For three quarters, the Portland Trail Blazers had the look of a team that hadn’t played basketball in an entire week. With the benefits of rest and relaxation on display, Portland’s offense was rolling with a freshness and moxie that had them positioned for a statement win. Unfortunately for them, the Phoenix Suns defense put them on slow leak in the fourth quarter, containing them enough to eke out a 127-121 victory to open the 2020-21 season’s second half.
If you’d like a quarter-by-quarter rundown of the action, see our Instant Recap here.
The Blazers will have reasonable gripes with the officiating down the stretch, but their inability to score early in the fourth quarter and stop the bleeding on the Suns’ runs will likely be what keeps them awake on the flight to Minnesota. The loss drops the Blazers (21-15) into the two-way tie for the Western Conference’s No. 5 spot with the Denver Nuggets. Despite allowing a chance at another signature win to slip through their fingertips, there’s much to take away from this loss, both positively and negatively.
When the Blazers rerun the film of this game, there will be much to smile about in terms of how that opening half went. The Blazers effectively handed the Suns a baton and forced them into an Olympic-style track meet. On offense, the Blazers cut hard and ran through their sets with a purpose, and were seldom ever too short on their 3-point shots. Damian Lillard fueled that charge, leading the way with 30 points, helping Portland take a stranglehold on the game early.
But by game’s end, Phoenix had tightened its pick-and-roll defense on Lillard, doubling and forcing him to turn wide corners, meet defensive walls, and facilitate, and his teammates were no longer able to get shots to drop with as much regularity.
Fans aren’t yet allowed at Moda Center, but someone in attendance with a nose should have known something was in the air when the Blazers opened with seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter. For reference, the Suns had eight total rebounds as a team. Enes Kanter was of course the catalyst, but the 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony took on the onus of aggressively gobbling missed shots and creating second chance points himself. If at any point in that first quarter Anthony elected to channel his inner “Hulk Hogan,” ripping off his Blazers threads to reveal a Knicks jersey underneath, no one in attendance would have been surprised.
The Terry Stotts supporters will be somewhat thankful for this: the Blazers’ offensive schemes were sound, quick, and displayed a nuance that went beyond simply giving the ball to Damian Lillard and allowing him to put opposing guards in the torture chamber. One play in particular comes to mind, when Derrick Jones Jr. took two Suns defenders with him on an ambitious cut, which gifted Damian Lillard a wide open off-ball catch-and-make.
Among the greatest things to come from the Blazers’ breakneck pace and efficiency is that it allowed Lillard to rest for almost the entire second quarter. He checked in with just a fraction over three minutes left. It’s true that the Suns did go on a run when he came into the game, but seeing Lillard, No. 7 in minutes per game, getting rest is a sight for sore eyes.
There were aspects that will be difficult to gloss over; Thursday marked another day, and another loss for the drop coverage. Chris Paul could have a State Farm commercial in the works with how much damage he and his teammates inflicted to those drops, and through hunting mismatches in the pick-and-roll. In between that, their difficulty keeping up with Mikal Bridges in transition, and the inability to stop the bleeding on the Suns’ runs, there’s plenty worth working at.
That latter statement proved most detrimental of all. The Suns used a 12-4 run at the end of the first half to tie the game at halftime, and then opened the fourth quarter on a 16-5 tear that allowed them to keep the Blazers at length for the duration of the game.
Devin Booker was the key cause, with a 35-point, 8-assist performance, and he had tons of scoring help from teammates Chris Paul (19) Mikal Bridges (18), and Jae Crowder (13). Portland was aided by a 13-point game from Robert Covington, a double-double from Enes Kanter, and a steady effort from its bench.
The defining story, though, is that Phoenix proved itself once more to be an elite team in the Western Conference, and thus the type of team Portland could see itself matched up against with its title aspirations on the line. Tonight, the Blazers proved that while they’re close, they remain a team with work to do.
The Blazers prepare for back-to-back road games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, starting with Saturday’s game at 5:00 PT.