After flirting with disaster Friday night against Washington, Portland (42-28) heads down to the valley of the sun to take on Phoenix (43-26). Normally the run and gun Suns have been a thorn in the Trail Blazers side, yet recently Portland has controlled the series, winners of four straight dating back to last season. Wins this season have included a thrilling, 105-102 come from behind win and a wire-to-wire 108-101 victory in US Airways Center before the All-Star break. Portland has exercised many road demons this year, San Antonio, Dallas X2, Golden State, and even Phoenix, where Portland had lost their previous nine trips. Recent history gives Portland the advantage going into tonight's battle, but it is extremely difficult sweeping a season series from a team, let alone winning twice in an arena known to be unkind to the visitors from the northwest. With only 12 games left in the season, every game counts ands means more as the season winds down, but I can't think of a more bigger game the rest of the year than tonight. The Trail Blazers are only 1.5 games out of 5th place in the Western Conference and only two games behind the Suns in the loss column. A win and the Blazers sneak within a game of the Suns while a loss puts them three full games back, nearly an insurmountable deficit with so little time remaining in the season. As mentioned, there are only 12 games left, and tonight is one of six swing games (Phoenix, Dallas x2, @OKC, @LA, @Denver), meaning Portland may not be favored to win but needs to pull out at least one or two of these "swing" games if they have any aspirations of getting as high as 5th in the West. Obviously the focus was lost somewhere between shoot-around and tip-off for the Wizards game, something that can not happen against the caliber of opponent like Phoenix. Two players will decide Portland's fate tonight, Nico Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. If I were Coach Nate, I'd stick Batum and his long arms all over Steve Nash the entire game, hounding him at every opportunity, and making him work hard for everything he gets. The ageless wonder Nash has been battling back injuries and his stamina isn't once what it used to be. He is the ringleader of that offense, the pilot, engineer, etc, and if Batum can disrupt any of his rhythym, it could throw off the entire Suns offensive flow. While Nico will have his hands full with Nash, LA needs another gut check tonight against Amare Stoudamire. The L-Train was out in full force Sunday night in his head-to-head matchup with Chris Bosh, and he'll need to bring the same type of aggression and assertiveness needed to hang with STAT. Amare is coming off a once in a lifetime performance again Utah as he tallied 44 points on a insane 14-16 from the floor and 16-18 from the charity stripe. Its one thing if he's canning his jumper, but to contain him, Aldridge must not allow the blow-by drives to occur. Anytime you deal with the Suns, priority #1 is to defend the three-point line. As a team, Phoenix shoots the three at a .406 clip, good enough for tops in the league. Nash, Hill, Barbosa, Frye, Dragic, Richardson, Hill, and Dudley are all marksmen from deep and the Suns always have a minimum of three long-range shooters on the court at once, so the Trail Blazers can not be lazy on their rotations otherwise it'll be raining trifectas in the desert. I believe the key to victory is to hold them to around 35% from distance. Although Phoenix shot 47.6% and 36.4% respectively during the previous two meetings, allowing that type of shooting again is a recipe for disaster. I'm extremely excited for this matchup, more so than usual, considering I'll be in attendance tonight at the US Airways Center. I only wish we would have lost the last game in Arizona, because the chances of winning in the desert twice in one season are incredibly slim. I don't expect either Nash or Amare to completely take over, rather look for role players such as Grant Hill or Channing Frye to heat up and hit momentum boosting shots to keep Portland at bay the entire night. The Trail Blazers will be within striking distance, but the hot shooting Suns will always have an answer. Game 71 Prediction: Trail Blazers 98 Suns 105
In a game the Trail Blazers just had to have if they wanted any shot at catching the Suns, they fell just short. The shooting eye deserted them the entire night, shooting a combined 32-88 (36.4%) and missing half of their total missed free throws with under five minutes to go in the 4th to seal the deal for Phoenix. Defensively, Portland couldn't have played too much better, outside of fighting through more screens, as they held a high-octane Suns offense to a miniscule 93 points and only allowed 7-23 from three-point range. Portland outplayed Phoenix in all other facets of the game, committing six less turnovers (10 to 4), stealing four more passes (5 to 1), blocking four more shots (7 to 3), and even winning the points in the paint battle by six (42 to 36). In the end, it was one strategic move by Coach Gentry which had Portland on their heels.
For about 42 minutes, Portland controlled the tempo by playing ugly and taking advantage of mismatches on the offensive end of the court. Andre was the catalyst to jump start the Blazer offense and tallied 22 points (7-2)),including 8-9 from the stripe, 9 assists, and 3 rebounds for the contest, doing most of his damage on the blocks against Stave Nash. As the jump shots weren't dropping, scoring in the interior was the only way to generate offense. Roy found his way to the rack a few times, Howard scored at least six of his eight in the paint, and the L-Train did most of his damage (16 points) by running the break or picking us loose balls for put backs. Through three quarters, this strategy was working, as the Trail Blazers lead, 68-64, heading into the final period. It was still a back and forth affair until Alvin Gentry caught the Blazers off guard by switching up his defense from straight man to man to a 2-3 zone.
Portland ended up only shooting a dismal 2-17 from three, which is why the zone was so brilliant. Really, the only way to break a zone is to shoot out of it. Portland seemed utterly unprepared for such a change in defensive strategy and failed to adapt on the fly. Instead of trying some high-low or flashing cutters to the open areas of the zone, the team got stagnant on offense and ended up forcing up contested jump shots as the shot clock winded down. While we struggled to muster any sort of offense in the 4th quarter (19 pts), Phoenix rode the hot shooting of reserve forward Jared Dudley for I believe eight straight points at one juncture of the 4th quarter to give the Suns the lead for good.
"Our defense was great; their defense was great," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "We did a great job in the zone. For the most part, we made them take tough shots."
What is most alarming/upsetting about this current groups of Trail Blazers is their philosophies on offense compared to their actual strengths. As a team, I'd say our biggest weakness is our outside shooting. Honestly, I think we lost three of our top four long-range shooters off of last year's team in Channing Frye, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw. Batum has become pretty accurate and has a beautiful stroke, but Webster, Rudy, and Aldridge seem to have taken a step back in consistency this season. Essentially, we are a jump-shooting team without any real sharp shooters. I know I harp on this a lot on this blog, but please, can we attack the rim a little bit more? Our guards especially, Roy, Miller, and Jerryd, are much more suited to get to the cup than simply stroke jumpers throughout the game. I'd rather see them initiate the offense by driving and setting up our more spot-up shooters in Marty and Rudy.
Notes: As mentioned, I did attend the game in Phoenix, AZ and must say that we, as Trail Blazers fans, should feel very blessed about our team, fan base, arena, and everything about the Blazers. The atmosphere inside US Airways Center was sporadically mediocre at best, as fans only stood for a few seconds when the jumbotron told them so. They have no Todd Bosma and their game operations during timeouts and halftime were uneventful. Even the famous Suns Gorilla hardly did any tricks at all and wasn't present for much of the game. Their fan shop was larger and much more roomer than ours and I love the fact they have an open concourse inside the arena for any fans, even ones without tickets, to use and take part in activities before the game. Finally, do not take for granted the stat board! While the RG has stats for both players and teams at your every disposal, in the US Airways Center, there were many boards, but they cycled through the different stats, meaning it took a while to see what you're looking for. Although, their out of town scoreboard knocks ours out of the park as it was much larger, easier to read, and actually provided the top performers for each team as well as the time and quarter. Overall it was a fun experience seeing a different venue, but it only made me appreciate the Rose Garden that much more.
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