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Preview: Star-less Suns head to Portland to take on Lillard and Trail Blazers

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The first night of a back-to-back features a matchup the Suns have recently had no answer for.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (4-20) at Portland Trail Blazers (13-11)

When: Thursday, 8:00 p.m. AZ

Where: Moda Center, Portland, Oregon

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


Probable Starters

Suns - Elie Okobo, Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, Trevor Ariza, Deandre Ayton

Trail Blazers - Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic

Buckle up. We haven’t seen a contest as ugly as Tuesday’s against the Kings since at least last year’s Spurs fiasco, if not further back, the first three games of the 2017 season that ultimately cost Earl Watson his job. It likely will not be much prettier this evening in Portland, as the backcourt star power of the Trail Blazers is one of the worst matchups imaginable for the Suns without Devin Booker.

That said, getting out to a better start and putting consistent pressure on the defense — as the Suns did in Tuesday’s second half at home — will keep things competitive against the flailing Trail Blazers.

Trail Blazers

112.5 ORtg (8th) - 111.6 DRtg (22nd) = plus-0.9 netRtg (14th)

NBA offenses know they can score on this team. The Trail Blazers are facing the reality for yet another season that the defense simply does not have enough talent to stop elite competition. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic in the starting lineup and undersized guys like Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas coming off the bench, Portland is actually limiting the impact of its long, versatile wing defenders.

Yet as always, the Trail Blazers can rest on their elite offense, buoyed by the still-improving Damian Lillard, averaging 27.3 points, 6.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game in his seventh season. He has also cut down his turnovers while maintaining a huge usage rate and shooting efficiency. This MVP-caliber version of Lillard will lift Portland to playoff competition every year and gives them an advantage that allows them to dominate lesser teams like the Devin Booker-less Suns without much problem.

Between Lillard’s usual dominance and the Trail Blazers’ consistent execution, they remain a formidable regular season opponent.

Suns

102.5 ORtg (27th) - 114.4 DRtg (28th) = minus-11.8 netRtg (28th)

This was the worst possible point in the season for the Suns to catch the injury bug. After a ghastly start to the year, rotation changes and tweaks to the game plan on both ends of the floor set the Suns up for success as their schedule eased up in December and January. But without Booker or T.J. Warren in the lineup, there’s just no way we can expect a close game.

Without its top scorers, this Suns squad more closely resembles the team that last year finished 3-27 than the roster rounding into league-average form at the end of November.

HOWEVER, there is one thing to keep an eye on. One thing to make this game perhaps competitive throughout and more watchable. One thing to entertain you tonight. De’Anthony Melton is good. And he showed it in a big way Tuesday night, with 21 points in his first opportunity with extended minutes this year.

If Melton gets 20-plus minutes once again Thursday (and at this point it would feel like malpractice to play him any less), his patient, pestering defense could frustrate Lillard and McCollum. Partner him with Ariza, Bridges and Jackson and the Suns could squeeze this game to a slow, grinding affair. It’s probably their only chance.

Prediction

While I don’t think Melton starts (yet), I believe he’s a big part of this game once again and makes his presence felt on defense against Portland’s stars. The Suns will try to grind this game down and eek out a win in the low 100s, but even a close game favors Lillard and the Trail Blazers down the stretch.

Trail Blazers 110, Suns 95