After a bright and sunny Game 1, the Suns made their adjustments and dropped two feet of snow on the Blazers in Game 2. Two days later, the Blazers are not only still shoveling, but it’s still snowing.
But that’s OK, because it builds character. Right? Right.
If you’re searching for glimpses of clear skies in this iffy weather analogy, that’s it. It’s another growing experience for the young fellers, a chance for LaMarcus Aldridge to experience life as The Man in the playoffs. It’s good for them, it’s healthy. And it’s also incredibly painful to watch.
This team also isn’t young anymore. This isn’t like last season, when the Houston Rockets pushed around the playoff first-timers and we were all able to — fairly — label it a building block. But now Andre Miller, Marcus Camby and Juwan Howard are on this team. They’ve had these experiences. They’re grown. And they’re probably all frustrated in their own ways that all the young players have are just now experiencing the mistakes and failures that will mold their careers.
This was a thrashing, no doubt, but it’s tough and unfair to finger the blame on any individual. Group successes, group beatdowns. Besides, why blame when we can understand?
Starting with the veterans, those guys haven’t been playing any differently all series. Just because Andre Miller isn’t scoring 30 anymore doesn’t mean he’s playing any worse. Phoenix is just putting him at a size disadvantage by playing two strong individual defenders in Grant Hill and Jared Dudley on him. He’s getting the Brandon Roy treatment, if you will. And he still puts out nine assists despite the lane being collapsed on him at all hours. Remember how we were afraid Roy wouldn’t have enough space to operate due to Miller’s lack of a shot? Now Miller doesn’t have room to operate because nobody else can shoot (44 percent for the team).
Camby isn’t any different either. As the lane gets smaller, there’s less room for him to get those long limbs around guys and tip offensive rebounds. On defense? He can’t cover for everyone, not when the Blazers, for an entire half, drag their feet on rotations and hope their arms extend long enough to contest rather than move their bodies. Giving up 118 points per 100 possessions is bad, giving up a full two points on every Jason Richardson possession is fatal. Yes, the Suns hit 13-of-28 from deep — they’re capable of winning a game just by getting hot, we’ve covered this — but the Blazers let offensive frustrations disrupt their defensive strategy. Camby isn’t a miracle worker, not against teams that can kill you without entering the paint with anyone but Amar’e Stoudemire.
What more can you ask from Juwan Howard? He shouldn’t be playing 17 minute in this series, but had to because Aldridge picked up fouls. Howard’s body isn’t enough.
Yes, plenty of bodies are failing. Look elsewhere for excuses, this is just an explanation. Nic Batum’s shoulder robbed this team of not just another capable player, but of an instrument for adjustments. The more talented teams win these seven-game series more often than not for a reason: they have versatility of both mind and body. To this, the Suns are working with a grand piano. Nothing sounded right in the first game, so they replaced some wires, cleaned the keys and started using deeper defensive notes. They have great musical range, and they adapted.
The Blazers, however, are working with a kazzoo. It can sound great when played by the right person, but it’s a simple sound, and the capability for change isn’t there. The kazzoo can try it’s damnedest to sound better than the piano, but it’s not going to carry a concert.
Somewhere down the line, even with just the healthy bodies they have now, the Blazers could be more versatile, but for now it’s a few-note bunch — and not every player is sounding like they need to.
People will pile on Aldridge for a 17-7 on 14 shots. He needs to shoot better to be effective, as we aren’t seeing the defensive strides he made over the last month bear any fruit. Channing Frye is defending him well one-on-one (let’s not blow up the practice angle, shall we?) but the Suns are also throwing doubles with irregularity. That is, they come at different times, from different players at different angles. To Aldridge’s credit, he’s still trying to be patient, trying to read the situations, but he doesn’t know how to handle that attention quite yet. He’ll make the right read, but it’s often too slow, and by the time he makes the correct pass, the defense — and the Suns’ rotations were bloody fantastic tonight — has already caught up.
And now we’re back to the trio we started with before this season began. Remember, all that Blazer magic this season was all because someone stepped up to make something unexpected happen. Phoenix is taking away the two most expected things from the Blazers, Miller-Aldridge and penetration, and waiting on those unexpected performances to beat them. Nic Batum and Jerryd Bayless did their parts in Game 1, but without Batum’s shoulder, there hasn’t been nearly enough from Bayless, Martell Webster and Rudy Fernandez.
The problem for Bayless is that he relies on the same things as Miller. He needs spacing and he needs lanes to get to the hoop. The Suns are making him a jump shooter. Since Bayless can’t just make an adjustment to that without hours upon hours of offseason work, it’s left up to chance and poor percentages and Bayless will hit enough jumpers to open things up. Not happening.
Martell? Well, the guy is trying, we have to give him that. But even when he’s shooting well, he’s just an attempt away from a long miss or an airball that starts a Phoenix fast break. He wasn’t a big problem today, but he needs to hit those outside shots earlier in the game to make life easier on everyone else. He might, also, need to be out there earlier.
Because you aren’t getting much out of Rudy Fernandez in the starter’s role. Sure, he hit a bunch of three’s during Portland’s fool’s gold run in the second half, but how many big comebacks have you seen started, sustained and completed based on some quick threes? None. As with Martell, the shooting needs to be there earlier, but the Blazers need something more out of Rudy, something he hasn’t provided much at all of this season.
Why? Because the Suns are hiding Steve Nash on defense by putting him on Rudy Fernandez. This is Steve “I defend so little that if I were a nation you could occupy me” Nash. That’s the matchup the Blazers have to take advantage of, the one Andre Miller took to the bank in Game 1. Rudy has to make an impact other than from the perimeter when he has Nash on him. So far, so little.
Is it all grim? Not at all. Chances are, they aren’t going to be blown out by 30 three times in a row. That rarely ever happens. While they don’t have a ton of options in terms of adjustments, the Blazers just need to start better and have a couple of the younger guys help out by opening things up. Then just get back to playing a full game of defense as they did in the first contest, and you’ve got yourself a competitive game. No, that late run tonight didn’t mean much of anything, but maybe the elbows between Aldridge and Stoudemire, maybe the Juwan Howard stares, did. Because tonight, the Blazers were shook.