When: Wednesday, 7:00PM AZ time
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: Bally Sports AZ
Listen: 98.7 FM Arizona Sports
This time the Suns are the rested home team getting the Blazers on the second night of a road back-to-back.
The Phoenix Suns last played Monday night in Sacramento, where they led by 22 points to start the fourth quarter but barely closed out the 109-104 with a timely defensive play by Devin Booker and a pair of Chris Paul free throws. The Suns now return home for their seventh home game versus only three roadies to start the season.
The Blazers lost in California last night to the Clippers after pulling to within three points (103-100) late in the fourth quarter, but then suffered a 8-0 Clips run to decide the game.
Let’s check in on both the Suns and Blazers, and lay out the keys to the game.
When last we saw
The Suns got blown out in Portland earlier this year, 134-105. You might remember. It was the Suns third game in four nights during opening week, a night after the Suns emotional win over the Lakers. Once they hit Portland, the Suns couldn’t hit anything else.
The Blazers simply couldn’t miss from the outside. That 29-point loss stands as the Suns worst loss of the season so far.
New, rookie head coach Chauncey Billups has had a trial by fire. Not only is he taking over a team with mostly the same roster that keeps coming up short in the playoffs, but he’s got to do it with a clearly injured superstar.
According to Danny Marang of BlazersEdge.com on my preview podcast this week, Damian Lillard is still dealing with that abdominal strain that hindered him in the Olympics, and will eventually need surgery next offseason. Lillard has had a rough start, shooting only 36% from the field and 25% on threes. He does not have the strength to shoot the deep threes with ease, and has not been able to shake defenders for his patented cross-over drives to the rim.
The Blazers are now just 5-6 on the season but have played a difficult schedule, with 8 of their 11 games against teams with .500-or-better record. According to basketball-reference.com, the Blazers have played the 5th toughest schedule to date.
The Blazers offense is focused on shooting as many threes as possible, with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum jacking almost 10 per game and the whole team putting up 41 per game — which counts for 45% of all their shots. They rank 7th on offensive efficiency.
It’s on defense the Blazers struggle. They are ranked only 22nd overall on defense, and give up nearly as many threes as they take, making 14.8 per game (2nd most in the league) but surrendering 14.5 per game (3rd worst) to the other team.
According to Danny, the Blazers have a problem inside the arc too. They don’t have the defenders to properly contain the pick and roll. Point guards like Chris Paul can snake the screen, putting the Blazers in jail because the guards don’t have the length to defend a guy like Paul from behind, and center Jusuf Nurkic is stuck in the middle defending no one. He can’t stay in the paint to deter the lob to the center over the top. Danny comments that a certain Suns backup center has killed them because of it.
Listen to more right here:
Check the pod — it’s only 30 minutes, but chock full of Blazers info and keys to the game.
Still no Deandre Ayton. After playing with pain last Thursday, he’s been ruled out of games for a bit until his bruised knee is pain-free. Head coach Monty Williams says they are prepared to give Ayton all the time he needs, including multiple more missed games. The Suns training staff has been cautious over the last three years, most recently keeping Cameron Payne on the sidelines an extra week after his hamstring pain subsided (Payne missed a total of 2 weeks).
Without Ayton, the Suns have been starting JaVale McGee while giving more total minutes to backup Frank Kaminsky. The new rules changes — of allowing a lot more physicality in the post for both offensive and defensive players — has unlocked Frank’s hidden defensive talents. Frank can’t move that fast, but he’s got enough sand in the bucket to hold his ground on a burly center with the ball in the post. Against the Pelicans, he frustrated Jonas Valanciunas, absorbing Jonas’ contact and stripping him of the ball for a career high four steals. Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is another such challenge. McGee has been a problem for Nurkic too, over the years, but for a very different reason.
Don’t be fooled by the Suns 6-3 record. They are perfectly average this season (15th on offense, 15th on defense) against an extremely favorable schedule that ranks 6th easiest in the NBA so far.
How are the Suns winning? Credit to twitter’s Xin Varlock for the assist. The Suns are the league’s second-best team in the clutch so far this season, by net rating. What’s the clutch? Any time the game is within 5 points in the final 5 minutes.
The sample size is quite small, of course. The Suns have played 12 clutch minutes so far this season with an outrageous 34-13 scoring margin in those 12 minutes over 5 such games.
(Check out the Grizzlies! 34 clutch minutes so far, going 5-1 in such games with +25 net rating! Suns play the Grizz on Friday)
The Suns as a team are slowly (or is it quickly, since we’ve really only seen nine games so far) righting the ship on both offense and defense.
Offensively, the Suns are finally starting to make their threes, with the 8th most three-point makes over the last three games (13.3 per game, much better than before!) while giving up the 10th fewest (11.3).
Here’s more on recent Suns trends
Keys to the game
Sensing a pattern here?
The Suns can make life a lot easier for themselves if they can balance out the three-point battle against the three-happy Blazers.
And they can feel good if it gets down to clutch time. The Suns are 4-1 in the clutch this season (34-13 scoring margin) after being one of the best last year with a 25-12 record, while the Blazers are 1-4, getting outscored 29-22 in such minutes.
Ayton would normally be a big factor — Danny says Ayton has been a tough cover for Nurkic over the years — but the mix-and-match of Frank and JaVale can be tough for Nurkic too, in their own way. The center duo needs to play respectably against Nurkic, who could bully his way to a 30-20 game if the Suns don’t watch it.
Sure feels like a Suns win. Blazers are tired from a back-to-back, while the Suns are rested and at home.