The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Phoenix Suns under severe disadvantages tonight. Damian Lillard was still healing from a calf injury. Fellow starter Anfernee Simons joined him with a foot injury, taking out Portland’s two leading scorers from the start. With Gary Payton II also out, the Blazers were suddenly thin at guard. Starting small forward Josh Hart joined rookie Shaedon Sharpe, while Justise Winslow filled in Hart’s position as best he could. The Blazers would have to take on Chris Paul and Devin Booker with nary a point guard in sight.
Given the situation, Portland did incredibly well. Their starters kept them close at the start of the game, denying Phoenix the expected blowout. Portland’s bench actually built a significant lead in the second, which they held through most of the third period as well.
Behind superstar Devin Booker, Phoenix came roaring back in the fourth. Though the Suns took a slight lead late, the Blazers kept their heads. They ran slow-down offense through Jusuf Nurkic, who had put in a mediocre game to that point. Nurk delivered with a three-pointer and an offensive rebound putback, allowing his team to withstand Booker’s flurry.
With the score tied at 106, Phoenix had the last possession of the game. Portland forced Mikal Bridges into a travel in the lane, earning a counter-shot with a single second remaining.
And then, this...
The Blazers beat the Suns in improbable, narrow fashion again, 108-106. Grant finished with 30 points on 10-17 shooting to lead the team.
The Blazers had trouble containing the Suns from distance at the outset of the game. Five of Phoenix’s first eight shots came beyond the arc. Four of them fell. Portland’s offense was measured and smart—they tried to feed Jusuf Nurkic inside or score off the dribble in the paint—but with all those triples falling, it didn’t take long for the Suns to double them up on the scoreboard, 15-7.
What the Blazers lacked in overt firepower, they tried to make up for with speed. With the halfcourt offense spotty, Portland pushed the ball off of every rebound, trying to get out with Hart and Sharpe for easy buckets. Keon Johnson added his defensive flair and a little bit of offensive tempo as well. But the pace didn’t favor Nurkic, who appeared to tire as the quarter waned. The Suns started scoring inside instead of out, with easy buckets keeping them ahead of the scoreboard.
At least that progress was a little slower than the three-point barrage. Suns forward Cam Johnson also left late in the first with a knee injury. That helped a little. So did a three, a steal, and a layup from Johnson in the last two minutes. Unfortunately Sharpe drew his third foul on the last play of the quarter, a predictable result of trying to watch Devin Booker. Johnson’s last-ditch flurry disguised Phoenix’s advantage in depth and drive. The Suns’ lead was just 28-25 after one.
Turnovers began to rear their ugly heads as the second period commenced. The Blazers aren’t used to playing together under normal circumstances. Their cobbled-together lineup, almost completely lacking in isolation scorers, fell prey to hesitation and confusion. Winslow proved a one-man wrecking machine, making up some of the difference. He worked hard on the glass, defended stoutly, and tried to set up plays. He helped the Blazers survive the early minutes of the period as their other starters got much-needed rest.
Offensive rebounds helped the Blazers in the first half of the second period as well. Winslow and Jabari Walker were masterful within two feet of the cup, ripping rebounds from Phoenix bigs who seemed to think the ball was theirs by right. The Blazers forwards corrected them.
Portland’s defense also stayed intact during the opening of the second. It was pretty impressive to see second- and third-stringers working hard and staying connected. The Blazers banged bodies with the Suns. It seemed to take Phoenix out of their game.
As the quarter progressed, Phoenix gave back some of the same turnovers they had forced from Portland earlier. Portland’s defense was so good in the second, Phoenix only managed six points in the first six minutes of the frame.
In theory, that was supposed to change when Booker and company came back in the game. Surprisingly, it didn’t. Portland continued to play seamless defense, rebound hard, and they rode Jerami Grant making half a dozen shots in the period. Nassir Little added 10 in the half on top of Grant’s 18. I’d like to say Phoenix didn’t know what hit them, but they didn’t even know they were in a fight. Portland led 59-49 at the half.
The Suns started the third period like they started the first: trying to run and hit threes against a larger, slower Portland lineup. It worked pretty well too. Layups and a long shot turned up the heat on the sizzle. But the Blazers had confidence on the other end. They were patient, working the ball inside for contested, but make-able shots. Despite hitting shots, the Suns looked up at the scoreboard with four minutes gone and not only had they not made up ground, they actually fell three points farther behind.
This wasn’t in the script.
That’s about when Devin Booker took a look at that script and tried to flip it right on its head. He went right at Portland defenders, getting to the hoop in the halfcourt and converting layups. The only meaningful response from the Blazers was to foul. Winslow picked up his fourth early, further hurting Portland’s depth.
Exerting star power should have brought the Suns back immediately, but Grant continued to put pressure on Phoenix on the other end. He wasn’t attempting shots as much as pushing tempo, penetrating, and occasionally dishing. Grant was the jab that made Phoenix hesitate and kept them at distance, only to find a right hook crashing against their jaw in the form of threes from Nurkic and Johnson, both off Grant assists.
Booker tried to return the favor at the other end. Portland devoted extra defenders to him; he dutifully passed to teammates. The rest of the Suns weren’t as efficient as their Blazers counterparts. No matter what Phoenix did, Portland’s lead remained stubbornly around a baker’s dozen.
The Blazers appeared to run low on steam as the third period unwound, however. Without ball-handlers to absorb possessions—allowing the rest of the team to relax—both ball and players had to move on every play in order to generate reasonable looks. Phoenix keyed in on the pattern, forcing the ball to the corners, sidelines, and non-scoring positions, then doubling hard. Grant and company couldn’t dribble out or find passing lanes. Slowly, those good looks started to evaporate.
If Booker could have lit the fuse on his offensive game, Phoenix would have come all the way back at this point. He tried. Mightily. But Portland defended well, keeping him away from the rim. And Booker’s contested shots just wouldn’t fall. Nor were the Blazers fouling him every second possession anymore.
The Suns absolutely ate into Portland’s lead as the third period closed. The foundations shook, but they didn’t crumble. (Although a four-point play for Landry Shamet with 6 seconds remaining didn’t help.) The Blazers led 86-80 after three.
The start of the fourth period was herky-jerky, with both teams scoring in fits and starts. The Blazers continued to go inside, but they weren’t able to get the offensive rebounds off of misses that had sustained them through earlier quarters. Meanwhile Phoenix started heating up from distances again. With a couple of deep strokes, Portland’s lead went from eight to a single possession, and this with half of Phoenix’s stars on the bench. Halfway through the period, the Blazers led by only three.
By this time, the Suns had Portland’s offense clocked. It finally seemed to click that the Blazers weren’t relying on individual players as much as the spaces in between them. Cutting off passing lanes, the Suns also created chokepoints in the Blazers’ attack. After that, all they had to do was sink back into the lane to prevent layups and offensive boards. Like a marathon runner whose stride begins to labor, the Blazers heard the footsteps behind.
At the same time Damion Lee, who opened up the Suns’ three-point scoring in the period, took a flamethrower to it. The Blazers couldn’t catch up with his corner attempts, one of which finally tied the game with 4:15 remaining.
The teams tried to chess-match the finish. Nurkic drew a fifth foul on Deandre Ayton in the possession after the tie and on subsequent possessions thereafter. Portland tried to use Nurk to draw the defense inside. His post moves weren’t threatening enough to do the job. Meanwhile the Suns tried to run and penetrate, moving around defenders and hoping to draw whistles that had eluded them most of the evening.
Booker and Nurkic exchanged buckets as the clock ticked past three minutes. Then Paul and Josh Hart exchanged misses. Throughout, the Suns always had a place and player to initiate the offense, while Portland inevitably took a half-dozen dribbles or passes trying to achieve the same thing. That actually worked to the Blazers’ advantage a little, as it ate clock without allowing Phoenix to get too many stabs at scoring.
As seemed appropriate, the score was knotted at 101 with a minute remaining.
Booker missed a layup in the final minute, but Ayton converted the rebound put-back. Then Nurkic, of all people, stroked a three to put Portland up one again. But Booker came back seconds later with his own three. With 31 seconds left, Phoenix led 106-104. Once again, Portland needed a bucket. Once again, they’d have to work hard to even get the attempt.
Grant missed a leaner off the drive, but Nurkic returned the favor to Ayton, hooking in the rebound. The score was tied at 106. Phoenix had the final possession. But Mikal Bridges got stuck in the lane against good defense and traveled, leaving Portland one last attempt with a second remaining.
On the last play of the game, Jerami Grant made the Billy Ray Bates cut towards the rim for the alley-oop, but instead of throwing the lob, Winslow lofted it over everyone’s heads. Grant caught it backpedaling on the far side of the hoop. He took four steps backwards (yes, it was traveling, and probably a shot-clock violation to boot) and sank an open 13-footer for the win.
Stay tuned for our extended recap with analysis of the evening.
The Blazers draw these same Suns again tomorrow night with the game beginning at 7:00 PM, Pacific.