The Portland Trail Blazers put up a pretty good fight against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. In a rare development, Portland hit three-pointers at a better-than-awful level. They also got huge production out of their frontcourt duo of Deandre Ayton (18 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and Jerami Grant (26 points, 6 assists).
Despite Portland’s best efforts, though, this game was a case of “too much”. Too much star-power on the Phoenix side (Kevin Durant 31 points, Devin Booker 28). Too many easy buckets too (66 in the paint, an unusual and unconscionable 20 on fast breaks). Even the return of Malcolm Brogdon to point guard duty wasn’t enough to shift the balance, though it surely made Portland’s offense look better.
In the end, Phoenix took the game 120-107. Portland dropped their 11th game of the season, also falling to 1-3 in NBA In-Season Tournament play. It was another in a series of contests in which the Blazers were easy to like, but hard to watch.
The game started out with former Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic stripping the ball from current Portland Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton. On Portland’s second possession, Ayton wheeled past Nurkic for an easy layup. In case you had any doubt about the storyline of the evening, there it was, on full display.
As the big men were playing tug ‘o war for supremacy, though, Kevin Durant scored twin buckets, making clear what the actual outcome of the game would depend on.
Portland had a chance early, as Phoenix played completely unserious defense. The Blazers were quicker and more active on the defensive end than their hosts. Life isn’t always fair. though. Despite being open, the Blazers served up enough bricks to sink a battleship. Durant alone was enough to counterbalance their offense. KD had 9 points in the first 5 minutes, more than Portland scored as a team. At the first timeout, Phoenix led 13-7, 7:22 remaining.
The Blazers kept plugging away, running their offense through Ayton. He responded by shooting above 50%, certainly more reliable than Portland’s regular offense. But Duran and Devin Booker tag-teamed Portland on the other end, leading their team to 75% shooting that not even Ayton’s efficiency could overcome. By the 4:00 mark, Phoenix had a comfortable double-digit lead.
The Blazers ended up losing the first quarter 34-21 after the bench made only modest headway against Phoenix’s role players. Ayton had 12 points off of 10 shots in the period, but Durant had 14 on 6-6 shooting.
Duop Reath decided HE was Kevin Durant at the start of the second quarter, sinking a pair of three-pointers and a short stick-back shot. His run brought the Blazers back within 9, 29-38, when the Suns called an emergency timeout with 9:00 remaining.
As has been their habit, Portland’s second unit found a rhythm together, reading Phoenix’s switch-heavy defense, attacking with quick drives or passes to a third player off of screens. The Suns reserves stalled on offense, committing turnovers like they were the Blazers themselves. When Phoenix went under screens instead of switching, newly-returned Malcolm Brogdon struck, hitting back-to-back-to-back threes to pull Portland within 1, 39-40, at another Phoenix timeout with 6:52 remaining.
The Suns brought Durant back in, following through on the implied, “Wait until your father gets home” threat. When Brogdon hit his fourth three of the period, tying the score at 42, there was no doubt who Daddy was. Phoenix helped Portland by continuing to turn over the ball, making the Blazers’ miscues less damning.
After that, the period became a dogfight. Durant drew attention and passed effectively to teammates. The Blazers attacked quickly, trying to be opportunistic against a Phoenix defense that wasn’t set up fully. Jusuf Nurkic drawing his third foul late in the second didn’t help the Suns’ cause. But the threat of Durant was just a little more effective than Portland’s three-point shooting, their diet in the halfcourt when the quick offense wouldn’t work. Plus the turnover problem never really went away for the Blazers.
A couple Jerami Grant threes kept Portland in touch as the half closed, but the Suns ended up with a 56-51 lead at the half despite an excellent quarter from Portland.
The Blazers went inside with Ayton and Grant at the top of the third, lessening their reliance on the three-ball just a little. It was a wise move. They had done well enough in the first half, but Portland has found distance shooting a fickle mistress so far this year.
Star ball played a prominent role in Phoenix’s ascendance in this game. Durant and Booker scored early. When the Blazers sent second men to stop them, Nurkic ended up free in the middle for fairly high percentage dunks. Phoenix also ran off of Portland misses, a very bad development. Easy shots pushed the home team ahead 72-61 with 7:00 left in the third.
The Suns continued running and scoring, taking advantage of a Blazers team that seemed fully committed to staying home for offensive rebounds, less committed to getting back and defending. With 5:00 left, Phoenix had reestablished a 16-point lead, just one shy of their biggest in the first half. All the good work the Blazers had done in the second period was rendered moot.
Jerami Grant kept the offensive fire lit for Portland, reaching 13 in the period. But those were halfcourt points, hard-fought. Phoenix scored far easier. The Suns led 94-82 after three.
The Suns kept their starters in for the entire fourth period, draining the comeback clock to absolutely empty. Their attack was simple: spread the floor with offensive threats, then pick somebody to dive to the hole one-on-one. They weren’t as efficient scoring as they were when Durant dominated the ball, but it was good enough.
Jabari Walker provided a bright spot in the latter stages of the game, as he often does. The good spirits he engendered were dimmed somewhat when Matisse Thybulle appeared to injure his left hand. All the Blazers need is another veteran guard down just as one returns.
That aside, the fourth period was perfunctory. Phoenix knew they had the game in hand. Portland showed a few offensive sparks, but couldn’t defend well enough to close the gap.
Stay tuned for extended analysis coming soon!
The Blazers return home to face the Utah Jazz tomorrow night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.