The Phoenix Suns begin their toughest stretch of games all season with a matchup against the Portland Trailblazers, who will come to Phoenix without the services of leading scorer and rebounder LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Suns beat the Blazers three out of four times last year, but this year the Blazers are a different team. Last year, the Blazers were one of the league's best offenses hiding a mediocre defense. This year, the Blazers offense is middling while the defense is propping it up with a top-5 rating.
Can the Suns keep up their magic against the new-look Blazers this season? Read on to find out.
No Robin Lopez. No LaMarcus Aldridge. So what.
While the Blazers are missing two starters, the Blazers keep winning anyway. They are 31-11, and have kept winning despite losing their anchor at center in Lopez and replacing him with eminently replaceable Chris Kaman. Even on Tuesday night, they lost Aldridge in the first half and won anyway.
The Blazers this season have jumped all the way up to 2nd in defensive efficiency, playing the same primary lineup as a year ago except with a, get this, defensive downgrade most of the time at center (Kaman for Lopez).
Opponents are shooting just 43% this year from the field (2nd lowest in the league), and only 30% on three pointers, just 5.3 made threes a game (both lowest in league). Yet they give up the 28th MOST field goal attempts overall. Just a year ago, they were good at denying three-point attempts but allowed a league-average 35% conversion rate.
How are they doing it? How are the Blazers all the way at the league's #2 defense, in terms of points per possession?
Our brother site BlazersEdge.com did an in-depth analysis on the Blazers' D and came to the conclusion equivalent to a shoulder shrug. Much like the Suns' #2 three-point D a year ago, the Blazers' three-point D appears to be something you just appreciate while it's there.
Overall though, the Blazers are playing quite good defense. While the Suns turned #2 three-point D in an overall #15 rating a year ago, the Blazers are using their three-point D to nearly lead the entire league in overall defense (per possession).
This kick-ass article on the Blazers D shows that the Blazers are playing a different kind of pick-and-roll defense this year that has been quite effective for them. Instead of the big man coming out to 'hedge' on the point guard, the Blazers' bigs drop into the lane to defend the drive 99% of the time. This allows the weak side defenders to stay on their man rather than rotate into the paint to bump the rolling big.
While that would be an effective defense against most teams whose biggest volume three-point shooters are the weak side guys (like Korver, for example), this defense could play into the hands of the Suns quite well. You see, the Suns point guards it when the big drops into the lane. They can either drive straight into the big body or pull up for their own shot, depending on whether the opposing point guard switches onto the pick man.
The Suns went 3-1 against the Blazers last year. The Suns only shot well from three in one of those four games, but scored at will in every other area and won handily. The only Suns loss was after an inexplicable easy layup by Lillard preceding a missed layup and two missed tip-ins by the Suns at the other end that would have won the game.
Would you be surprised to know that the Suns have played the league's third most "clutch" minutes this season (Suns have 123 clutch minutes this year, behind only the Grizzlies, Spurs)?
And, would you be surprised to know the Suns are the SIXTH BEST clutch team this year, with a net rating of +11 per 100 possessions in those moments?
Well, it's apparently true. Here's the definition used in the article:
The most standard definition of clutch situations in the NBA is "any possession during the last five minutes of a game in which the teams are within five points of each other." If that definition seems arbitrary, it's because I suspect it is.
However, the narrower the definition of clutch we use, the smaller the sample sizes. We're already talking about a fairly tiny subset of NBA data as it is. But it's important info -- through Tuesday, we've played 624 games so far this season, and 327 of them have involved clutch possessions (52 percent).
One important thing to remember: The best clutch strategy is to avoid clutch situations. Teams are more defined by their blowouts than their close games.
By that standard definition, the Suns are behind only Golden State, Dallas, Atlanta, Portland and Chicago in clutch performance with a net +11 rating per 100 possessions.
The problem is that, if you're down 5 with 5 minutes to go, that net rating really only equates to a +1 or +2 in those minutes, which is still a loss. That appears to be the Suns problem, and highlights the importance of the final sentence I pasted from the article: Don't get in clutch situations!
A year ago, Miles Plumlee burst onto the scene against the Blazers with an 18-point, 15-rebound night to kick off the 2013-14 season. A year later, Alex Len has taken over the center duties and has been impressive himself. Len could get a double-double tonight against the Blazers backup center Chris Kaman.
However, Kaman has always been a load against Phoenix and could be a primary down-low scoring option with Aldridge being out. Expect Kaman to put up a 20 and 10 night, and just hope that Alex Len puts up comparable numbers to negate his impact on the final score.
Interested in playing Daily Fantasy Basketball with the chance to win money? Sign up for FanDuel here! Putting bets on Chris Kaman just might be a winner for you. You can bet on Suns players doing well this week, or bet on their opponents not named Kaman: Damian Lillard, Wesley Mathews, James Harden, Dwight Howard... the list goes on...
I think the Suns win this one, but it will be tight. The key will be controlling the league's ultimate big-shot maker Damian Lillard.
Suns by 5.
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