After six grueling months of regular season basketball, countless injuries, and up and downs, the playoffs are finally here! Like '09, Portland's opponent wasn't known until the last day of the season, but for one of the only times during this season from hell, the Trail Blazers got a little bit of luck by drawing a team they match up extremely well with, the Phoenix Suns. Although the Suns obtained the West's best record post All-Star break, 23-6, Portland has taken two of three from Phoenix, including a 108-101 win in the dessert without Roy on February 10th. Without Roy being the key term, the Trail Blazers will be without their leader, superstar, and best player for at least the first round after having successful surgery to repair his torn meniscus. But Phoenix has injury problems of their own. Absent has been Robin Lopez, their starting center and only defensive minded player, who has been sidelined since March 26th due to bulging discs in his lower back.
The key to the entire series is bench play. As Rudy Fernandez moves into the starting lineup for Game 1, a weak performing Blazer bench, gets even weaker. Not only does Portland have to face the hottest team, Phoenix, and the hottest player, Amare, but they have to deal with one of the top benches in the league. Jared Dudley is 4th in the league in three-point percentage, 45.8%, Channing Frye's 172 three point makes are good enough for 4th most in the league, and Goran Dragic is playing his best basketball of his young career, averaging 9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 20.1 minutes per night during April's seven games. While the Phoenix reserves are peaking, Portland's are just now trying to find their niche. Webster had a clutch performance in L.A. last Sunday and is netting a little over 14 points in the three games since Roy has been out. Lets not forget he did lead the NBA in 3's made during January when he saw starter's minutes due to Roy's hamstring. But, I think flying under the radar is the fact this is Webster's first ever playoffs, as he was out all of last year with the stress fracture. Marty won't be alone either, because Dante is experiencing it for the first time and Bayless might as well be too after only seeing 2 minutes during last year's series with Houston. Both starting fives match up very well and all the Portland bench has to do is survive their shifts, giving the starters just enough rest for them to take control of the game later on.
Inside, the interior, the paint. Whatever you call it, that is where Portland must take this series by the reigns and assert their dominance. As big a loss as Roy is, I'd argue losing Robin Lopez is nearly as big for Phoenix. He is their rebounder, their energy, and only player who puts defense first. Phoenix loses skill when Jarron Collins starts and toughness when Frye checks into the game. Yes, Amare should win the MVP for the second half of the season, but outside of Dwight Howard, I couldn't think of two guys I'd rather have than Aldridge and Camby to throw at STAT for an entire series. In the only match between the duo of Marcus and LaMarcus versus Amare, STAT was held in check to 18 points an 14 rebounds compared to his April averages of 26.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. Two things Blazer big men must do to slow down Stoudemire is to limit his momentum boosting facial dunks out of the triple threat position which ignite him and force him to work on defense, because it's widely known he doesn't take as much pride on that side of the ball. In their first full game without Roy, the Trail Blazers filled out the blue-print on how to win by scoring a season-high 60 points in the paint on another small team, the Thunder.
Game 1 sets the tone for the entire series. Does Portland get stage fright and bullied around as they did against Houston or do they follow their veteran's footsteps and become the aggressors? The arena is going to be loud, hostile, and ramped up, but through smart play, playing under control and with poise, Portland can weather it by putting the game at their pace. Andre needs to have the ball in his hands at all times and either decide to take Nash off the dribble or on the blocks and work the offense around what Phoenix gives you. Phoenix will let you score, there's no denying that, but Portland needs to force the action inside, have crisp ball movement, and players always on the go. The series is a four-game sweep if we try and get into a jump shooting contest or a run and gun race with these guys. These are the playoffs and half-court basketball prevails; slow the game down, work the shot clock, and find the open man. The more you make Phoenix work on defense, the less energy they'll have to exude on offense. To win, the Trail Blazers must get to the line 7-10 more times, commit under 10 turnovers, and dominate the glass. If there's a game to catch the Suns napping, it's this one. Role player of the game will go to Marty. He performs when he knows the team is counting on him. Look for at least three 3 pointers and 15 points from Marty Party. Andre's steady play and Aldridge's offensive repertoire will lead the way for Portland on offense, Batum and Camby on defense, to a very close Blazer victory.
Trail Blazers Talk PlayoffsRound 1, Game 1 Prediction: Trail Blazers 105 Suns 103Post-Game Thoughts
In a game which felt more like a heavyweight fight than a basketball game, both teams throwing what seemed to be knock out punches all throughout the 2nd half, only to see the other counter or retaliate. Neither team had a lead more than nine and the 4th quarter was a seesaw affair. Phoenix would go on a mini run and go up 5, then Portland would strike back. While listening to the post-game show on the ride home, every clip in the 4th I heard Wheels call, I said "Man, that was clutch!" or "Play of the game right there!" Where to even begin? Martell had those two mammoth blocks, Aldridge's running tip in to put Portland up 5, Bayless' countless drives to the bucket, Andre's three ball, corner pocket, and Batum's three moments after Nash had hit one on the other end to push the lead back to 5. Although missing six of eight free throws down the stretch and Camby's oops moment of the decade are not recipes for success, whatever the Suns threw at us, we had an answer.
To have a puncher's chance, I knew we had to commit 10 or less turnovers, get to the foul line 7-10 more times and dominate the glass. Well, two out of the three isn't bad. Aided by Bayless and Miller's relentlessness, Portland out shot the Suns 31 to 16 at the charity stripe, taking advantage of the fact Robin Lopez is still sidelined, leaving no real imposing force to challenge them once they get to the cup. While everyone was being aggressive, the team played under control and with poise, only coughing it up 10 times, which also helped contain the dangerous Suns fast break to only four points. One area which must improve is defensive rebounding. The total advantage was only +3 for the Suns, 47-44, but they had 17 to our 10 in regards to offensive boards. Outside of Camby's 17 pulls, no one else even sniffed double digits.
"We had to drive the ball to the basket to get them in the penalty," said Miller, who called the win "big, especially considering....they were probably the hottest team in the league."
The saying goes, "Defense wins championships" and tonight was further evidence to prove that argument correct. The Suns were held in check to only 41.8% shooting from the floor (38-91), 34.4% from downtown (11-32), and 100 points, 10 points under their season average. Only Nash was able to reach the 20 point mark, dropping 25, and really the only Sun making it happen. If the ball wasn't in his hands, everything was at a stalemate for Phoenix, settling for contested jumpers or eventual turnovers. Most impressive had to do with the lock down on Amare Stoudemire, viewed by most as an unstoppable force heading into the post-season. Normally a 27 and 10 guy, Camby and Aldridge swatted those numbers away, frustrating him constantly throughout the night. In the end, STAT didn't live up to his acronym, netting 18 points (8-18 fg, 2-3 ft), 8 rebounds, 4 turnovers, 3 shots blocked against him, and ending the game early on the bench, fouling out due to the swarming defense of Camby taking him out of his game.
"Amar'e is as tough as they come," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "Camby made him work and didn't give him anything easy."
"They did a phenomenal job defensively," Stoudemire said.
For Portland to have continued success throughout the series, the Blazers will need two players at least have huge games outside of our new Big 3 (Aldridge, Camby, Miller). Last night it was Bayless and Batum coming to the rescue, combining for 36 points and Webster doing his own damage on the defensive end, but the Suns bench is deadly, putting up 39 points, putting the pressure on the Blazer reserves on a nightly basis. Taking out Frye's 12 points of production, since Collins plays two minutes per shift, the Suns only outscored the Trail Blazers bench, 27-25, an outcome Blazer coaches and fans will take all day. I expect Martell to keep up the defense, Batum to continue to excel, and Bayless to do his thing in the paint due to the lack of shot blockers Phoenix possesses, but Portland can not win this series unless a certain #5 steps up. Rudy has been yearning for playing time all year long and he is finally getting it, only to perform sub-par. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the first game, but if he doesn't put up, Webster is ready to get those starter's minutes.
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