After a close win back in Portland last Tuesday, the Suns had the Blazers visit Phoenix this time in their fourth preseason contest. With both of these teams squaring off in a weeks time for real, it made sense for neither side to show much of their offensive schemes.
As Portland head coach Terry Stotts said prior to the game, they were going to go vanilla in terms of offense. Also, Stotts mentioned that his main guys would not see much playing time after the first half, meanwhile Watson himself said that starters would see regular minutes.
In Wednesday’s game, Devin Booker sat out after knocking knees with a Utah defender on Monday. Since it is only preseason, Watson did this for precaution but Booker went through his normal pregame routine fine so nothing to really see here outside of just rest. T.J. Warren continued to sit out as well with a lower back contusion he suffered last week in Salt Lake City.
Suns starters: Bledsoe, Daniels, Jackson, Chriss, Chandler
Blazers starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Davis, Collins
On the Blazers’ first possession, Eric Bledsoe got lost while tracking a screen, allowing a wide-open Damian Lillard to drain his first shot attempt of the night. Shortly after, Josh Jackson made his presence felt very early on. On the Suns’ second possession, Jackson grabbed the rebound and took it coast-to-coast for an and-1 opportunity, too.
Early on, Marquese Chriss had already taken three shots from behind the arc and seems rather confident with it. When it comes to Chriss and Dragan Bender, Phoenix’s 2016 first rounders, one of them will have to turn into a reliable outside shooter, and thus far, Chriss’ shot looks way further along than Bender’s but as we all know this development timeline for this group still has plenty of years left on it.
Tyler Ulis replaced Eric Bledsoe first, and then a few minutes later, Alex Len and Mike James replaced Tyson Chandler and Troy Daniels. With Ulis and James out there together, that by far is the smallest possible backcourt combination and one of their quickest as well.
Suns finished the last half of the quarter featuring a unit of Ulis, James, Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Len. Could be a good lineup to get Bender going, but in the process, Jackson continues to show his mid-range game will be a thing we see consistently on a nightly basis. Before the quarter ended, Daniels replaced Jackson including Bledsoe for Ulis.
The first quarter was filled with misses on both ends, as at the end of it the score was only 27-21, Portland leading.
The second quarter began for Phoenix with a unit of Bledsoe, James, Jackson, Bender, and Len on the floor. When Bender got his first rebound of the quarter, he pushed it up in transition and posted up Meyers Leonard. However, Bender then passed it off to Bledsoe to set up that possession’s play.
Leonard drained another three, this time over Bledsoe, and Watson immediately called timeout with Phoenix down 35-24 with 9:52 left in the second. In the meantime, as a two-guard, James has been consistently getting open off cuts and screens. James splashed home a three-pointer over a quick contestant, continuing my belief he could see some rotation time at least through the first 45 days of the season.
Much like Utah, however this time it took until the second quarter, Portland blew the game wide open. After only trailing by six, the Suns fell behind 44-28 with 6:45 left before halftime. The Blazers capitalized off of silly mistakes and Leonard continued his hot streak from the outside, which Watson said he would allow when defending bigs.
Phoenix, with their starting rotation, began to put a dent into the sizeable lead, cutting it down to 12 with just over four minutes remaining. Jackson already has 10 points, and really it hasn’t seemed like he’s worked that hard for those points, utilizing his 15-footer and quickness in transition against much slower-footed bigs in Collins and Caleb Swanigan. The Suns’ No. 4 selection, as we have seen in each of their preseason contests, has taken advantage of that at times playing small-ball four
Jackson had another moment before the half, as he did a nice hesitation move on Maurice Harkless before floating a layup over him. On the next possession down the court, Jackson swats away a layup of his own. When Jackson is on the court, it is hard not to just follow along with him. His relentless motor on both ends stands out, and he’s showing a much more consistent offensive approach than we had previously thought of.
Before the half, Bledsoe led Jackson right to the rim against Zach Collins for a poster attempt, but he lost control of it on the way up. At halftime, Portland led Phoenix 54-40. Jackson led the way for the Suns with 14 points and four rebounds, while Chriss contributed 7 points and 6 rebounds of his own.
The second half started off with a foul fest between both sides. In the first two and a half minutes, we have multiple fouls on opening possessions. Ed Davis then a few moments later finished a tip-dunk through contact from Chriss to extend the lead back up to 20.
Daniels hits his first three-pointer of the night with under 9 minutes to go to cut it back under 20, but, like Utah, this game already seems too far out of reach for Phoenix.
After Daniels was stripped on a layup, he grabbed at Davis and fouled him, putting the Suns in the penalty already less than five minutes into the second half.
Chriss shot a wide-open three, missed it, but Jackson rebounded it and immediately motioned him to go towards the rim, throwing up a lob moments after. Jackson’s awareness continues to be something that stands out to me when watching him in-person.
After Daniels hit his first three, he then hit back-to-back in less than two minutes time. Daniels’ shooting will be much needed for a second unit, without Warren, who struggled to produce at all Monday night. The former Memphis Grizzly will prove to be a key for Phoenix this season if they want to continue to improve from beyond the arc.
Len, who the Suns had been trying to establish in the post when he entered in the third, gets the ball stripped out of his hands while going up. On the next offensive possession, Bender tries to feed Len but makes an awry pass that leads to a turnover. Bender got the ball at the top of the arc but again seemed hesitant to try to initiate anything for himself. I’m hoping Bender slowly gains that offensive confidence, because Watson has said on many occasions how they have full trust in their 2016 first round pick, and want him to be aggressive anyways on offense.
Jackson stole the ball away on an inbound and immediately fed Bender who was standing at the left corner outside. Bender in stride hits the three-pointer; maybe that will get him going heading into the year?
Bledsoe, who has been struggling tonight, is replaced by Ulis and again we see James alongside him at shooting guard. With James and Ulis together, Phoenix not only is pushing the pace better, but James himself is proving to be a legitimate NBA player during the process of this preseason. James has 12 points through three and had 10 already at halftime.
End of the third quarter and the Suns trailed Portland 86-61.
During the fourth quarter, Len got tied up with Swanigan and the second home scuffle ensued. Both of them were ejected in short order with just over 9 minutes to play.
What stood out in Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Trail Blazers was their poor shooting performance. At halftime, the Suns shot only 30.2% and weren’t able to improve that number any deeper into the game.
However, a bright spot that could be noted is Jackson. With Booker and Warren out, Jackson was predominately the team’s number one option on offense outside of Bledsoe, who himself had a poor shooting night. Whether it was in transition as a playmaker or scorer and heads up defensive plays, Jackson flashed a lot of what the Suns expected after they drafted him in the minutes he logged.
Through four preseason games, it’s looking like it will be another tough stretch for Phoenix but entering the year, we all expected a season revolving around overall progress from their core four. The overall timeline of when Phoenix will contend depends on how Booker, Jackson, Chriss, and Bender develop in the next few seasons, so right now already have one of the youngest rotation in the league, we knew this playoff drought was not going to be snapped so soon.
The future, though, is looking promising as Jackson displayed a game that shows his overall potential as a two-way wing has the capabilities of being sky high in Phoenix’s 113-104 loss to Portland.