PHOENIX — On one hand, the Suns should be feeling fat and happy. Their 28-7 tear pulled them up to a No. 3 seed in the West, where they get to face a Portland squad missing its best player and a host of other guys.
Suddenly, after a season full of people underestimating the Suns, Phoenix is the Goliath in this series.
The last time the Suns’ mind-set changed came after they ripped off their 14-3 start and became the hunted instead of the hunters. We all know how those next few months wound up.
Now with the playoffs upon us, maybe it’s not the best thing that people are starting to jump on the Phoenix bandwagon.
“We definitely don’t want to let up subconsciously,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “If anything (a major injury like Roy’s) gives the other team a boost or an opportunity for something psychological to happen where guys play above the level they’re accustomed to with a new opportunity. They have nothing to lose, so we have to really come out and be focused and motivated.”
On paper the Blazers only boast two healthy players averaging more than 10 points per game (LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller), but that’s a misleading number because Portland still boasts plenty of firepower in guys like Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster, who all averaged between 8-10 ppg.
So while losing Roy is devastating, this is a Portland team that last year people said almost had too much depth. They will miss Roy as their closer, sure, since he’s one of the best closers in the game, but former Blazer Channing Frye does not expect Portland to be lacking in scoring options.
“Of course you take away an All-Star that’s huge, but other than that they’re still going to do the same things,” Frye said. “They don’t have that go-to guy in a one-on-one situation. He’s one of the five most unstoppable guys. They have plenty of guys to pick it up. You look at their bench, they have guys who can score. It’s just amazing the depth that they have.”
Still, the end where the Suns most fear the Blazers is on the defensive side of the ball. Portland allowed the third-fewest points per game (94.8) largely because the Blazers played the league’s slowest pace. They ranked only tied for 13th in defensive efficiency, but still they know how to keep a score low.
Suns head coach Alvin Gentry called the Blazers “the best defensive team in the league” because of how physical and active their defense is, with guys like Batum blanketing the perimeter and then Marcus Camby covering up any mistake inside.
“They’re not a real high-scoring team, but what they do they do great, and that is they do a great job of defending the ball and then they do a great of trying to create situations where there’s always three guys in the lane, so if you drive the basketball there’s always three guys there,” Gentry said. ” I think their whole philosophy is if you can beat us shooting jump shots have at it, but I don’t think they give up a lot of easy baskets.
“We’re going to have to make shots. If we make shots we’ll be fine.”
On paper, this is a series that Phoenix should have an advantage in. The Suns have more firepower and have been playing well enough defensively to theoretically be able to handle a Roy-less Blazers squad.
But games aren’t played on paper, and the Blazers truly have nothing to lose. They get an advantage from the “nobody believes in us” card, and they have become so numb to injuries and used to playing without stars that Roy’s absence will hurt but shouldn’t be devastating.
The Suns are saying all the right things about respecting Portland, but when the ball is tipped tonight we will see if that’s mere lip service or true respect. If the Suns think they’re just going to roll this Blazers squad, they likely have another thing coming, but if the Suns are hitting their perimeter shots like they have the past few weeks then Portland won’t have a chance.