The Portland Trail Blazers have a way of putting the clamps on the Phoenix Suns late in games.
The last time the Suns squared off against the Blazers in their season opener, they took a 81-75 lead into the fourth quarter.
But the Suns crumbled down the stretch scoring only 11 points in the final 12 minutes as Portland closed the game in style with an 18-1 run en route to a 106-102 victory.
Tuesday night was deja vu for Phoenix, as the Suns once again built a six-point lead (85-79) heading into the fourth and final period, but couldn’t find the basket late in the game on their way to a 106-99 loss to a Portland team that lost six of its last games heading into the contest.
The Suns turned the ball over nine times (19 team turnovers in total) in the fourth quarter as the offense stalled in the half court, allowing the Blazers to rattle off 37 fourth-quarter points on the other end.
Steve Nash continued his torrid pace after a perfect game against the Wizards, scoring 20 points and dishing out 10 dimes through three quarters while facing full-court pressure from the likes of Wesley Mathews, Patty Mills and Armon Johnson.
Due to the continual ineffectiveness of Goran Dragic (0-of-2 with two turnovers and a minus-12 in nine minutes), Nash re-entered the game with 9:15 left in the fourth and the game tied at 79 after a Blazers 10-4 run to start the quarter.
Despite finishing the game with 24 points and 15 assists (13 in the second half) on a ridiculous 10-of-16 shooting (18-of-24 shooting in his last two games), Nash ran out of gas down the stretch, turning the ball over three times in the final period and struggling to get into the paint and create for himself and his teammates like he did through the first three quarters.
With the Suns down 91-89 and 3:26 left, Nash had the ball stolen and fouled Mathews out of frustration, sending him to the line to push Portland’s lead to four. A few possessions later Nash put up a nine-footer that he drilled all game long, but he left it short, failing to cut the lead to two.
Nicolas Batum drilled a three on Portland’s next possession, but the Suns and Nash had another chance to get within striking distance, down 96-90 with the ball and about a minute to go. But Nash, who turned it over nine times in the season opener, threw it away again with 47 seconds left, putting the exclamation point on Phoenix’s fourth-quarter meltdown.
“We struggled to score at times, and that was it,” Nash told reporters after the game. “They did a better job than us defensively.”
Although he couldn’t shake free of defenders down the stretch, the loss shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of Nash, who was the only Suns player to rack up a positive +/- (plus 5). He was far and away the best player on the court and is performing at an MVP level as of late.
But he played a game-high 39 minutes, thanks to absolutely no relief from Dragic and the Suns bench — aside from Jared Dudley’s 13 points in 32 minutes.
“I hate putting Steve back in the game,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “It’s not good when Steve has to play the last nine-and-a-half minutes of the game. I need (the starters) playing six minutes to finish the game.”
Phoenix’s other elder statesman, Grant Hill, also had a big night as he exploded for 23 points and eight boards in 39 minutes. But the Suns had little help outside of Nash, Hill and Dudley.
Jason Richardson was limited to only 24 minutes (six points) due to foul trouble and Channing Frye (13 points, seven boards, 29 minutes) fouled out after pushing off on a dunk with 3:10 left in the game.
The bench continues to struggle, prompting Gentry to say that he may have to cut down the rotation because the Suns have “too many perimeter guys” to work into the lineup and the “numbers don’t work.”
Although the Suns’ bench and entire offense imploded in crunch time, their defense didn’t do them any favors either. The Suns let up four three-pointers and 11 points to Wesley Mathews in the fourth (24 in the game), in addition to 18 Blazers free-throws after they shot 15 through the first three quarters.
Phoenix was late on its rotations and Portland took advantage from distance, while staying aggressive and ultimately drilling 32-of-33 free tosses. But while Phoenix’s defense let up, that was more of a result of the Suns’ dysfunctional fourth-quarter offense.
They made six of their first 10 shots in the quarter, but lost all rhythm halfway through the quarter and it cost them a chance at their longest win streak of the season. The Suns did some good things over the course of the game, both offensively and defensively.
Phoenix shot 50.7 percent from the field and knocked down 8-of-16 triples. The Suns also tied a much bigger and more physical Portland team on the boards, as each team grabbed 32 boards and no Blazer grabbed more than six rebounds. The Blazers ranked second in offensive rebounds per game (13.8) heading into the game, but the Suns admirably held them to only five offensive rips.
The Suns also limited them to 44.6 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from the land of plenty. But the 32 points on free throws killed the Suns, as did their fourth-quarter meltdown.
Nash wore down as the Blazers kept the pressure on, and Phoenix’s offensive miscues opened the door for Portland to take advantage of a quickly deflating Suns team. Aside from the turnovers and late-game struggles, the Suns didn’t play all that badly Tuesday night.
But in a game they shoot above 50 percent from the field and three, limit their opposition to under 45 percent from the field and tie them on the glass, they should come away victorious. The Blazers, however, know how to stop the Suns in crunch time, and they did exactly that for the second time in as many games.
Goran Dragic looked lost Tuesday night and has struggled a bit as of late. It was his first game without scoring all season long, and Dragic hasn’t reached double figures since Nov. 20 against Charlotte, making that eight straight games without at least 10 points. “I don’t know if we’re not putting him in the right situations or what,” said Gentry, “but we’ve got to get him back where he’s being really effective. We have to take a good hard look at who we have out there with him and is it the right combination.” … The Suns did a nice job on LaMarcus Aldridge, with constant double teams in addition to good one-on-one defense from Earl Barron and Channing Frye. He did score 20 points, but 10 of them came from free-throws and that ability to defend the paint is a good sign moving forward. The Blazers finished with only 30 points in the paint. … Brandon Roy looked like a shell of his former self, dragging his bum knee and finishing 5-of-15 from the field. … Josh Childress is playing less and less by the game, and racked up only six minutes Tuesday. He’s played only 11.25 minutes over the last four games. … Scott R won tickets to the #Sunstweetup by coming closest to Jared Dudley’s +/- rating. Scott guessed -6, while Dudley finished with a -7 in 32 minutes.