Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Suns: Game 55

Portland (30-24) heads off to the valley of the sun to take on Phoenix (31-21) in the last game before the All-Star break. If it seems like the Blazers haven't played in Arizona in a long, long time, well, it is because they haven't. Oddly enough, both of the Blazer trips to Phoenix last season occurred in November of 08, essentially making it 14 months since playing in Arizona. The less trips to the desert the better for Portland as US Airways Center does not treat the our team kindly with losses in nine straight meetings and only two wins in 17 tries since the beginning of the 2000-01 season. Add to the fact the Suns are a solid 18-6 at home, current owners of a five-game winning streaks, and their uptempo pace doesn't match up too well with our personnel.
The up and down, frantic pace the Suns play at on a nightly basis is difficult enough to handle on a regular night, but the Blazers are playing on the second night of a back to back, while the Suns have been off since Friday night. Also, if you factor in an NBA-high 54 games played prior to tonight, the Blazers have got to be mentally exhausted as well as physically banged up and the thought of an All-Star break to re-charge the batteries is looking better and better by the minute, which means the team could be looking ahead to their time away from hoop instead of focusing on the task at hand tonight. Portland added veterans Andre Miller and Juwan Howard specifically to handle situations such as this and to always have the team with their eyes on the prize, but the team can't hang their hat on recent good play or having their superstar to bail them out. The team has lost three straight and only are 3-6 in their last 9.
For Portland to have any chance at getting a W tonight, they must guard the three point line. Phoenix is tops in the league in bombing away from downtown, shooting an astounding 40.8% as a team. The Suns possess three of the top 20 3-point shooters in terms of made field goals, with Channing Frye 3rd making 119, Steve Nash 13th by nailing 91, and Jason Richardson rounding out the top 20 with his 83 treys. Throw in Jared Dudley who's 74 bombs are no slouch considering he shoots 47.1% from downtown, good enough for 3rd in the league, Phoenix is loaded with gunslingers with quick trigger fingers when it comes to letting them loose from downtown. The Blazers must play with a purpose tonight on defense and close out on the Sun shooters, along with putting up a hand in their face. If they [Portland] come out with their tail between their legs and heads hung low, it will be a field day for the Suns on offense.
The Trail Blazers are a jump shooting team first, but there is no way they can or should try to win a shooting contest with the Suns. One of the main reasons Portland was able to rally for the 105-102 victory back on December 17th was attacking the rim, which lead to 35 free throw attempts. A lot of the damage was done by Jerryd Bayless who had a then career-high of 29 points (9-15) by getting to the rim and forcing the officials to blow their whistles to the tune of 12 trips to the foul line for JB. Jerryd has been in a little bit of a rut lately with his jump shot, but he is one player who's confidence will never waver, even through the peaks and valleys of an NBA season.
Personally, I think this will be a game where only the die-hard fans will tune in and watch till the bitter end. The Blazers are in a downward spiral right now, tired, not playing well, and looking ahead to the rest of five days off which will end up in a Suns blowout victory. As mentioned, they are the polar opposites of Portland right now, winners of five straight, playing at home, and have had a staggering four days rest between games. This one will feel much like the first game in Utah, over before the tip. Look for Phoenix to jump out on us early and often, as they will smell the blood in the water.
Game 55 Prediction: Trail Blazers 87 Suns 110
Post-Game Thoughts
"We got our ass kicked, plain and simple," Gentry said. "They outplayed us in every phase. They outhustled us. They made good plays, good passes, everything we didn't do."
For Coach Nate McMillan, those words spoken by opposing Coach Gentry, about his team, must be music to his ears. There is no higher compliment a coach can receive than to hear about how hard his players played and the effort and hustle provided was second to none. Reports came out after the OKC loss that Coach Nate has been trying to get through to his players, but when all the yelling is coming from the coach, it has a tendency to be tuned out. Cue Juwan Howard. From the "Behind the Blazers Locker Room" series, Mr. Howard made his presence known quite well Tuesday night in the locker room, throwing and kicking the water cooler around the room and going on a tirade about their effort given was unacceptable and their recent play was only embarrassing themselves. This situation was exactly why a veteran like Howard was brought into the team as sometimes it takes an older peer to get through to the team. As surprising as his play has been on the court, Juwan has been just as amazing off of it and even if he retires, there needs to be a spot made for him in the Blazers organization.
Boy, I don't think I have been so happy to be proven wrong by my team! At least I wasn't alone in the sentiment that this game did have blowout written all over it. If the "Mikes", two of the biggest Blazer optimists, can feel that way, then the Trail Blazers really surprised us all! Although it was a bit of a "fools gold" victory, due to getting outscored in the paint, 30-48, and shooting a lights out 58.4% from the floor. The mid-range shot was just falling for our guys tonight. We only received 15 points from the foul line and nine points on three 3-pointers. If you add the free throw, points in the paint, and 3-pointers, Portland scored 54 of their 108 on those three facets of the game, meaning the other half of our points were on jump shots. In no way, shape, or form am I trying to downplay this huge win which is easily a top 5 win on the season, but fans shouldn't expect to hit all of those jump shots at such a torrid pace. I will give the Blazers credit for moving the ball around and using dribble penetration for getting a lot of those jumpers wide open. Personally, I just would have liked to see more than 19 trips to the foul line, really only 13 as the last six were Phoenix fouling in desperation.
Its really quite difficult to single one player out for the reason we got this win tonight as it was the quintessential team win, with nearly everyone having a hand in the Blazer win. One person who deserves their due on this blog is Steve Blake. I have been pretty critical of his play to date this year, but he played with a purpose and their was a lot of confidence in his decision making last night. His 20 points (7-12) and 12 assists were extremely vital in the Trail Blazer win. He got hot to start the game which gave us the chance to put Phoenix in our rear view and he had an absolute back breaking, momentum stalling three in the 4th, right after Batum's, to kick the lead back up to 13 after the Suns chopped a 22 point lead down to seven in a span of about three minutes.
Aldridge had 22 points (11-17) and 6 boards and Andre chipped in with 20 points (8-15), 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, but if there was a second game ball to give out, it goes to Dante Cunningham. The dude is just automatic from 15 feet. He shot another amazing percentage, this time going 6-7, which lead to his 13 points. He also found time to grab four rebounds, halt a fast break by swiping away a Jason Richardson lay up, get dunked on hardcore by Amare, and still had enough game to return the favor to Stoudemire with a poster of his own. When I watch him play, I can't help but thinking, "No way is he a rookie, let alone a 2nd round pick."
Official Game Photos
Box Score

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