Phoenix 108, at Portland 89 (Phoenix leads series 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 123.4, Portland 105.0
At 7 p.m. local time Thursday evening, the Rose Garden was ready to rock. 20,000-plus Portland Trail Blazers fans, most of them joining in the "red out" that blanketed the stands with red t-shirts and jerseys, cheered the team's every move during the opening minutes. It quickly became apparent, however, that the Portland partisans would not have much to celebrate on this evening. Despite the energy offered by the crowd, the Blazers came out flat. The Phoenix Suns opened up an early 19-6 lead, had an 18-point advantage after one quarter and pretty much coasted thereafter.
Portland did threaten briefly during the fourth quarter, when the crowd--which had booed the team at times, so lackluster was its play--sprung to life, seizing on the slightest bit of hope to explode to its collective feet in a game the Blazers still trailed by 17 points. They would get as close as 11with 5:24 left, but the Suns' starters restored order with a 7-0 run to put the game away.
It's hard to point to any one thing that went wrong for Portland. Talking about adjustments, at least within the game, was reminiscent of the Little Dutch Boy--there were too many holes to fill.
Let's start, though, with Rudy Fernandez, since the Spaniard's play was a major storyline between Games Two and Three. After two invisible games in Phoenix, Fernandez was no better and maybe even worse in the opening minutes of this contest. Looking very tentative and self-conscious, Fernandez was called for a charge on the game's first play and reluctantly took and missed a three before committing his second foul in three-plus minutes at the defensive end and leaving the game. Early foul trouble and slow starts by Fernandez and LaMarcus Aldridge really set a negative tone for the rest of the game for the Blazers.
Fernandez finally saw the ball go through the hoop midway through the fourth quarter, hitting an open three-pointer. He followed that with another one in transition and made a third in as many possessions on a set play after a timeout moments later. Fernandez added a fourth three later and ended up scoring more points in the fourth quarter (12) than in the first 11 periods of the series (10), a hopeful sign for a Portland team that needs him to be an offensive presence.
The Blazers desperately need those other sources of scoring because the Suns continue to largely take Aldridge and Andre Miller out of the game. Aldridge scored 17 points, but it took 19 shooting possessions, and to call them a quiet 17 would be an understatement. By sending a second big man to offer double-team help against Aldridge, Phoenix is taking away the easy pass over the double team. Instead, Aldridge has to back away from the defense to create passing lanes, and that gives the other Suns defenders time to rotate. Phoenix deserves a lot of credit there and its work against the pick-and-roll. The team's defensive rotations were crisp, and that frustrated the Blazers by making them work so hard for every score.
The Suns weren't nearly as aggressive in defending Miller as in Game Two. Grant Hill no longer pressured Miller as much in the backcourt, and denied him the basketball less frequently. Even in the half court, however, Hill's length bothered Miller, who handed out nine assists but scored just 11 points and had four turnovers.
Portland lost one source of offense when Nicolas Batum left late in the first half after re-aggravating his right shoulder strain. That's two incidents with Batum's surgically-repaired shoulder in as many games, and the Blazers can't count on having him the rest of the series. Fortunately, reserves Jerryd Bayless (14 points, 6-of-8 shooting on two-point attempts) and Martell Webster (14 points and eight rebounds compiled largely through effort on a night where his shot wasn't falling, either from the line or beyond the arc) played well in extended minutes. Portland also got excellent run from Dante Cunningham, who offered energy off the bench and has earned more extended action. The bench, which played poorly down the stretch of the regular season, has actually been something of a strength so far in this series.
At the other end of the floor, the Suns posted an Offensive Rating better than 120 for the second straight game, shooting 46.4 percent from beyond the arc and 57.1 percent on twos. Jason Richardson supplied most of the firepower, scoring 42 points--two shy of his regular-season career high--on 87.5 percent True Shooting.
Even after Richardson and Hill went off in Game Two, there wasn't a lot of talk about adjustments on defense for the Blazers, presumably in no small part because Nate McMillan was happy with the way the team defended Amar'e Stoudemire. Taking away the pick-and-roll game between Stoudemire and Steve Nash requires bringing over a third defender, and unless the rotations on the weak side are nearly perfect, that's going to mean giving up uncontested shots. Still, Alvin Gentry explained after the game that a tweak to the way Phoenix spaces the floor and the positioning of Channing Frye (often the player drawing the defense and dishing to Richardson; he had four assists) got Richardson more open looks. Really open looks. Really open looks that allowed him to make eight three-pointers in 12 attempts, which isn't a bad percentage in an empty gym.
At some point, McMillan will have to consider adjusting the team's defensive philosophy. Stoudemire's buckets, after all, usually only count for two points, not three. And it's not exactly like Stoudemire was shut out in Game Three; he scored 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting himself and would have done more damage if not for an off night at the free throw line (4-of-9). The ultimate example of this strategy was probably San Antonio in the 2005 Western Conference Finals, when Stoudemire averaged 37 points per game but the Suns lost in five.
Portland can feel better about the way Webster defended Nash in the second half, when he did not make a field goal (he only shot once) and had nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four). Webster isn't as long as Batum, but he's a much more physical defender and that style created some issues for Nash.
For all that discussion, Saturday's Game Four may be about more than the Xs and Os. Before the game, Gentry attributed much of his team's Game Two success to its energy rather than the team's adjustments. He joked that if he knew whether Phoenix could reproduce that energy, he'd be in Las Vegas instead of coaching the team. I think Gentry might have suspected that the energy meter was going to swing the Blazers' direction with the home crowd behind them. That proved not to be the case, at least until Portland's second unit led the fourth-quarter run. The desperation of wanting to avoid a 3-1 deficit may create a sense of urgency on Saturday that gives the home fans far more to cheer.
G3: Phoenix 108, at Portland 89 (Suns lead 2-1)
PHX 34 32 15 27 - 108
POR 16 21 23 29 - 89
PHX Pace oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% TCHS
First Quarter 25 137.0 .667 .250 .286 .081 5.16
Second Quarter 22 148.0 .630 .222 .130 .046 5.23
Third Quarter 20 73.5 .433 .143 .133 .343 3.94
Fourth Quarter 19 139.8 .773 .333 .909 .259 5.22
FIRST HALF 46 142.1 .648 .235 .205 .065 5.20
SECOND HALF 40 105.7 .577 .200 .462 .144 4.53
FINAL 86 125.3 .621 .233 .300 .174 4.89
POR Pace oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% TCHS
First Quarter 25 64.4 .304 .250 .087 .201 5.42
Second Quarter 22 97.1 .469 .364 .375 .185 4.01
Third Quarter 20 112.7 .476 .417 .143 .098 4.80
Fourth Quarter 19 150.1 .706 .286 .294 .104 5.10
FIRST HALF 46 79.7 .372 .304 .205 .194 4.71
SECOND HALF 40 130.9 .579 .412 .211 .052 4.97
FINAL 86 103.3 .474 .333 .208 .151 4.83
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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