Suns v. Portland (Part 2: Looking Back)

I thought we oughta go back and check out the three times the Suns and Blazers went head-to-head this season.

They first matched up on December 17th in Portland.  The Suns were starting to come down from their crazy 14-3 start, and were in the midst of a string of games they couldn’t figure out how to finish.  They led by 15 points in the third quarter and went into the fourth leading by 11.  But they were outscored 35-21 (!) in the fourth quarter and lost by 3.  Here’s how basketball-reference.com’s four factors looked:

So the Suns outshot the Blazers, but had more turnovers, gave up too many offensive boards, and didn’t get to the line enough.  That sums up just about every Suns loss this season, doesn’t it?  And then I remembered this game.  Here’s why:

You see what I see?  Yeah, that’s right…Alando Tucker played nine minutes.  I’d say that’s a pretty solid recipe for a loss right there.  But Richardson was out, Barbosa was out, Lopez wasn’t even a thing yet (and yeah, I know Lopez won’t play in this series and Barbosa may not do much, but Richardson being out was a big deal [and no, I'm not making excuses about losses due to injured players, Rip City folk.  I know you guys know from injured players this year.  I'm saying that this is a different Suns team now]).  I know that every game matters, but when you’re talking about what’s going to happen in upcoming games, it’s not necessarily useful to overanalyze games that were played when these teams looked completely different.  Right?  Right.

They met up again on February 10th in Phoenix.  This was the game where Phoenix had 4 days off before the game, which was immediately followed by the All-Star Break.  Portland had just played (and lost to) Oklahoma City at home.  The game’s lineups looked much more like they will during this series, as Roy was out for Portland (thought they did not yet have Marcus Camby).  Lopez played, but was a big pile of nothing (8 and 5).  You would’ve thought that, had I told you the halftime score was 60-44, that the advantage would’ve been for Phoenix (being rested and with Portland on the second of a back-to-back).  You’d be wrong.  Dummy.  The Suns only put up 20 in the first quarter, Portland led comfortably at the half, and the All-Star Break was on.  Four factors?

Yeah, Portland kicked their butts.  Blazed made this point yesterday.  Portland shot the ball at a ridiculous rate  (.584 from inside the 3-point line) and the Suns didn’t play much defense.  Of course, this still wasn’t exactly the same team that is now heading into the playoffs.  This team plays much better defense overall.  At the time this game was played, the Suns were in the upper 20s in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).  They finished the season ranked 19th.  That may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve ever tried to raise your GPA, you know how hard that is.  The Suns have made a lot of progress on defense.

The third game they played was March 21st, in Phoenix again.  The Blazers had Roy and Camby in the starting lineup.  The Four Factors looked like this:

Holy crap.  Look at Portland’s eFG%.  .375.  That’s bad.  I guess that means the Suns decided to play some defense that night.  And again, Robin Lopez was a total non-factor, throwing up a 4-3 line (which is about what I expect out of Jarron Collins on a good night).  The bench got it done on the glass, outrebounding Portland’s bench 14-6.  Camby put up a pretty standard Marcus Camby line (7 and 16!), but the Suns outrebounded the Blazers overall, 48-45.

The thing I think is really interesting is that all three of these games were played down near Portland’s pace.  I don’t know if that’s due to Portland imposing their will on the Suns or the Suns deciding to play at that speed, but that’s how it is.  Portland won two games at that pace while shooting well.  When the Suns finally decided to stick a hand in a face every now and again, they won at that pace.  I guess we know what it’s gonna take to beat Portland.  Hands in the face (and steppin’ on necks, naturally).

As long as we’re talking about pace, let’s talk about pace.  Much has been made of the Suns’ dominance since the ASG (and rightly so).  They were 23-6.  Overall, they played at a pace of 93.7, which is below their season-long Pace Factor of 95.3 (this is according to basketball-reference.com, whose stats I’ve been using for the purposes of this conversation.  Prof. Hollinger has them down for a higher pace and slightly lower offensive efficiency.  I don’t know why that is).  They absolutely feasted on the dregs; they went 14-0 against non-playoff teams, with a Pace Factor of 95.8.  Part of the perpetual argument against the Suns is that they can’t play in the playoffs because the pace slows down and they can’t play at a slow pace and whatever.  Against playoff teams post-ASG, the Suns’ Pace Factor was 91.8.  Their record?  9-6.  It sure as hell isn’t 14-0, but it surely ain’t bad.

So what can we conclude?  Well, first, we can conclude that these Suns are more than capable of winning at the Blazers’ slow-ass pace, if they go ahead and allow the Blazers to dictate the game that way.  I guess I’d like to hope that they don’t, since they really get into that flow when they start pushing that pace.  I think we can also conclude that the games that have been played so far don’t really give us all that information about what’s going to happen in this series.  The teams were just too different in the first two meetings to give any sort of idea, and even though I’d like to say that the Suns being 1-0 in games that matter portends a 4-0 sweep, I guess I have to remember our old friend small sample size.  That game does tell me, however, that if the Suns play the solid FG defense they’ve been playing, they’re gonna be in awfully good shape, no matter how many rebounds Camby gets.

I’ll be back this evening with Suns v. Portland Part 3: Matchups.  Stay tuned!

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