Blazers strike first by controlling pace, packing paint

PHOENIX – Heading into the playoffs a Brandon Roy-less Blazers squad appeared to be the best matchup any Western Conference playoff team could hope for.

It’s doubtful the Suns hold that opinion anymore.

Although only four Portland players scored more than five points, the Blazers controlled the pace and outlasted the Phoenix Suns in a 105-100 victory that gives them a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.

Still, the Suns had a few chances to make a miraculous comeback from seven down in the final 1:30 when Blazers not named Andre Miller missed six of eight free throws. After Marcus Camby clanked a wide-open breakaway dunk, on the ensuing possession the Suns worked the ball around to an open Jared Dudley, who just missed a three-pointer that would have cut the lead to one with 40 seconds left. Then after Jerryd Bayless missed a pair of freebies with 12 seconds remaining, the Suns had a chance to tie trailing by just three, but Steve Nash’s 28-footer fell well short.

“They outplayed us, there’s no getting around it,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “They made the plays they had to and came up with the big plays at the end, and that’s how they won the game.”

The Blazers controlled the pace of the game and held the Suns to 41.8 percent shooting from the field and 34.4 percent shooting from behind the arc. That continues a season-long trend in that the Suns shot just 44.6 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three during the regular season against Portland despite leading the league in both categories (49.2 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from three).

The Blazers packed the paint and forced the Suns to beat them from outside. Ordinarily that would sound like a recipe for disaster, but not on a night in which the Suns’ long-range shots clanked.

“We just didn’t make as many shots as we normally do,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “We had a lot of good looks we didn’t knock down and we weren’t really sharp. They’re going to make it like the floor’s not spaced because they’ll clog it up and use their length, and we’ve just got to make them pay.”

On this count you can hardly blame Nash, who scored a team-high 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting and dished nine assists. But it’s never a good sign when Nash is the Suns’ leading scorer, as nobody else was able to get it going.

Amare Stoudemire scored just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting against the Amare-stopper Marcus Camby, and nobody else scored more than Jason Richardson’s 14.

The Suns also ran out to just four fast-break points on a day in which Portland controlled the pace, but to Grant Hill pace is about more than stopping the Suns’ transition game.

“It’s coming down, movement, cuts, making good decisions, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Hill said. “That’s pace. Obviously we get layups and get out in transition, that’s great, [but] even in the half-court we want to have a rhythm and a flow. We just didn’t have it tonight.”

On the other side, Andre Miller torched the Suns with a flurry of drives and a late clutch three-pointer for 31 points, and the Blazers got 18 points off the bench from hometown hero Jerryd Bayless.

Bayless took control of the game on the offensive end when Miller sat, and the veteran point guard did the rest, scoring a clutch 15 points in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what guys do in the playoffs,” Jason Richardson said. “With Brandon Roy down they needed some scoring, and Andre did a great job of just distributing the ball and getting some easy layups and stuff like that. We’ve got to do a better job of crowding him and not letting him get into the middle.”

Added Gentry, “We’ve got to do a better job of guarding him, and we’ve got to do a better job of coming down on him like we’re supposed to. We had some breakdowns in that area right there, and we’ve just got to get better at that.”

I kind of feel we should have seen this loss coming. The Suns have been terrible all season when people start slobbering all over them. During their December and January struggles, Grant Hill said the Suns lost that edge, that chip on their shoulder that fueled their 14-3 start.

He said at the time that the Suns started to read their press clippings and stopped playing with the fire that made them prove their doubters wrong in the first place. I asked Hill if he sensed any overconfidence among a Suns team widely expected to win this series with ease, but he said that’s not the case this time around.

“They came out, and we just didn’t have the energy that we’ve had as of late,” Hill said. “We’ve got to just shore up a few things rotation-wise; we missed shots. They played well, tip your hat to them. It’s not going to be easy, they struck first. The playoffs are about adjustments, and we’ve got to win this game on Tuesday.”

It was a night of falling streaks, as the Blazers snapped an 18-game losing streak in Game 1s on the road dating to 1983 and a five-game losing streak in Game 1s overall dating back to 2000. The Suns’ eight-game home winning streak dating to March 12 also ended, and Phoenix dropped to 26-3 when leading after three at home this year.

The Suns may have a tough road to climb as dating back to 1946-47 the team that wins Game 1 has won 78.6 percent of all NBA playoff series, and the team that wins Game 1 has won all six of the all-time series between the Suns and the Blazers.

Only time will tell, if this series will be an anomaly in that regard, too.

“We just didn’t play well enough tonight,” Nash said. “We got ourselves in some good positions, but we couldn’t finish it. We couldn’t really get going and make a bunch of shots. We think we’ll play better than that most nights, so we’ve got to look forward to Game 2 and play a little better and think we can get a win if we play a little better.”

And 1

Suns guard Leandro Barbosa looked like the LB of old in exploding for 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting and 3-for-3 shooting from deep in eight minutes of the first half. “I got hot early, and it was a good thing for me,” LB said. “I was just having fun.” … Jared Dudley is the 2009-10 winner of the Majerle Hustle Award. … The Suns, who averaged 25.8 free-throw attempts on the year and 29.1 since the break, shot just 16 free throws, eight of which came in the fourth quarter.

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