Portland got what they wanted out of the first two games in Phoenix, a split. By doing so they stole home court advantage out of the grasp of the Suns, giving them an opportunity to take the series if they simply win home games the rest of the way. But it all starts tonight in Game 3, which should be the first real game of the series as Phoenix underestimated the Trail Blazers a bit in Game 1 and Portland likewise relaxed in their Game 2, 29 point shellacking. If both teams didn't know before what the other was capable of, they do now. Outside of getting their egos bruised, the Blazers received some good news as soon as they landed back home in the Rose City. First, the MRI on Batum's right shoulder confirmed a strain of the previously injured body part, putting him as a game-time decision for tonight, which is probably the best case scenario after seeing the injury live. Secondly, Brandon Roy seems like a lock to play in the 2nd round and maybe even sooner after his comments at Trail Blazers practice yesterday. If Phoenix is going to make stopping Andre Miller priority #1 on defense, then Aldridge must rise to the occasion. His 16.5 points on 39.3% shooting and 3.5 rebounds a game are not going to cut it, especially with Roy sidelined. He's not even seeing average defenders step up and lock him down either, its a combination of Jarron Collins and Channing Frye, two guys he should eat alive every time down in the post. What I've noticed when LA does get it down low, the defenders always give him baseline, but he rarely takes it, instead settling for a difficult turn around. It'd be nice to see him back either man down, fake to the middle, and proceed to go up and under his man for the easy two off of the window. There are only five defenders on the floor and they all can't hound Andre and Aldridge, so if a double comes, run a cutter to the basket. We should have absolutely no problems scoring at will on this team in the paint, but it takes the proper mindset. The biggest adjustment from Game 2 to Game 3 should be on the defensive end for Portland. Most would think finding ways to re-release Andre off of Hill should be tops on the list, but if we make those countless missed lay-ins, we easily break 100. It was on the other end of the floor which broke us. The fronting in the post which worked so beautifully in Game 1 was negated with crisp, precision passing in Game 2, leading to cheap points in the paint or kick outs to wide open shooters when someone rotated over. Not only did the fronting cause chaos for the Trail Blazers, as everyone seemed out of position, but it seemed like we couldn't buy a rebound either. They won the battle on the boards again, 43-34, and if they weren't racking up offensive rebounds they were in good enough position that all Portland could do was tap it out of bounds to prohibit put backs. The Trail Blazers best bet to slowing down the Suns should be to force them into shooting jump shots, even if it means playing off guys like Amare. This can also help defend the pick and roll with just two players, letting the other defenders stay at home on the three point shooters. I've said this before and I'll say it again, if they are going to beat us with contested jump shots, then so be it. For the Trail Blazers to take a 2-1 series lead tonight, two things must happen. First of all, their body language and movements needs to be sharper and more alert. They were a step slow in reacting to the Suns pressure, which caused for a lot of empty possessions. We all know the Suns will let you score, but you've still got to earn it. Also, Rudy Fernandez needs to wake up and do so quickly. Without Roy and Phoenix keying in on Dre, with he as the starting shooting guard, the Blazers need much more aggression out of him. Why wouldn't the Suns trap Miller at all costs if they know Fernandez isn't going to even look at the basket? This is one game maybe where you don't mind a couple turnovers from Rudy if he's showing signs of being in attack mode. If I'm Coach Nate, I run a few plays for Rudy right out of the gate to see where his body language is at and if his stroke looks right or not. A hot Rudy will ruin all Phoenix defensive strategies to this point and make us that much more difficult to prep for. If Rudy is able to get around 15 points and 5 assists, look for Portland to come away victorious. This is one game where I don't have a clue who is going to step up. Will Camby get 30 again? Can Batum and Bayless go off for 18 a piece once more? Does Andre break the Phoenix code and finally get loose? How does Fernandez react to being scrutinized by the media for really one of the first times in his career here? I'd love to tell you I have a prediction, but I don't. The only thing I'm sure of is how absolutely nuts the Rose Garden is going to be tonight. The energy inside that arena will be enough alone to give the Trail Blazers a boost on the defensive end and prove to be one of the most hostile environments an opposing team can play in. With nothing but blind faith in my team and a deafening crowd in their corner cheering them on, Portland finds a way, somehow, to gut out a gritty win. Round 1, Game 3 Prediction: Trail Blazers 102 Suns 98 Post-Game Thoughts In the bat of an eye, the game was over. Aldridge picked up two more quick fouls in four short minutes to start Game 3 and when he returned, the lead was 18, an insurmountable deficit without the services of Roy. Phoenix, riding the momentum wave, pushed the lead up to 29 at halftime, bringing back horrific memories to Blazer fans who had to sit through the same embarrassing display against Houston in the first home playoff game last year. After being humbled in a big way on Tuesday night in Game 2, a lot of people would have expected more of a sense of urgency, instead we were subjected to second-guessing in all movements and a lack of heart, which is really sad to say considering how much fight they showed all year long. In the first half, Phoenix was outworking us for every loose ball, no Blazer put a body when they drove to the paint, and we failed to show any signs of aggression. Portland did end up winning the 2nd half by 10, giving the fans a little hope going into Saturday's game, but it was too little too late and had fans everywhere scratching their heads and asking, "Where was that earlier?" "The second half tonight, we won that," McMillan said. "We played basketball. We started to fight and we won both of the last two quarters. Somehow we have to get that scrappiness at the start of the game." Portland needs to man up and get off to better starts, because as soon as Phoenix gets up 12-15 points, they shoot loose, which means money in the bank for their shooters. The Suns have just too many shooters for them all to be cool, calm, and collected as they are bombing away from downtown. It also starts and ends with Steve Nash. The amount of easy shots he gets his guys is surreal. No one benefited more from it than Jason Richardson, who picked up right where he left off in Game 2, going off for a playoff career-high 42 points on a sizzling 13-19 from the floor and a heartbreaking 8-12 from distance. As soon as one of Portland's long jumpers missed, Nash received the outlet and pushed it down court, getting J-Rich off early with easy buckets, building his already sky high confidence which was a catalyst in getting him off tonight. With how hot Richardson was shooting, I was amazed how open he was being left open. One play in particular which stood out to me happened in the 3rd. Webster was within arms distance of J-Rich then suddenly decided to drift towards the hoop. Phoenix saw Webster was caught in no mans land and hit Richardson for a wide open three. Portland was not mentally prepared to play basketball last night. "I was very surprised," Richardson said after scoring a career playoff-high 42 points in the Phoenix Suns' 108-89 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday night at the Rose Garden. "Seemed like I was open every time. I was surprised they kept leaving me." I'm surprised Portland hasn't issued a missing person's report, because LaMarcus Aldridge has been M.I.A. this entire series and it really needs to stop now. 17 points, on 5-14 shooting, and 7 rebounds, done most in the 2nd half when the game was already decided, just isn't going to cut it without Oden and Roy. For the second straight game, he took himself out of the game with two early fouls. As a four year vet and team leader, Aldridge needs to play smarter and not take himself out of action. With Roy out, Phoenix is already eying in on LMA and Miller, but when Aldridge goes out early with foul trouble, the whole team swarms to Andre, suffocating him and stalling our offense. Aldridge finally showed a little bit of fire in the 3rd when he got a double technical, getting into an altercation with Amare as well as fighting for good, deep post position. There is absolutely no reason Frye and Collins should be pushing him out to the perimeter to catch the ball with his back to the basket. Am I being too harsh on LMA? Probably, but this is the playoffs, either you win or you go home and his teammates, the city, and fan-base is counting on him to step up and take over like we all know he is capable of doing. "They're trying to take me out any way they can," Aldridge said. "I just have to figure out ways to get going." This loss isn't on Rudy, Aldridge, Nate, or any one player; it was a team loss. Is Phoenix more talented? Most definitely. But wouldn't it make more sense for the injury-depleted Trail Blazers to be the ones showing more intensity on defense, determination in diving for loose balls, and aggression on offense? I love this team and they fall very high on my priority list in life behind religion, family, etc and I supported them through thick and thin, good times and bad times, Drexler era and Jail Blazers era, but that first half effort was simply unacceptable. I brushed off Game 1 against Houston last year as first time jitters, but four of the last nine playoff games for this era of Trail Blazers have been blown out by 16 or more points, twice at home. The fans brought their A+ game last night, chanting to no end, even with the game in doubt. I don't ever think I've seen a crowd so lively with a 17 point deficit in the 4th quarter, but now its time for the players to bring it and ensure the city of Portland gets at least one more playoff game hosted. As ticked off as I am with the team, I'll still be in my seat for Game 4 and if you have tickets to, I hope you're their as well.
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