PHOENIX — The series between the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers is tied 2-2, but the team that exerts control of the tempo is a perfect 4-0.
Not surprisingly, much of the talk at practice on Sunday as the Suns enter an all-important Game 5 was about pace.
Now you can say what you want about how the Blazers were able to surprise the Suns into a slower Game 1. Maybe Phoenix took Portland lightly or just didn’t have the matchups right with Jason Richardson on Andre Miler.
But after Phoenix played back-to-back textbook games in which the Suns dominated the tempo game, you the Suns fan at home wasn’t the only one flabbergasted about what went down in Game 4.
“I don’t understand it, I really don’t,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “That’s the one thing that we have to get away from, and I keep telling everyone and I’ll say it again, if you walk it up and you get in a half-court situation then I think their defense is as good as anybody’s in the NBA.
“I don’t really know why we got away from it. I just didn’t think we kept the pace in Game 2 and Game 3, but we were much better defensively from the standpoint of coming up with steals and turnovers. We didn’t come up with steals and turnovers [Saturday] and because of that although they shot 44 percent we end up taking the ball out of the basket and then trying to run in those situations right there.”
Added Amare Stoudemire, “We should never allow it to happen. We should never allow it to happen. All we have to do is just push the ball, get out and run, fill lanes, space the floor. We’ve been doing it all season long. I don’t see why we’re not doing it now. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to do it, and definitely in Game 5 for sure.”
When a reporter asked if this was the fault of Steve Nash, Gentry chose to spread the blame across his team, saying Nash must push it, the wings have to run and the bigs have to get down the floor as well.
To Jared Dudley, running is a mind-set. The Suns must be thinking about pushing every play, not every five plays, and the Suns reserve believes a fired up US Airways Center crowd will aid the running game that much more.
It will also be interesting to see what kind of an impact Brandon Roy has on Game 5. Roy scored 10 points in Game 4, looking like a shell of his All-Star self before hitting a couple of Roy-like clutch shots in crunch time.
His biggest contributions came from the intangible lift he provided his teammates when the crowd went bonkers at his every move. His return eight days after knee surgery lifted the entire Blazers team, providing hope to a downtrodden squad that had been battered twice in a row.
Roy also forced the Suns to alter their defensive plan of having Grant Hill lock up Andre Miller and then everybody else load up on LaMarcus Aldridge, who finally exploded without the concentrated attention.
“I think it’s big because when he plays somebody else that’s not as good as him doesn’t play,” Dudley said. “He doesn’t have to be out there doing anything, he can be a decoy, he can be calming it down making the right people shoot the ball. It definitely is an advantage for them. Now we’re at home, we have to run, test that knee, just push the ball, put a lot more pressure on this team.”
That’s the thing, we still don’t know how good the knee is or what kind of shape Roy is in (allegedly it’s not great). Will he be able to run with the Suns if they push the tempo? Can he defend an offensive standout like Jason Richardson? These are questions the Suns need to find a way to exploit.
Along with what I wrote earlier about how the team dictating tempo is 4-0, the team playing more desperate is also 4-0. The team that really needed that game most has won every game.
Nash said the Suns must play “more desperate” in Game 5, and I believe they will since they would be in big trouble with a loss.
“I think sometimes the mentality,” Dudley said. “I think it’s for them dictating their will at home in Game 4, their back was against the wall. I bet you if you see us [Monday] with our back against the wall somewhat needing Game 5 I bet you we will have a lot more fast-break points than we had [Saturday].”
The Suns have also been like Curt Schilling in 2001 following a loss during their season-ending tear, having last dropped consecutive games on Jan. 25-26 before finishing the season 28-7.
Although Game 4 proved it’s sometimes easier said than done, the Suns just need to push the pace and play their game to get this victory.
The Suns made up for their Game 1 toe stubbing with their Game 3 shellacking in Portland. Now they just need to hold serve at home twice and they can start thinking about another epic battle with San Antonio (or will it be Dallas?).
“Take care of home court,” Stoudemire said. “That’s what we’re here for. That’s why we played so hard at the end of the season to get home-court advantage. It’s important, we got a win, that’s what we wanted to do, regain home court, so now we’ve got to take care of it.”