If you can’t rank at the top, tank at the bottom. The Phoenix Suns have not only taken this sentiment to heart, they aren’t even bothering to hide it. Last Friday, the Suns traded veteran center Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards in a deal for Emeka Okafor’s herniated disc and expiring contract. While interesting for their future, the move leaves their present with something to be desired; namely a starting caliber center. The Portland Trail Blazers have the distinct honor of testing their newly stabilized foundation against the Suns’ freshly demolished rubble, but don’t count Phoenix out.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
- Eric Bledsoe – Bledsoe has spent the last two seasons of his three year career playing 2nd fiddle to Chris Paul in Los Angeles. Now he will finally get his chance to start—as a shooting guard. Though a bit undersized at 6’1”, he is an explosive athlete (and my personal prediction for Most Improved Player). This could be a big problem for Wesley Matthews, who lacks the lateral quickness to defend faster opponents, and Robin Lopez, who hasn’t mastered helping on the drive. Bledsoe is primed for a memorable premiere in Phoenix at the Blazers’ expense.
- The Frontcourt – Phoenix power forward Markieff Morris is serving a one game suspension for his preseason elbow on Serge Ibaka. This means that former Blazer Channing Frye will likely start in his place, while sophomore Miles Plumlee tries to fill Marcin Gortat’s shoes at center. Aldridge and Lopez will have a significant upper hand in the paint. Frye is making his rusty return after missing all of last season with an enlarged heart, and Plumlee is coming off of logging just 55 total minutes in his rookie campaign. Portland’s 2x all-star forward and shiny new center must attack the weakness.
- Lillard’s Defense – Goran Dragic may not be an elite point guard, but he’s the best returning player on the Suns’ roster. He was able to scorch the Blazers for 19 points in preseason under the watchful eye of Damian Lillard, who tallied 5 personal fouls in the loss. Since the Suns will be relying heavily on their guards until they can address the scattered frontcourt, it’s Lillard’s responsibility to keep Dragic from penetrating. That’s easier said than done, as Dragic is sneakily one of the better finishers in the league (66.4% at rim last season) and Lillard’s defense is a work in progress.
The Blazers are a superior team on paper (as are the 28 other teams), but they have to be careful if they want to start the season on the right foot. Sometimes shorthanded squads can cobble together a winning effort out of desperation and necessity. Last night the Lakers upset the Clippers 116-103 with five bench players scoring in double figures (led by Xavier Henry with 22). There is no reason that the Suns would be unable to surprise the Blazers with a similar performance if Portland shows up unprepared. The Blazers must force the issue inside and keep opposing guards out of the paint in order to win tonight.