For only the third time all season, the Phoenix Suns won the first quarter. Then they won second, and the third and finally the fourth to finish with a 27 point win over Portland - 114-97.
This was the most complete win of the young season, and boy did the Suns need it. New starters Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris brought energy to the group and the Suns built leads in both the first and third quarters as a result.
Luis Scola and Jared Dudley played necessarily scrappy, which was new to one of them this season. The second unit played the whole game with a lead, though they made it a little scary at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Blazers were playing their starters in an attempt to get back into the game, and the second unit struggled to find offense. Then Jermaine O'Neal got the ball on the block a few times, and the Suns ramped up their energy. O'Neal finished with a season high 17 points.
Alvin Gentry was a master mixer tonight, finding the right mix between the starters and the bench. It helped that Markieff Morris and Shannon Brown played better than they have played most of the season so far. And it helped that Myers Leonard is bad on defense. Like, really bad. Marcin put him in the spin cycle several times in the first half, clearing out the basket for layups by the time he was done. Marcin finishes the first half with 16 points - all on the inside - to go along with 6 rebounds.
Let me digress a bit on rebounding - the Suns were not very good. In the first half alone, the Suns allowed two missed Portland shots to hit the ground and still allowed Portand to grab the ball and keep possession. Luckily, Portland only scored once.
It also helped that the Suns played very good defense on Damian Lillard all night, with Sebastian Telfair and Goran Dragic hassling him and staying in front of him all night. P.J. Tucker was a hound on Batum or Matthews as well for the entire second quarter, which helped further disrupt the Blazers offense. He was so good that Beasley didn't play in the second quarter at all.
Many times, Portland's only good play was drawing the big man on a drive then dumping to Myers Leonard for the now-open ten-footer. Leonard was surprisingly good at making those - even shot-putting one from the elbow. But he more than lost that value by allowing Gortat to own him on the other end of the court.
Oh yeah, Damian Lillard is a good player, folks. He can hit shots with a hand in his face, even changing the shot in the air to get a better look.
The Suns came out hot in the second half, going on a 10-2 run to open the quarter and take a 21-point lead in the third. Quite the departure from the old starting lineup, indeed. It looks as though the Suns came out ready to prove something to themselves tonight, and they did just that.
Portland ended Phoenix's mini-run by going at Beasley on a drive to the hoop (fouled by Beasley), and then giving it to Aldridge for a drive on Gortat (two points).
The Suns began to lose their focus once they got a 17-point lead while the Blazers ramped up their own focus. Ronnie Price even hit a three-pointer during a slow run to close the gap.
But the Suns tonight were making their shots and that's all that matters when you have the lead. Dragic personally stemmed the tide with nice passes, shotmaking and a fast break steal after the lead had been whittled to 12.
Then Morris had a heck of a sequence fighting for an offensive rebound, then getting the ball back and spinning to the hoop for a nice layup.
Portland kept making shots, and kept the Suns within one long dry spell of a close game. But Dragic wasn't having any of it though. He made nice play after nice play on offense and defense, and the Suns ended the third quarter with an 18-point lead, including 8 free throws by Dragic.
Portland gave up the ghost when Jermaine O'Neal and P.J. Tucker helped the Suns build a 23-point lead against the Portland starters, who began the fourth quarter in an attempt to make one last run.
This was the Suns' best all-around game. Enjoy it, folks. The Blazers had won three straight games while the Suns were mired in the muck of losing 4 of 5. This was a good win.
And for the record, the Suns are 3-0 when I sit in press row.
It will be a tough game for the Suns to win, considering how great Portland is playing lately and how poorly the Suns' starters have been playing. Portland has won three straight games, while Phoenix has lost three straight (and four of five).
When: Tonight, tipoff at 7:12PM AZ Time (Mountain)
Where: US Airways Center, Phoenix, Arizona
Watch: FSNAZ (locally), NBA League Pass
Tonight, the Phoenix Suns (4-7) try to right the ship against the Portland Trailblazers (5-5) after three free days or workouts and practices.
Alvin Gentry will introduce a new lineup tonight, already tiring of the quintuplet of Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat. Those guys have generated at least a 10-point deficit at some point in 10 of their first 11 games. Only once this season has the starting unit not been on the floor for a 10+ point deficit, and that was against until-recently-winless Detroit at home. Coincidentally, that was the last time the Suns played effective defense against another team.
On the other hand, the second unit has been dynamite lately. While the starters have dug hole after hole, the second unit has clawed their way out of that hole in all but a couple of games. At least one, if not three of those guys will be rewarded for their efforts with a starting spot tonight.
The Trailblazers, who the Suns beat in the preseason, have exceeded expectations to the tune of a .500 record that includes three-game winning streak against Sacramento, Houston and Chicago. They have also beaten the Lakers and a second time over Houston. Their losses have been to OKC, Dallas, Clippers, Spurs and Hawks.
Rookie PG Damian Lillard (taken 6 spots ahead of Kendall Marshall) has been an impressive, scoring 19 points per game and dishing out 6.1 assists. LaMarcus Aldridge leads the team in scoring (21.1) while J.J. Hickson leads the team in rebounds (10.6). Expect to see a lot of Portland's best players. Four Portland starters average at least 37.5 minutes per game, with J.J. Hickson getting 28.5 minutes.
2012-2013 OVERALL NBA RANKINGS PER GAME
Suns: 98.3 (14th) Blazers: 100.4 (7th)
Suns: 104.3 (30th) Blazers: 101.8 (28th)
Both teams prefer scoring to defending. The key for the Suns is to score more points over the course of the game.
On a more serious note, Goran Dragic and Sebastian Telfair need to outplay Blazers rookie Damian Lillard on both ends of the court. And Michael Beasley/PJ Tucker need to outwork Nicolas Batum at the SF position. If Lillard and Batum both score their season numbers (combining for nearly 40 points) then this will be a tough game to win.
With Gentry mixing up the lineups, we have no idea what we are going to get tonight. We can only hope that the Suns will play as hard as possible. And when they do, good things tend to happen.