Preview: Phoenix Suns (11-9) at Portland Trail Blazers (9-11)

Portland Trail Blazers 106, Phoenix Suns 99

Suns

Trail Blazers

It’s funny how things can change in only 20 games.

The last time these two teams squared off in their respective 2010-11 season openers the Phoenix Suns were trying out their new-look team for the first time, while the Trail Blazers were poised to finally make the jump from good to great in the Western Conference.

For the Suns, Hedo Turkoglu was a starter, Robin Lopez was healthy, Channing Frye was a bench player struggling to find his shot, their current starting center (Earl Barron) was unemployed and Jared Dudley was about $22 million cheaper.

For the Trail Blazers, Nicolas Batum was a starter, Fabricio Oberto had yet to announce his retirement, Joel Pryzbilla was still injured, and Wes Mathews wasn’t quite an offensive stud yet (21 points per game in his last five).

While both teams have made some lineup and roster changes, the perception of each team is now different when they collide in the Rose Garden tonight.

Portland has proven it is indeed incapable of jumping into elite-status. The Trail Blazers team that’s been running a muck through the NBA the last 15 games isn’t even playoff-bound. After starting the season 4-1, the Blazers are 5-10 in their last 15 games, including losses in six of their last seven.

The Suns, on the other hand, are surging, in search of their fourth consecutive victory and their longest winning streak of the season. One thing that has remained constant is the play of Steve Nash, who scored 26 points in the season opener against Portland.

Nash tore apart the Washington Wizards on Sunday in one of the most pure displays of basketball played by any point guard — ever. Nash finished with 20 points and 17 assists, shooting 8-for-8 from the field, 3-for-3 from the line and 1-for-1 from the land of plenty.

The Wizards had no answer and Nash reminded the NBA why he won back-to-back MVPs and why he’s the top dog in the 50-40-90 club. Nash should be able to have similar success against a Portland team that will be without point guard Andre Miller, who’s serving a one-game suspension due to a flagrant foul during Sunday’s win over the Clippers.

Nevada guard Armon Johnson will see an increased role, which may bode well for the Blazers as he’s a physical and energetic defender that has the tools to slow Nash somewhat. St. Mary’s product Patty Mills should also see some time. But the Blazers are clearly struggling, as it took a win over the Clippers to end a six-game losing streak.

They’ve lost to teams like the Wizards, Nets and Sixers during that slide, proving that when they’re bad, they’re really bad. But this is still a team that’s matched up with the Suns well in the past.

They rank seventh in the NBA in points allowed per game (95.5) and have the big bodies to kill the Suns on the boards. But the Suns have done a nice job on the glass during their win streak, outrebounding their opponent in two of the three games.

Portland will be tough on the glass and defensively, but Nash has this team hitting stride and a win against a reeling Trail Blazers squad is realistic. This clearly isn’t the same Blazers team that took down the Suns 106-92 to kick off the season.

This isn’t the same Suns team either, but unlike Portland, Phoenix has changed for the better.

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