PHOENIX — Going into their series, “tempo” was the biggest buzzword in this matchup pitting the hare Suns against the tortoise Blazers.
The Suns played the Portland Trail Blazers’ slow, bruising style in their Game 1 loss, but Game 2 featured 48 minutes of Phoenix Suns basketball and along with it the kind of result you would expect from such a game: a 119-90 Suns victory.
“I just thought our energy was really good, our spirit was good,” said Suns forward Grant Hill. “We came out focused with a lot of intensity, and we played hard on both ends. I think when you do that sometimes your shots fall and you play at a nice rhythm, a nice pace, so today was a good first step.”
Head coach Alvin Gentry has referred to the Suns as a rhythm team in the past, and whereas they never could find their rhythm in Game 1, they were in sync from the tip tonight in shooting 52.3 percent from the field and committing just six turnovers.
Steve Nash got the team going with nine first-quarter assists, and Jason Richardson was often the recipient of said Nash passes in exploding for 15 first-quarter points, more than he tallied in all of Game 1. J-Rich was feeling it from distance in drilling 3-of-4 long balls, and he also scored on a few Nash lobs when a Portland guard fronted Richardson in transition, the kind of easy looks Phoenix didn’t get in Game 1.
As we know by now, when Richardson plays well the Suns often win, as Phoenix improved to 27-4 when J-Rich scores 20, a figure he hit by halftime. Nash had 12 assists of his 16 assists in 17:32 before intermission, and all you need to know about this game can be summed up by the fact that it took the Blazers the entire game to reach 12 dimes as a team (Andre Miller led Portland with three).
“We were able to push the tempo a little more, and that’s why those opportunities were there,” Nash said.
Richardson did not get to sleep until about 4 or 5 Monday morning as he re-watched Game 1 over and over. He didn’t enjoy seeing Andre Miller torch him for 31 points any more than he liked watching himself hit just 4-of-12 shots.
So Gentry made the first brilliant coaching adjustment of the series and decided to switch Hill onto Miller so that Richardson could focus his energies more on the offensive end, and boy did he ever do that.
“Game 1 was tough,” Richardson said. “I had a tough cover guarding Andre Miller, didn’t really bring the energy I normally bring to the team. Tonight I wanted to be aggressive and do what I can. I really wanted to come out and bring a lot of passion to the game, and I think I did that.”
Meanwhile, Grant Hill locked up Miller in coaxing him into a 4-for-11, 12-point performance with just four assists. At the other end Hill hit his first 10 shots and scored 20 points, and he grabbed eight boards for good measure. In short, we were watching the late 1990s Grant Hill tonight.
The Suns played with the purpose that they did during their 28-7 run to end the season, and they became the first team all year to record three 30-point quarters against the Blazers in one game. What’s amazing about that is they went for 30 only once in their previous 16 quarters against Portland (the three regular season games and Game 1).
In all, the Suns scored 119 on 52.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.0 percent shooting from three after averaging 99.0 points on 43.8 percent shooting and 36.7 percent shooting from three during the four previous Portland games.
“We just really came out aggressive tonight,” Richardson said. “We knew they were going to try to slow the game down, and we just kept on pushing and pushing it and had our style of game played tonight. The first game we played their style, it was a little bruising game, slowdown game, but we just forced our will and played our tempo tonight.”
Meanwhile, the Suns’ underrated defense did its part, starting with Hill but continuing across the lineup. LaMarcus Aldridge scored a measly 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting, and the Blazers needed 16 points from Martell Webster off the bench just to break 90.
Portland shot just 38.2 percent from the floor, including 33.3 percent from three, and the Suns improved to 14-1 when holding their opponent under 40 percent from the field.
“We played a lot harder, the intensity level,” said Jared Dudley, who also took a turn on Miller. “We picked up full court. That was the first time all season the starters picked up full court. We saw Grant Hill deny Andre Miller the ball, which set the tone. He basically conceded in letting Rudy Fernandez bring the ball up, and if we can have Rudy Fernandez playing point guard we’ll be fine.”
To add insult to injury, Nicolas Batum left after three with a strain in his right shoulder, the same balky shoulder that cost him 45 games earlier this season. His Wednesday MRI could provide one more crushing blow to this battered Blazers squad.
The Suns won their ninth straight game following a loss, with Phoenix not having lost consecutive games since the end of January, and the team has now only once lost back-to-back home games all season.
Since 2000-01, home teams that split the first two games have won 37 of 56 series, and all-time the Suns are 16-10 when splitting the first two while Portland is 4-14 in such series.
Most importantly, the Suns put a little doubt into Portland after the Blazers essentially controlled Game 1. In Game 2 the Suns played extremely well on both ends and showed what can happen when Phoenix brings its ‘A’ game. The result should not surprise anyone being that the hungrier team often wins in the playoffs, and tonight the Suns without question were the much hungrier team.
At the end of the day the Suns know the Blazers will go home happy with a split and home-court advantage in their favor, but the Suns needed this blowout to re-establish a road map to winning this series.
“We just showed up on Sunday, and not to take away from what they did but just because we’ve been hot lately doesn’t mean we’re going to win games,” Hill said. “We’ve got to come out and fight, we’ve got to compete. I thought we did a better job of that tonight.”