The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Phoenix Suns on Friday night at the Moda Center fresh off an opening night victory over the Sacramento Kings. Portland was hoping to look one of the Western Conference bully teams in the eye and come out with their record unblemished. Damian Lillard certainly did his best to ensure that outcome, taking over the ball, scoring 41 on 12-25 shooting, 5-12 from the arc, 12-12 from the foul line.
As happened in the Wednesday opener, this game went right down to the final possessions, quite an accomplishment, given the caliber of Portland’s opponent. After Lillard and Devin Booker failed to win it with big shots in regulation, the teams charged into overtime. Phoenix defended well in the extra period. Portland defended well enough. A little luck was enough to make up the difference between those two standards, and Portland earned a tough 113-111 victory to go 2-0 on the season.
Here’s how the action went down.
The Suns knew Portland’s weaknesses before this game tipped. They started the first period taking Portland’s guards inside and making the bigs come out to defend them. The Blazers couldn’t handle smalls posting one-on-one in the lane or centers shooting deep. Portland answered with Damian Lillard, trying to get him going with a buffet of shot attempts. Dame put up some nice shots but Phoenix was far better. Quick and decisive offense was too much for the Blazers to stop. Phoenix went on a 10-0 run early and led 19-9 before Head Coach Chauncey Billups called an emergency timeout with 7:17 left in the first At that point, Phoenix had hit 8 of 11 shots.
Anfernee Simons tried to make up the difference, giving Lillard a wingman. Phoenix was keyed in and had little trouble crowding him into missed shots. Turnovers and slower-developing offense kept Portland from making up the ground they needed to.
Fortunately for the Blazers, Phoenix forgot what brought them to the dance. One crisp pass for an open shot became no passes for forced attempts as the Suns tried to exploit mismatches at center and the wings. The shots weren’t bad, per se, but they weren’t automatic. Portland’s second unit began passing and back-tapping misses for extra shots, both signs of effort and awareness. Possession by possession, the Blazers closed the lead.
Stagnant offense from Phoenix plus energy by Portland typified the rest of the period. Deandre Ayton picked up two fouls and had to sit, which helped Portland’s cause significantly. Lillard hit a classic, side-step three to wow the crowd. Had Portland made a couple more of their distance attempts, they would have led at the end of the period despite the rough start. As it was, Portland finished the period 3-9 from the arc while Lillard scored 14. Phoenix led 28-25 after one.
Portland started the second continuing a couple game-long problems. They had trouble hanging onto the ball and they couldn’t close on three-point shooters to save their lives. The turnovers hurt, but Phoenix also couldn’t hit at the arc, so Portland got a bit of a hall pass on the defense.
At the same time, Phoenix figured they’d seen enough of Damian Lillard for one night. They started sending an extra man after him, forcing the ball to Simons and company. Lillard’s teammates delivered like the Great Pumpkin: lots of promise, not exactly showing up. Even missing open threes, Phoenix still went on a 13-3 run, leading 41-30 with 5:30 remaining.
Ayton coming back in the game didn’t help Portland’s cause. The Blazers ended up defending him with 6’6 players, which just wasn’t working. Also unhelpful: Simons bricking almost every attempt. Portland just didn’t have a suitable outlet. Lillard tried to take over again with moderate success until he hit a couple of deep threes late. That made everything shiny. The Blazers also drew foul shots. That pretty much kept them in the game despite a low shooting percentage (31.3% from the field at the half). Phoenix led 52-47 at halftime. Lillard had 28 points.
The opening of the second half saw a couple developments for Portland that had been utterly missing before intermission. Jerami Grant and Josh Hart got shots up, while Simons hit one of his. Spreading the love around also moved the Phoenix defense, allowing air for scorers for almost the first time all game. The team that had been shooting 31% was all of a sudden over 50.
At the same time, though, Portland’s defense turned shockingly bad. Ayton scored on a dive to the hoop that a grade-schooler could have read. Three pointers were so open that the Suns could have hailed a beer vendor, downed three IPA’s, and still lined up for a decent shot. Portland attempted to counter by pushing tempo, but every fast break they got was met by one in return from Phoenix. It ended up being a lot of scoring, none of it changing the scoreboard margin much.
With 5:49 left in the third period, Ayton picked up his fourth foul. This had the potential to be big for Portland, as the Phoenix pivot had been in the middle of half of their headaches. Without their big man, the Suns started slashing down the lane into open space. Portland couldn’t stop them, except for fouling. Ironically, this evened out one of the advantages that had buoyed them.
The offense was far more team-oriented and successful in the third period. Deandre Ayton sitting opened up a huge opportunity. But Portland still trailed 79-75 heading into the fourth.
Portland’s second unit, outplayed to this point in the game, came alive at the start of the final period. They showed huge energy on the glass, smart offense in the halfcourt. Phoenix ended up with a single shot and a miss. Portland got fouls and short attempts, both for points. The Blazers took their first lead of the entire game with 10:27 remaining in the fourth.
With Ayton back in the game, the Suns tried to feed the ball inside, with mixed results. Portland alternated between Simons and Lillard when the going got tough, switching the two between controlling the ball and receiving it. Justise Winslow drew the difficult defensive assignments, as happened in Portland’s opening game versus Sacramento.
In another duplication of Portland’s first game, their three-point defense finally came alive in the closing minutes of the fourth. Getting hands in the faces of shooters made them look like a different team. Their rebounding remained sterling as well. Defense and board work? Nobody is going to argue with that.
Getting the chance to run out became a major side effect of all that energy. Suddenly the Blazers were pushing the ball past Phoenix’s ability to cope. The Suns’ bigger lineup started to look like a liability more than an asset. As is typical, Josh Hart shone bright in this environment, especially when he drove the ball down the floor. With 5:30 remaining in the fourth, the Blazers were up by 5, 93-88.
At that point, Phoenix started figuring things out. They ran a screen at the top of the key that freed Devin Booker for a cut and an unopposed jam. On their next play, Chris Paul lobbed to Ayton for another jam. Then Ayton missed a close one in the lane. Portland got a layup from Lillard but missed threes otherwise. With 3:16 remaining and a timeout on the floor, the score was tied at 95.
At that point, the Suns decided to go through Booker, who responded with a pull-up and a heavily-guarded layup. Lillard got a layup blocked, but Simons bailed out his team with a three. Then Grant goaltended Paul on a layup. Phoenix led by 1 heading into the final minute.
Nurkic was fouled on a layup with 48 seconds remaining. Hitting both free throws put Portland up 102-101. But Mikal Bridges ran the ball right back at Nurk on the ensuing possession, drawing his own foul shots. He hit 1 of 2, tying the game at 102. 37 seconds remained. It was nail-biting time.
With the two-for-one possession on tap, Lillard drove the lane and tried to pass to Nurkic, but the ball was intercepted. Booker tried a step-back three, but missed. Portland didn’t call timeout, instead letting Lillard command the floor. His three-pointer was double-covered and missed, the 102-102 score leading to overtime.
The Blazers threw a zone defense on the first possession of overtime. Phoenix got the ball to Ayton, who got a shot and a foul over Hart, stuck guarding him on the left side. Nurkic scored on the other end up close, gaining a measure of revenge. After Ayton missed against that same zone, Nurk struck again with an offensive rebound put-back.
But that was the end of the fun for Portland. Booker scored twice in succession against a defense that suddenly couldn’t get close to him...the best offensive player on Phoenix’s side. Phoenix led 109-106 with 2:48 left.
On the next possession, Phoenix played the kind of defense Portland couldn’t, forcing an awkward set of passes and a Lillard layup next. Then Hart got a layup blocked by Bridges, followed by a Paul mid-range connection. Portland was down 5 with 90 seconds remaining. The Suns had turned up the “D”; Portland couldn’t.
A Nurkic free throw off of a layup trimmed a point off the lead, then Phoenix turned over the ball with 1:12 remaining. Simons drove, then found Grant baseline for a dunk. Phoenix led 111-109 with a minute left.
When Booker missed a long shot, Lillard streaked out and threatened the tying layup. He missed but was fouled. Two free throws for him were as good as the conversion. The scoreboard read 111 all with 34 seconds remaining.
Phoenix had the first chance at closing the game. They obligingly missed a quick layup, making sure they had time remaining after Portland’s attempt.
That attempt consisted of Simons running diagonally across the lane after the Suns had overcrowded Lillard to get the ball out of his hands. A running hook shot over Bridges fell. Portland led 113-111 with 7.2 seconds remaining. They’d need to win it with defense, and they almost did. Phoenix was stalled, as Booker drove into impossible traffic, but he passed to Ayton diving behind him. Ayton was fouled, receiving two free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining.
Fortunately for Portland, Ayton missed the first. He intentionally missed the second. Phoenix center Jock Landale grabbed the rebound and got a GREAT look at a layup, but he missed. Ugly or not, it went down as a stop, and that was the ballgame.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon from Marlow Ferguson!
The Blazers face the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. The game is scheduled to start at 12:30 PM, Pacific.