead. Their halfcourt defense was better than Portland’s and in this kind of game, it showed. Instead of hitting threes to push their lead, the Blazers ended up shooting deep to catch up. There is a difference; the deep ball didn’t save them. When Phoenix started hitting threes themselves, the game crumbled. Booker downed a deep one with 5:00 remaining to give Phoenix their first double-digit lead. They’d hold onto most of it until the final buzzer. Portland had no tricks left in the bag except the Lillard miracle. On this night, it didn’t come.
Stay tuned for our extended recap in a bit!
The Blazers will face the Timberwolves on Saturday at 5:00, Pacific.