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Turning losses into lessons ahead of Portland back-to-back

Blazers gave Suns their only loss of the season so far, how does Phoenix avoid another when they match up twice over the weekend?

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Back on Oct. 21, the Portland Trail Blazers handed the Phoenix Suns their first — and to this point only — loss of the season. Now getting into November, the Suns host a back-to-back on Friday/Saturday with both games facing off against those Blazers.

However, these games will be a little bit different.

Dame Lillard, who scored 41 points in the initial meeting, has been dealing with a calf strain and has missed Portland’s last two games. The initial reporting by Shams Charania stated that Lillard would be re-evaluated after “1-2 weeks.”

Nov. 3 marks the 1 week since then, so his status for these Suns games is a little up in the air. Maybe he plays in one of the games, though it’s more likely based on that wording that he misses both.

On the Suns’ side of things, they may miss Deandre Ayton, who tallied 26/6/3 in the first meeting, still dealing with his left ankle sprain from the Pelicans. Monty Williams had more info after Thursday’s practice:

Beyond those the new statuses of those two, the first meeting was dominated by Devin Booker (33 points on 11-23 shooting) and Anfernee Simons (struggled for most of the game, but hit the game-winner for the Blazers in overtime).

The Suns have a chance to right their wrongs this weekend, and I’ll dive into how:

Dictating the game

Part of the gameplan should be centered — no pun intended — around forcing Portland left (from looking toward the rim from 3). Their shot chart from the first meeting is just a heaping pile of misses from the left, except for two spot-up three’s (one by Simons and the one in the corner courtesy of Josh Hart).

Sharp on Sharpe

As daunting as the 41 from Lillard can be to think about as well as his clutch impact late in games, he wasn’t the difference in this game from a plus/minus standpoint, finishing -2 in his 43 minutes. Shaedon Sharpe, 7th overall pick in his rookie season, led the Blazers in that particular column, finishing +7 in just 12 minutes.

Sharpe, a Canadian who spent time at a Phoenix prep program, Dream City Christian, before sitting out a year at Kentucky has started the last two games in place of Lillard. The highly touted rookie reached double-figures in three straight games before a 2-point performance in the more recent start.

Suns fans will recognize some shades of the Twins in Sharpe’s game, specifically as a cutter and wing defender at 6-6 200 with a 7-0 wingspan. It’s a small sample size at this point, but he’s scoring a blistering 1.6 points per possession on cuts. Especially as he gets more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, he’s a guy to key in on with this Portland squad.

Bench taking steps forward

I know it’s tough to remember that far back, but two games into the season, we were all feeling quite differently about the Suns bench as opposed to now. That night, the bench scored just 24 points, shooting 7-19 from the floor, and no one scored more than 8 (Damion Lee on 2-6 shooting). Now, the Suns’ bench is routinely turning out double-digit scorers and 40-plus point outings as a collective.

Zona went deep on each of the key contributors on the Suns’ back end, including some wild tidbits like Torrey Craig’s otherworldly true shooting numbers thus far:

I’ve also found that the bench is getting an increased leash over the last several games, measured in this instance by the time spent with at least one starter:

Games 1-4 combined: 2 min.

5: 6 min. (Ayton went down in his 8th minute)

6: 7 min.

7: 8 min.

As Ayton returns in the next 10 days or so (barring a setback), I’ll be curious to monitor what happens to that leash. I imagine Cam Payne (8.9 points and 2.9 assists in 16.0 minutes) and Jock Landale (9.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 17.3 minutes) can stave Monty off in a way in demanding they keep that leash.

The first of these two matchups will mark the 10% point in the NBA’s regular season for the boys in purple and orange, and we’re already starting to see this iteration of the Suns morph, blossom, and take shape on their journey to championship contention.

While racking up regular season wins isn’t as exciting as it once was, it’s important to take note of these qualitative and quantitative observations as the squad becomes what it will become — and no, I still haven’t forgotten about the trade(s) that the Suns will make.

Given the developments and arcs of each team at this point in the season (Blazers are 1-2 in their last 3 after a 4-0 start), it’s easy for me to see a path to a 2-0 weekend at Footprint, and an extended win streak which currently stands at 5 for Phoenix.

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