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April 30, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Going Small

by Kevin Pelton


Phoenix 99, Portland 90 (Phoenix wins series 4-2)
Pace: 89.3
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 108.1, Portland 103.5

PORTLAND - Game Six, and by definition the series since this was a closeout game, changed with 8:07 left in the fourth quarter. That's when Amar'e Stoudemire fouled LaMarcus Aldridge, giving him the chance to go to the line and tie the game at 76 by splitting two free throws. All the momentum belonged at the time to the Blazers, who had outscored the Suns 8-2 in the quarter and by 16 over the previous seven-plus minutes, inflaming the Rose Garden crowd.

Between Aldridge's free throws, Alvin Gentry sent Grant Hill back into the game. Instead of replacing hot-shooting Jared Dudley, however, Hill went in for Channing Frye. For the first time all series (throwing out garbage time and the end of quarters), Phoenix went small. The matchup problems the Hill-Dudley combination created doomed Portland the rest of the way.

First, Nate McMillan sent in Brandon Roy for Juwan Howard, going small to counter the Suns' lineup. The problem this created was it left LaMarcus Aldridge as the team's only big man, forcing him to defend Amar'e Stoudemire, who went at him and immediately scored. After calling timeout, McMillan changed course, putting Howard back in the game and taking out Jerryd Bayless, leaving Roy to play the point. That fixed the defensive issue, but created new ones on offense. Already limited by his right knee, still less than two weeks removed from surgery, asking Roy to serve as the team's primary ballhandler was too much. Three straight empty Blazers possessions were followed by another timeout.

More McMillan indecisiveness followed. Andre Miller checked in for Rudy Fernandez during the timeout, but was on the floor for just one possession before being replaced by Bayless. Finally, Portland went back to its original lineup with 3:58 left when Fernandez entered for Howard. During that stretch, as McMillan searched desperately for an answer to Gentry's move, the Suns went on an 11-2 run that all but sealed the game.

In a sense, the last eight minutes defined the series (or at least the last five games, after the Blazers stole Game One). Gentry, with a relatively full, deep roster (despite the absence of starting center Robin Lopez) was able to make timely adjustments, while McMillan was always trying to catch up and figure out which of his players he could depend on each night.

In the final game, Portland had to contend with a starting lineup that was, with the exception of Aldridge, almost entirely unproductive on offense. Roy, who shot 1-of-8 from beyond the arc and 4-of-16 from the field, deferred on offense throughout the first half and never could get much of anything going. Miller capped his season with one of his worst efforts, missing eight of his 10 shot attempts as Phoenix exposed his inconsistent perimeter shooting. The first unit put the Blazers in an early 17-8 hole, forcing them to play uphill all night long.

The biggest reason the Suns were unable to put the game out of reach before halftime was Steve Nash struggling with a hip-socket impingement suffered earlier in the series that flared up on Thursday. Nash coughed the ball up seven times in the first half, when his only score came from the three-point line. (He was much better in the second half and came up with some big plays down the stretch, including a triple with 2:33 left that all but iced the game.) With Nash ailing and Stoudemire held in check, Jason Richardson once again stepped in as Phoenix's difference-maker, scoring 19 of his game-high 28 points before halftime and knocking down four three-pointers.

The Suns led by 12 at the half and pushed that advantage as large as 16 points before Portland's reserves made a game of it. Fernandez and Martell Webster, who played 33 minutes off the bench, made a combined eight three-pointers in 10 attempts. Bayless did not shoot the ball well after a solid start (4-of-12 from the field), but ran the team well and handed out seven assists. The second unit took full advantage of a key adjustment by McMillan that, as Gentry explained, back screened the help defenders trying to get out to shooters when Phoenix double-teamed Aldridge in the post. When the Suns stopped bringing help against Aldridge, though, those shots largely dried up.

Ultimately, the biggest story from this series has to be the Phoenix defense. While the Suns were alternately dominant (Games 2, 3 and 5) and average or worse (Games 1, 4 and 6) on offense, their defense was more consistently strong. Over the six games, Portland's aggregate Offensive Rating was 108.5, below the league average. Surely, Roy's injury--which first eliminated him altogether, then left him at far less than 100 percent--was a factor in the Blazers' inability to succeed on offense. Still, one of the big takeaways from watching Phoenix in person was the soundness with which the Suns rotate on defense.

The other un-Suns characteristic the team displayed in this series was the ability to rebound the basketball, even without Lopez. Phoenix's overall rebound percentage for the six games was .512, as the Suns were solidly above average on the offensive glass and more than held their own at the other end. That boardwork, as well as the improved defense, will surely serve Phoenix well as it moves on to face San Antonio for the third time in the last four years. After the game, Gentry and Nash both downplayed the history of the matchup, pointing out that both teams have changed dramatically since they last met. Those new stripes were on full display as the Suns won their first playoff series since 2007, which makes it funny that to finish Portland they had to dust off a tactic that was once such a key aspect of Phoenix basketball--going small.

G6: Phoenix 99, Portland 90 (Suns 4-2)
PHX  24  29  21  25 - 99
POR  17  24  24  25 - 90
PHX          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   96.0  .500  .385  .143  .320  6.21
Second Quarter 22  133.8  .625  .143  .200  .138  5.29
Third Quarter  22   96.6  .500  .111  .313  .184  3.64
Fourth Quarter 21  119.8  .588  .000  .294  .096  4.61
FIRST HALF     47  113.6  .561  .300  .171  .236  5.75
SECOND HALF    43  108.0  .545  .077  .303  .141  4.05
FINAL          89  110.9  .554  .212  .230  .190  4.94
POR          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   68.0  .417  .000  .111  .280  5.17
Second Quarter 22  110.7  .500  .273  .263  .046  4.21
Third Quarter  22  110.4  .396  .385  .208  .092  6.45
Fourth Quarter 21  119.8  .500  .125  .389  .000  4.11
FIRST HALF     47   87.8  .459  .143  .189  .171  4.69
SECOND HALF    43  115.0  .440  .333  .286  .047  5.31
FINAL          89  100.8  .449  .214  .241  .112  4.99

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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