You probably needed to after the Phoenix Suns pulled the old Michael Myers routine and wouldn’t stay down in the final minutes and Camby missed such an easy-breezy breakaway dunk. The Blazers almost gave it away with all the missed free throws down the stretch, but at least that was the cause and it wasn’t a prolonged series of mistakes as in the last Lakers game.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. This was a fantastic all-around effort by the Blazers to take the 1-0 series lead, but not all too surprising. No, you couldn’t have expected a win, but with ours and a number of the other fantastic series previews around the internet, we’ve established that the Blazers have more than enough advantages with their lineups to make every game of this series competitive. And once you reach that point comparing two teams, it can boil down to a crapshoot of whistles, bounces and breaks, where the team with a 35-40 percent chance of winning can pull out more than one win with a little luck.
Not that this was a lucky win, just that the Blazers surely had luck. Each team had their share of calls and no-calls, so no need to talk about the officials, but as the game wore on the Blazers were the ones getting the majority of those bounces, on both rebounds and balls on the rim. But was Portland making those breaks? Oh, yeah.
One of the things we established prior to the series was that the Suns were the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league, and it showed tonight. Ten offensive boards for Portland were all hugely important, especially as the pace slowed in the second half, but that number seemed low as I checked out the box score post-buzzer (and Phoenix had more than I thought, 17). For the most part, the Suns were ball watching on rebounds, putting bodies on nobody, and letting Portland’s bigs roam freely through the paint. The only real reason Portland didn’t wind up with 15 O-boards is that either Aldridge or Camby was routinely on the perimeter closing out on a shooter, leaving one or two guys max to secure the extra possession.
We’ll get to the individual sources of Portland’s offense — Miller, Aldridge, Bayless, Batum — in a little bit, but bear in mind that, as it has been so all season long, when the Blazer offense was working, they were taking advantage of the Suns’ defensive daze and using the paint to create open looks. When it wasn’t working, they were either settling for jumpers or moving the ball too slowly around the perimeter to compensate on the double thrown at the likes of Aldridge. Those 44 points in the paint were well above Portland’s season average, but they’re going to be there for the taking for most of the series and Portland is going to have to keep taking them as their own.
The defense, though, was where this game was won. Other than some slowish rotations in the first quarter as the Blazers worked up to Playoff speed, you really couldn’t ask for much more from the D. My key to the series was how Miller and Aldridge defended the Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll, and tonight they worked it to the point that Nash stopped going to it for long stretches.
Nash and Stoudemire (sort of) still got theirs, but almost all 43 points between them were earned, Nash with his dead-eye shooting no matter whose palm was in his grill and Stoudemire having to use his athleticism to grab six offensive boards. The key was that the Blazers held collateral damage to a minimum with relatively quick help rotations to the perimeter shooters. Take away Nash and Stoudemire’s buckets, and the other Suns shot 20-of-54, or 37 percent. Granted, Dudley, Frye and Richardson all missed a couple open looks, but so did Portland.
So, what did we learn? Nothing too new. The way the matchups played out are sustainable based on everything we know between these two teams, meaning both teams were, essentially, who they’ve shown themselves to be. We learned the Blazers were ready for the playoffs this year, but after the last couple of months that really shouldn’t have been in doubt. We learned that the Suns can get themselves enough good looks in a short period of time, despite the defense, that they will probably win at least one game because enough volume shooters caught fire. But mostly, it was confirmed that we have a real series on our hands, and it is going to be fun.
You say potato, I say Andre Miller absolutely crushed the Suns. 31 points, 8 assists, 5 boards, 3 steals, 10-of-10 from the line — there was nothing Miller couldn’t do when Portland needed something done. Miller made Nash look very pedestrian at times, not by backing him down like many of us thought but simply by blowing by him and leaving him in the dust. Then, on the defensive end, Miller managed to make Nash as much of a outside-the-paint player as I’ve seen anyone else do this season. After a trying a couple different combinations, the Suns seemed to settle with using Jason Richardson to guard Miller, which was more effective but left Nash trying to stop Jerryd Bayless. The only question now is, how long does it take for the Blazers to retire No. 24?
Marcus “I help you” Camby was the heart of the defense, as usual, pulling down 17 boards along with his loose-ball be everywhere-ness. Were it not for Camby, the Suns get another handful of clean looks at threes and probably win the game. It’s amazing how much ground he can cover. This almost felt like a Joel Przybilla game from Camby, where, when thinking about his performance afterwards, you just smile, shrug and say, “Well, Marcus did Marcus things. And that’s why he’s really, really good.”
The 22 points in 40 minutes are around what you should expect from LaMarcus Aldridge, who dealt with staggered double teams for nearly the entire night. Two things I really liked about this game from him: he didn’t settle for too many quick turnaround jumpers when he got into the post, working himself into the paint for hookshots and high percentage fallaways, and simply that the offense continued to work through him late in the game. Yeah, he tried to throw a panicked no-look pass to Webster out of a double team that went out of bounds in the fourth quarter, but that’s something Aldridge has to experience and learn from. He’ll shoot a little better than 8-of-20 in the next couple games and have fewer than five turnovers, but from a game management and philosophical standpoint, Aldridge was right in line with what was required. But what was with that shake-n-bake dribble attempt on Stoudemire? That’s for the summertime, big fella.
I want to mention Nic Batum and Jerryd Bayless together, because without them stepping up as “The one or two guys Portland needs to step up and score outside of Miller and Aldridge”, Portland gets killed. Batum took the shots as they came, making 3-of-8 from deep, but made a number of nice cuts to the rim and even hit a couple pullup jumpers. He’s doing more than keeping the defense honest, and energy-wise he was just as important as Camby. Oh, and that three which basically sealed the game for Portland deserved one heck of a Sam Cassell tribute.
As for Bayless, he exceeded expectations. He fell in with his shot after hitting a long two early in the game, but eventually settled down and attacked the rim after realizing Phoenix has nobody to stop him from getting to the rim or stop him once he’s at the rim. There was still and offensive dropoff when he came in for Miller, but when he’s attacking the Blazers can survive with a couple minutes of more-stagnant offense. Bayless played almost all of the fourth quarter in place of starter Rudy Fernandez, and it speaks to the separation between the two tonight that there really wasn’t any doubt that it was the correct decision by Nate McMillan.
Speaking of Rudy….well, maybe we better not talk about Rudy. Other than actually hitting a floater, Rudy gave you the same mix of inefficient dribbling and poor shooting we’ve come to expect this season, which remains a massive shame. While it’s not completely fair for us to be saying that he should play better just because it’s Phoenix, I know a lot of you are thinking, “If he can’t do it now, against this defense, when can he do it?”
Juwan Howard made a sweet, high-arcing baseline fadeaway in the first half, contributing later with a couple offensive boards and much-needed inbounding once the late-game free-throw contest commenced.
Martell Webster was almost as bad as Rudy offensively, but he’ll be remember for two consecutive blocks in the second half that stopped a Phoenix momentum surge. Bayless and Batum probably won’t score this efficiently every game this series, so it’s going to fall on Martell — and Rudy — to provide that extra offense one of these nights. Whether or not he comes through could eventually determine Portland’s fate.
Enjoy this one while you can, Blazer fans, because as good as it looks being up 1-0 on the road, Portland is more than likely in for a long series, sure to be filled with plenty of frustrations caused by the Suns’ potent offense. Conversely, don’t act like they’re playing with house money at this point. This series is there for the taking, and you should expect this team to do their best in taking advantage. Any doubts they’ll let you down on that front?