Although we at Bright Side of the Sun have a great staff of writers and a very insightful community to help guide us through the season, every once in a while, it's nice to get an outside perspective as well.
Prior to the game tonight, Chris Lucia of Blazersedge.com and I participated in a question and answer session about tonight's match-up between the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Here is what Chris had to say about tonight's game, and much more.
Sean: The Suns are struggling just to make the playoffs this year in the ultra competitive Western Conference. The Blazers currently hold the 4th spot in a very tight race. What is your take on how much the team values the importance of seeding vs. ensuring players are healthy for a sustained post-season run?
Chris: As of this writing, any combination of six Blazers wins and Oklahoma City losses would seal the Northwest Division title for Portland, and that's with 12 games remaining. It would take a sizable collapse on the part of the Blazers and a titanic effort from the Thunder in order for OKC to take the division crown. This guarantees Portland no worse than the fourth seed, which they are essentially locked into, as catching Houston for the No. 3 slot seems pretty ambitious at this point considering the health concerns of the team.
It's difficult to predict whether or not coach Terry Stotts and the rest of the Blazers' braintrust would shut down any of the players for the remaining games once that fourth seed is locked up -- which could realistically happen with more than five games remaining. I think LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Chris Kaman would all benefit from some games off, but so far, it seems like they're fairly hesitant to do so unless it's deemed pretty necessary.
I wouldn't be surprised to see them all get a game or two off once the seeding is locked in and the pressure is off, then have them back for the last couple games at OKC and Dallas in limited minutes. Then again, Stotts could just ease up on their court-time down the stretch. It's pretty hard to say, all things considered.
Sean: Speaking of health, Aldridge came back against the Jazz and had some crucial plays at the end to help squeak out the win. What is the status on Batum and Kaman returning, and how much better do you think they make your team, and how do they change the dynamic?
Chris: Aldridge came back on Wednesday in Utah and played 36 minutes, scoring 19 points on 19 shots. I think it's safe to say he'll be back tonight. Batum was technically available against the Jazz but never made it into the game, but I'd say it's likely he'll suit up and start tonight. I have no clue about Kaman, as he's seemed a little vague on his injury status throughout the season.
Aldridge is the key to this team -- without him, I might favor the Suns by double-digits tonight. Everything he does opens up the offense for his teammates; his bread-and-butter shot from the midrange warps opposing defenses that are generally designed to allow those long two-pointers and even encourage them, which can't be done with a guy like Aldridge or he'll score 40+. Stick him in single-coverage with a weaker or smaller defender and he's liable to go off. He's also one of the best low-post players in the league, is great at drawing fouls and shoots free throws at a great rate.
Teams often double Aldridge, which allows him to find an open teammate around the perimeter, often initiating some exquisite ball movement when things are really clicking. Arron Afflalo, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Steve Blake, Dorell Wright, Allen Crabbe, CJ McCollum...all these guys get open threes on account of Aldridge's effectiveness. Batum contributes a bit more as a facilitator and rebounder, scoring in a complementary role but also able to get streaky from deep and he can help push the tempo when needed. His length really benefits the defense a lot, but the team can absorb the loss of him or Kaman far, far easier than the loss of Aldridge.
Sean: There are some Suns' fans (ok, many) who would love to see LaMarcus Aldridge in a Phoenix jersey to start next season. How confident are you that Portland will be able, and will want to keep LMA as an unrestricted free agent this summer while paying him the big bucks it will take to do so?
Chris: There are 29 other teams in the NBA that would like to have Aldridge on their team next season I would assume, given the opportunity and financial freedom to do so.
The Blazers offered Aldridge his longest possible extension last summer -- in the five-year, $80 million range, I believe -- in a customary fashion, knowing full well he'd turn it down to get the maximum this offseason of five years and $100 million+. At the time and since, Aldridge has stated that he hopes to remain a Blazer for life and would like to one day be considered the greatest player in franchise history. Those aren't generally words from a guy who plans on skipping town any time soon (cue the LeBron James/Heat comparisons. *sigh*).
The organization hasn't wavered from its commitment to Aldridge in light of his recent thumb injury, which will require surgery this summer and would ostensibly keep him out of basketball-related activities for several weeks or even months. I'd say the Blazers and their fans have the utmost confidence right now that Aldridge re-signs long-term in Portland this summer.
Sean: The Suns have been a problematic matchup for Portland over the past couple of seasons, even when the Blazers are considered the better overall team. Phoenix has similar matchup nightmares with supposed lesser teams like the Kings who they just can't seem to beat. What is it about the Suns' style of play, and personnel, that presents such a challenge for Portland?
Chris: In the past I can tell you that quick, penetrating guards that can push the ball, shoot from outside and score at the rim with any consistency give Portland the most trouble, so I'd point to Dragic and Thomas being the main reasons the last several meetings. Bledsoe also fits that mold a bit and has the potential to really disrupt Lillard with his defense.
I'm concerned about Phoenix' ability to shoot jumpshots, as the Blazers' defense pushes shooters in that direction. The Morris brothers, Tucker and a few other guys can capitalize on the shot opportunities Portland usually allows.
Sean: The Blazers and Suns will play twice more before the end of the season, switching locations, and starting here in Phoenix on Friday night before heading over to Portland that Monday. What are your predictions for each of those games, and why?
Chris: Friday night, I say Blazers in a close game. I think Portland wants to wrap up the Northwest Division ASAP in order to start limiting guys' minutes a bit and start looking forward to the playoffs and potential matchups. That said, the Suns always give them problems and it's in Phoenix. It won't be nearly as easy as last time, I'd predict.
On Monday, the Blazers have to win for Blazer's Edge Night! In all seriousness, though, if Phoenix pulls off the win Friday, they'll still be in the thick of things out West and anything could happen Monday. They're a young, motivated team that got so close to tasting the playoffs last season that they might just play out of their mind the last dozen or so games of the season. No easy wins for either team this weekend, that's for sure.
Thanks again to Chris Lucia for taking the time to give us his take on things, and a valuable outside perspective on tonight's match-up. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisLucia_BE and Be sure to visit our friends over in the Pacific Northwest at Blazersedge for all of your Trail Blazers info. Those guys do great work!
You can also view Chris's questions to me, and my responses about the Suns in his article posted here.