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Game Preview: Short-handed Suns take on Trail Blazers

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

What: Portland Trail Blazers (28-35) at Phoenix Suns (24-38)

When: 7:00 PM AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Once again, the Phoenix Suns will hit a stretch of games without several of their top players being available, though the one constant this year is All-Star Devin Booker.

The Suns will be without two starters — Deandre Ayton (ankle/day-to-day) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (knee/season) — and a couple of bench players in Cameron Johnson (illness/day-to-day), Frank Kaminsky (knee fracture/probable season ending).

But don’t forget that the Blazers have been dealing with injuries all year too. They have been without starter Zach Collins for all but three games and Jusuf Nurkic the whole time. A noted difference here is that the Blazers replaced those missing pieces with starters Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony, who are 3rd and 4th in minutes played this season. The Blazers are also without role player Rodney Hood, who was replaced at the deadline with Trevor Ariza.

On a smaller scale, the Blazers have dealt with myriad day-to-day injuries just like the Suns. None of the Blazers top players have appeared in all 63 games to date. Lillard has missed 8. McCollum 4. Whiteside 5.

Injuries happen in the NBA. Teams deal with them all the time. Some teams make trades to fill in behind big injuries. Other teams are the Suns.

The Groin

We can thank Damian Lillard for there being at least ONE good thing to come out of this Suns season: getting Devin Booker to the All-Star game.

When Lillard went down in the Blazers final pre-All-Star game with a pulled groin, he immediately endorsed Booker to take his place on the team and the league agreed.

Please give Lillard a HUGE cheer tonight when he in introduced in the Blazers starting lineup to show our appreciation of his efforts to give the Suns their first All-Star since Nash left.

Probable Starters

Damian Lillard returned on Wednesday night after a six-game absence and hit the game-deciding bucket to give the Blazers the much-needed win.

Blazers Update

As mentioned above, the Blazers have spent all season replacing injured parts with playable-but-not-quite-as-good parts.

Through it all, Damian Lillard has had possibly his best season as he tries to will the Blazers back into the playoff picture. The Blazers are 28-35 today, in 9th place but 3.5 games behind the surprising Grizzlies. The site fivethirtyeight.com gives the Blazers the 2nd best odds to get the 8th seed in the West (24% chance), way behind the Pelicans (45% chance). The Grizzlies, with the West’s toughest remaining schedule, are given only a 20% chance to hold onto that 8th seed. These odds are fluid, of course.

If this means anything to you, basketball-reference.com says that the Blazers are right on their expected record (based on their offensive and defensive efficiency) at 28-35, while they think the Suns should be half-game ahead at 28-34.

Lillard and CJ McCollum remain the Blazers dynamic duo, the engine that pulls the car down the highway. And they might just drive that car into the playoffs once again after all.

They are still targeting a March return for Zach Collins to boost their size, and have seen players like Gary Trent Jr. and Trevor Ariza (haha jkjk) provide good minutes. Ariza plays the 3rd most minutes on the team since being acquired from the Kings bench, at 33.5 per game. Okay, maybe they won’t get into the playoffs after all.

The Blazers are full of players who love to beat the Suns, including Ariza who led that 21-point Kings comeback earlier this year and Lillard who generated a game-winning three-point play to beat the Suns in December.

Suns Update

Your favorite team just can’t seem to get it together on their home court. The Suns are now an abysmal 11-22 at home (compared to 13-16 on the road).

And the Suns record in against the West in those home games? 5-16. That’s compared to 9-10 on the road against the West.

The Suns have fittingly split games vs. the Blazers this year: winning 122-116 up in Portland while losing 111-110 at home on that game-ending three-point Lillard play.

Your Suns are now just 24-38 on the season, though at least there are more road games (12) than homies (8) the rest of the year so maybe they can still break the 30-mark.

As reported earlier, Deandre Ayton will return soon to the lineup but not soon enough to play tonight. Rookie Cameron Johnson is out as well (reported as illness), which is a shame since he had a career high 21 points (including 5 threes) last time out.

Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio — despite taking turns looking exhausted — can likely forget all about any load management crap, since the Suns have no interest in losing intentionally as long as a player is healthy enough to play. And Aron Baynes, the longest-tooth on the team at 33 years old, will likely have to play 25+ effective minutes for the Suns to stay in the game.

With the flattened lottery odds, there is no point losing intentionally anymore. Just last June, the first lottery with flatter odds, we saw the Pelicans jump from 7th to 1st (hello Zion!) and the Grizzlies jump from 9th to 2nd (hello Ja!) and the Lakers jump from 11th to 4th (Hello Anthony Davis!) while the league’s worst teams grabbed the scraps left behind — Knicks settled for R.J. Barrett at 3rd overall, Cavaliers settled for Darius Garland at 5th and the Suns dropped from 3rd to 6th. This year, the Suns will finish in the 8th-11th range in the lottery.

A note on Devin Booker. NO, I absolutely do not give Booker any slack for getting “tired” these last few weeks. I understand it intellectually, given the circumstances, but I absolutely don’t think he should be floundering the way he is. When the Suns came out of the All-Star break, they were still less than a handful of games out of 8th and could have made a run. But Booker’s slump has contributed to a 2-6 record and me having to talk about f$*#ing lottery odds. Thanks, Book.

The Stats

Prediction

These teams are much closer than they appear, and the game results between them this year speak to it.

I think this game will go down to the wire, and the Suns might just win if Aron Baynes reclaims his role as the greatest fill-in starting center in Suns history. If Baynes can pull Whiteside out of the paint by hanging around the 20+ foot mark to set screens and then pop out for threes, the Suns have a chance here even while slumping.

Keys to the game: Rubio being good. Booker being great. Baynes being November-Baynes. Dario and Mikal Bridges making half their threes. Suns as a team making 13+ threes.

Unfortunately, if it’s a one-possession game in the final minutes, the Blazers have one of the league’s greatest closing shot-makers in Damian Lillard and the Suns do not.

I’ve predicted lots of wins this year that came up empty, so here’s a new take:

Blazers 114-112