So, we're here. At long last, after a grueling season with many ups, and almost even more downs, we're in the playoffs. After having missed the playoffs last year, can I just be the first to say, "don't it feel good?" Anyway, putting all elation to the side, it's time that we had a good old fashioned breakdown of player matchups. I will say this: the Portland Trail Blazers, even missing Brandon Roy, are a talented bunch of players. We can trade snarky comment after snarky comment about whatever we want, but at the end of the day, we all know that this playoff series is not going to be a walk in the park for either team.
Going into the All-Star Break, the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers were 31-22 and 31-24, respectively. Since the All-Star Break, both teams closed out the season well, taking care of business when needed and making a strong push for playoff seeding. The Suns finished 23-6 in their remaining games and nabbed the 3rd seed, and Portland finished 19-8, winding up 6th. But you already knew that.
The main reason for the success of both teams has been the overall stellar play seen from both ends of the floor. Amar'e Stoudemire has played at an All-NBA First Team level over the past few months. Steve Nash has continued to excel as the offensive mastermind of the team. The bench crew, including Dragic, Dudley, Lou, and Frye, have also been extremely vital and key to the great play we have witnessed.
The Blazers, however? After the injury riddled start to the season (which doesn't even begin to describe it), the Blazers finally got some key players back from injury. Nicolas Batum, everyone's favorite Frenchman, has taken great leaps this year in both his confidence and on court play. Rudy Fernandez, while buried on the depth chart at times, can be a cold hearted assassin from long range. And we all know what Brandon Roy can do.
The Battle of the Point Men
Steve Nash, PHX
Nash is the kind of player that doesn't really need an introduction. His legacy on the court is well documented, well respected, and though he has a few large holes in his game (almost all on the defensive end), he finds a way to step into the lane, take a charge, and get it done.
The main problem with Nash this year has been durability. While he hasn't exactly gone down with any major injuries (knock on wood), his body has still been aging. His bad back has flared up a few times this season, and his shooting percentages and overall effectiveness dropped. He tweaked his ankle a bit, and was a bit shaky for a few games. However, and I'll quote Alvin Gentry on this, "Steve Nash at 50% is still better than half the point guards in the league." True that, Alvin. True that.
Andre Miller, POR
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Andre Miller is the model of consistency in the NBA. His game hasn't really changed much over the years. That's not a bad thing, either. He's adept at passing the ball, scoring the ball (more on this later), and is a fierce competitor, even if he looks like he's cool as a cucumber.
That being said, the part that worries me most about this Blazers team (aside from Marcus Camby) is Andre Miller. Miller has been posting up smaller, weaker guards for years, and it's only exemplified against the Suns. Steve Nash may be one of the best at sacrificing his body for a charge, but when faced with a stronger guard backing him down, it's almost no contest. I expect a lot of help defense when Miller and Nash are in the game. When Dragic is in against Miller, we'll see a different mentality from the Blazers. However, as long as Nash is in there, expect Miller to pound it down low and take advantage of the mismatch.
Advantage: After much deliberation, I'll call this a wash. As amazing as Steve Nash is, you would expect it to be a clear cut choice. However, I could not ignore Miller's size and what he can do in the post. I have a feeling both guards will cancel each other out.
Goran Dragic, PHX
The Slovenian Sniper (feel free to use whatever nickname you'd like) has not only improved tremendously this season, but has been drawing the attention of some of the team's better defenders as of late. His court vision has improved drastically, his confidence is off the charts, and he's beginning to develop his own style. Perhaps more than that, he's proving to be a very adequate replacement for Steve Nash. The team was used to seeing a significant drop off in production when Nash exited the court, but now can rest at least a little easier when Dragic comes in.
Jerryd Bayless, POR
Bayless was one of the more surprising and intriguing players earlier in the year, and for good reason. He was exploding to the basket, he was scoring efficiently, and he was playing like a seasoned pro in just his second year. However, much like the Brandon Jennings explosion of November, it faded. Jerryd was able to put together quite a few nice games, but his problem has been consistency. He's a very nice young player, but aside from the occasional game or two, I think he'll struggle. That being said, I think Bayless is going to be one of the more surprising players of the playoffs, simply because Roy is out. Someone's going to need to pick up the slack.
Advantage: Goran Dragic.
The Tale of the Two Guard
Jason Richardson, PHX
JRich has been something of an enigma this year. We all know what he's capable of doing. He can drop 30+ on any given night. However, for the earlier part of the season, his game was riddled with inconsistency. He started off well, dropped off for a while (averaging career lows for the month of January, I think), and then kicked his game back up to where we all hoped it would be all season.
Obviously, Jason Richardson is a more proven player than Rudy Fernandez. The only thing I worry about it Jason hitting a two to three game cold streak. This team is nearly unstoppable when JRich is firing on all cylinders (as evidenced by the team's record when he goes for 20+ points), and we're going to need that man to be here for the duration of the playoffs.
Rudy Fernandez, POR
Rudy has all the tools to become a great player, but has been stuck behind Brandon Roy. Now that Roy is injured (my condolences), Rudy has the chance to showcase what he's got. There are some games when he'll be hot, hit 6 threes, throw down a beasty dunk, and torch you on the offensive end. Then there are some games when he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if he tried. I'm inclined to say that right now, Fernandez is inconsistent, but with fluctuating playing time, it's hard to tell. So, for now, I will say that I think Rudy stands a chance to be one of the biggest surprise players of the series.
Advantage: Jason Richardson.
Leandro Barbosa, PHX
Barbosa has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season. After starting the first two games of the season in place of the suspended Jason Richardson, it's been a slow, obvious decline from there. LB started off hot, looking like the Brazilian Blur we all know and love. Then he got injured. He came back, gave middling production, and eventually went back out due to his aching wrist. He opted for surgery on it, and hasn't looked the same since. His shot looks off. His decision making, which was questionable before, hasn't improved. And, with the development of Goran Dragic, the holes in Barbosa's game are staring us all in the face.
However, LB has the potential to give the spark off the bench that earned him his Sixth Man of the Year award. Unfortunately for him, I don't see him a.) earning enough minutes to get that kind of production, or b.) him even being able to produce like that.
We likely won't be seeing a ton of minutes from Barbosa, and Portland is looking pretty thin at the two with Roy out. So, here are a few other players who play other positions, but based on matchups, may see some time at the two by default: Goran Dragic, PHX; Jared Dudley, PHX; Jerryd Bayless, POR.
The Saga of the Small Forward
Grant Hill, PHX
Grant Hill never ceases to amaze me. He's a 37-year-old player, had numerous injuries and surgeries, and still gets up to bang with the big guys. Maybe he's still drinking Sprite? Who knows. But I digress.
Grant Hill is kind of like the backbone of the team. He's not exactly a flashy player. He's not likely to drop a huge number of points on the opposing team. However, he's extremely vital to the life of the ballclub. Hill is one of the team's best perimeter defenders, which is what the Suns will be relying on in the slower, more deliberate pace of the playoffs. That's not to say that he won't get out and run. Expect to see a few of the "Hey, I'm going to run out in front of the pack and...oh wait, what's this? A pass from Steve Nash for an easy layup?" plays. But I'm not expecting too much from Hill on the offensive end. I expect Grant to hit the boards, help keep players out of the paint, and pick up a lot of the "intangibles" that don't show up in box scores.
Nicolas Batum, POR
I'm not going to lie: I love this kid. I think he's a very talented basketball player, and is only improving. He also has arms that seemingly go on forever. Batum can be one of those players that if you forget about him or overlook him, he'll be the player to remind you of that and have you saying, "Man, I wish we paid attention to Batum" after the game. He's steadily improving his percentages from everywhere on the floor, and his defense has remained very good. Oh, did I mention he also has freakishly long arms?
Advantage: Grant Hill. While Batum may be younger, more spry, and have more of a future in front of him, Grant Hill has the basketball smarts and veteran savvy. And we all know how important "experience" is in the playoffs. Go ask any writer/commentator for ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, etc.
Jared Dudley, PHX
Ah, Jared Dudley. How can you not love this kid? He plays with the heart of KG, the intelligence of Jason Kidd, and has the infectious personality of Dwight Howard. However, he's stuck with the build of Steve Novak.
All jokes about his lack of elite athleticism aside, Jared Dudley has been one of the biggest reasons the Suns are where they are today. I can't say enough praise about his work ethic. Going into this summer, Dudley decided he wanted to hone in on his three point stroke. Where did that get him? Only fourth in the entire league, with Daniel Gibson and Mike Miller, who have played significantly fewer games than Jared. Awesome. He's also developed a penchant for being able to hit a shot when the teems needs it, as well as his well documented athletic hands.
Martell Webster, POR
I'm going to be honest here. I don't know all that much about Martell Webster. I know he was selected very high in his draft (6th overall) and hasn't exactly lived up to the expectations of a lottery pick. That being said, Webster has shown flashes of being able to warrant his drafting. He's athletic, quick, can hit from range, and defend a little. I don't think he's a game changer, per se, but I do think he's a nice piece to the team. He did have quite a few big games this season (I nearly picked him up on my fantasy team), and the big lines were largely due to a barrage of three pointers. The Suns can't leave this guy open, and if they do, he has all the ability in the world to make them pay.
Advantage: Jared Dudley. Simply for his energy and hustle.
Other players: Taylor "Not Blake" Griffin, PHX. I need not say more.
Amar'e Stoudemire, PHX
What more do you need to say about Amar'e? The man has been an absolute beast. After going down last season with what could have been a career altering eye injury, he has slowly worked his way back up to the ranks of being in the discussion for All-NBA First Team. Perhaps even more extraordinary than coming back from the eye injury the way he has is the way he's been playing since the All-Star Break. Earning honors for Western Conference Player of the Month for March, averaging 27.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 57.7 FG% and 84.8 FT%.
Amar'e has filled into the leadership role both front office brass and fans have been wanting to see him take. He is finally playing like the team leader we've all wanted from him. Also, he coined the term "Bully Ball". Which is awesome.
LaMarcus Aldridge, POR
LaMarcus Aldridge reminds me of a less intense, less powerful version of Amar'e. He has a silky smooth 18 foot jumper, can finish fairly well after contact, and isn't exactly the definition of a great rebounder. Can he rebound? Absolutely. Can he drive and take it hard to the hole? Most assuredly. Does that mean that he's going to be a dominating force? Not necessarily.
However, Aldridge also reminds me of ex-Blazer Steve Blake. Not in any sort of similarities in their games, but in the aspect that he seems to turn up the intensity and have some of his nicer games against the Suns. Maybe he's got some beef with Amar'e? Perhaps he enjoys the way the Suns post defense was played, pre-Robin? No matter what the reason, LMA always turns it up against the Suns. Add into the mix that this is the playoffs, and we may be seeing a new, more focused LaMarcus. That could bode well for the Blazers, who will need all they can get from him.
Advantage: Amar'e Stoudemire. I like LMA, but this wasn't even a question.
Lou Amundson, PHX
Lou Amundson is the energy leader off the bench. Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic are high energy guys as well, but not in the way that Lou plays. Amundson isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, doesn't have the best hands in the world, and doesn't have the highest basketball IQ in the league, but his all out play has been the shot in the arm the Suns needed. Like Grant Hill, Lou's main responsibility is going to be owning the defensive end. With incredible hops, quick reactions, and 110% energy, Lou is the defensive leader of the second unit. If he's playing well, this team will be hard to beat.
I combine these two because in my mind, they are similar players. I know they have different styles of play, and each person brings something different to the table, but they're both first year players that bring good energy off the bench. I like both players and I like what they bring to the team. Cunningham can do some damage on both ends, while Pendergraph mainly focuses on the defensive end and being a pest in the post. The combo of young players has been working for the Blazers this year, and I give credit to the Blazers' front office for drafting smart, workable players.
Advantage: As much as I love Lou and as vital as he is to the second unit, I think Pendergraph and Cunningham have the advantage. It's hard to compare one player to two, but I think the Pendy/Cunningham package is more complete than Lou.
Other players: Earl Clark, PHX. He won't get enough minutes (he may not get any minutes) to have any impact.
The Center Story
Jarron Collins, PHX
The only reason Jarron Collins is starting is due to the back injury of Robin Lopez. If Robin weren't injured, Collins would like be on the edge of falling out of the rotation. That being said, Collins brings a few things to the team. He can rebound the ball adequately, is a smart veteran player, and offers a chance for other players to rest. He won't dazzle anyone with a dunk or send a shot into the second row of the stands, but he doesn't hurt the team either. As a fill in player, I like him.
Marcus Camby, POR
Camby is going to be Portland's best player in this series. His ability to defend and clean the glass will not only be problematic for the Suns, but key to the success of the Blazers. If the Blazers want to have a chance in this series, it's going to start with Marcus Camby. He's always in the league leaders for rebounds and blocks, and possesses a semblance of offensive savvy. He even has a midrange jumper. It's ugly as all get out, but he has it.
I'd like to go on record with this: as Marcus Camby goes, so will the Blazers.
Advantage: Marcus Camby. Also one of those "this wasn't even a question" choices.
Channing Frye, PHX
Channing's play was the reason for the 14-3 start to the season, and while teams have begun to key in on his newfound ability to hit threes (and lots of them), he still continues to be a big part of this team. When Frye is hitting his shots, he stretches the floor. When that happens, the lane is more open. And when the lane is open, good things happen. Steve Nash has more room to operate and display his offensive genius. Amar'e has more room to do his thing. I hate to say it, but Frye is just as important to the success of this team as almost any other player. Not so much in the aspect that he's the most talented player or anything, but this team needs its spacing.
What I expect from Frye: some hard nosed defense. This is the playoffs. We can't give fouls and still allow the opposing player to score, something Channing has become accustomed to doing. Frye has doled out his fair share of hard fouls this season, but it seems like more often than not, his man leads the game with "and one"s.
When Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla both injured for the season, Howard stepped into the starting role for the Blazers. Most people thought both he and the Blazers were done for, but he stepped it up very admirably. He reminds me of Jarron Collins, but better. He can still rebound fairly well, can still give some offensive production, but more than anything, it's his smarts that have kept him in the league. Like Collins, he won't wow you with any highlight reel plays, but his cerebral play can prove to be very beneficial in the playoffs.
Advantage: Channing Frye.
Other players: Robin Lopez, PHX (Injured); Greg Oden, POR (Injured); Joel Przybilla, POR (Injured).
The Suns look poised to take over this series and never look back. However, as I mentioned on the Bright Side of the Sun Blabbercast, the Suns' recent success is due to everyone stepping up and playing at the highest level. If anyone goes cold or doesn't perform well under the brightest lights of the season, the Blazers could very well steal the series. Do I think it will happen? No. But it needs to be addressed at least once.