The Portland Trail Blazers can cite several bright spots from their 120-107 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. Center Deandre Ayton was active and effective, logging one of his best games of the season. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon returned from injury, providing much-needed support to the offense. The Blazers even shot three-pointers well. But the Suns had too much fuel on the bonfire for the Blazers to extinguish. The contest will go down as a plucky loss, but a loss nonetheless.
If you missed the action, you can find a quarter-by-quarter recap here. After you’ve got the feel of the game, here are a few points that contributed to, or at least explained, the outcome.
Kevin Durant knew he could score at will against the Blazers. Portland just isn’t equipped to stop a mobile, 7-foot forward with unlimited range. Few NBA teams are, but the Blazers have nobody with enough height and speed to stay close.
Durant scored 31 points on 13-21 shooting with 9 assists besides. Even when he wasn’t connecting, Durant bent Portland’s defense something awful. Passes to the interior and offensive rebounds became easy for Phoenix with Portland shifting towards KD. His power is just incredible.
The Blazers may not have had the second pick of the 2007 NBA Draft on their side, but they did have the first overall pick from 2018. And that guy had a glint in his eyes returning to face the team that traded him away this summer.
In the first period, Ayton was like crab legs at the buffet. The Blazers made a concentrated effort to go to him early and as often as possible. He had 10 attempts in the opening quarter, scoring 12 off of them. Whenever the Suns left a hole in the middle of the floor, Ayton filled it. He usually converted his shots too.
Ayton finished the game with 18 points on 9-14 shooting, which tells you a little about how the game went after the first. Portland concentrated more on the perimeter shot, but didn’t parlay that into more looks for Ayton.
Still, it was an impressive effort. If this is what Ayton produces when the Blazers look for him, maybe they should do it a little more often.
We haven’t mentioned Duop Reath’s name much in recaps this season, let alone in a featured section, but Ayton wasn’t the only center of note the Blazers fielded tonight. Reath had an amazing second period, starting off the quarter with a pair of threes that spread the Suns’ defense and started a torrent of triples for the Blazers. Phoenix decided that Reath was of no account. He corrected them quickly. He finished the game with 10 points on 4-6 shooting, hitting 2 of 3 from distance. Those numbers may look modest, but after the last 10 days or so, any scoring off of Portland’s bench deserves notice.
Speaking of deserving notice, Malcolm Brogdon returned to the starting lineup tonight, paying immediate dividends. His most notable individual contribution was making Phoenix pay for going under screens. Brogdon hit four three-pointers in the second period alone, finishing the game 4-5 from distance, with 19 points and 5 assists off of 6-14 shooting.
More than that, the team just looked different with a true, experienced point guard in control of the offense. Ayton got the looks he got because Brogdon knew how to set both the defense and him up correctly. The floor was spaced better. Turnovers fell to just 13. It was like the entire roster breathed a pent-up sigh of relief when Malcolm returned.
That sigh of relief turns to a groan of vexation when reading that Phoenix—dead last in the NBA averaging 10.0 fast break points per game—scored 20 tonight. We’ll beat this drum as long as the phenomenon lasts: Portland’s emphasis on offensive rebounding may have a hidden cost. Phoenix lived on single-man advantage opportunities tonight. They didn’t get many 1-on-0 breakaways, the type you’d expect off of quick turnovers. Instead they ran back misses. They almost always faced one Portland defender, often a second as well. But either way, the next player down the floor wore a Suns uniform. The third or fourth Portland defender started the possession in his own key, behind the play. That left Phoenix one pass from a layup or dunk.
The Blazers had 26 second-chance points tonight, far more than Phoenix’s 12. But those fast breaks rendered the advantage much less effective than you’d expect.
Shaedon Sharpe had another tough night. While Jerami Grant (26 points, 6 assists), Ayton, and Brodgon went off, Sharpe struggled to 10 points, 0 assists, and 4 turnovers while shooting 3-13 from the field. The Suns joined the litany of teams defending him from arc to rim, shutting off his driving lanes. Sharpe’s pull-up game appears to have disappeared. His three-point shot isn’t falling. He’s stuck with guarded, looping attempts off the dribble. He’s hitting a lot of rim, but not enough twine, nor enough foul shots.
The Suns employed a couple of effective strategies to hinder the Blazers tonight.
They stayed a step back from the arc, but closed the second a dribbler put the ball on the floor. They came with a second defender if said dribbler made it more than two steps towards the lane. Phoenix ceded one of Portland’s best three-point games of the year (14-31, 45.2%), but they kept at least a modest lid on paint points (44) and assists (20).
The Suns also switched on nearly every screen, keeping a defender—any defender—on each Portland player. For a little while, they doubled down on abandoning the three-point arc, going under screens instead of straight switching. Reath and Brogdon made them pay, as described above. Their scheme wasn’t foolproof, but it was more than enough to hold Portland below their own offensive output.
In case you’re wondering how former Blazers did in their first matchup since being traded, Jusuf Nurkic scored 18 on an impressive 7-11 shooting, adding 12 rebounds, more than Ayton’s 8. He collected 4 fouls and wasn’t terribly effective against Ayton. Plus many of Nurk’s points came on dunks cleared by prominent teammates. Phoenix will rightly say they got Ayton-like production out of Nurkic without the issues, expectations, or salary burden that Ayton carries. Portland might respond that without Nurkic’s current teammates, his numbers would be less impressive but his flaws just as prominent. Both are essentially correct. The first head-to-head duel between the two did little to disprove that the late-summer trade was the right move for both teams.
Nassir Little played 22 minutes, scoring 13 points on 4-6 shooting with 5 rebounds. Like Nurkic, Little is in a near-ideal situation in Phoenix: help in the cracks and seams, take every opportunity to explode, feast on easy buckets while the defense concentrates on everyone else.
Drew Eubanks was the least effective of the ex-Blazers, but he still did pretty well. Eubanks played 13 minutes, going 1-4 from the field, collecting 2 rebounds. He did draw 5 free throws and finished the game with 7 points.
To keep it balanced, we should say that Toumari Camara posted 7 points and 4 rebounds on 2-4 shooting, 0-2 from the arc with 4 personal fouls in 39 minutes.
The Blazers return home to face the Utah Jazz tomorrow night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.