Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (5-1) at Phoenix Suns (2-4)

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Phoenix Suns 102, Portland Trail Blazers 77

Trail Blazers

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Suns

The team with the best record in the Western Conference comes to Phoenix this evening, and the Suns’ defense will have its hands full.

It used to be that the Suns could be counted on to play at a breakneck pace and to do so effectively, but — so far this season* — it’s the Blazers who are lighting the league on fire. Portland is sixth in pace and fourth in offensive efficiency, while Phoenix is crawling, by their or any team’s standards. The Suns are playing at the ninth slowest clip and are mediocre at best on offense, where they’re 18th in offensive rating. Their inability to get out and run coupled with sluggish offensive production is an issue in itself, but their league average defensive numbers belie the fact that their opponents have been poor-to-average on offense as well. Phoenix has yet to see an offense of Portland’s caliber.

*Disclaimer: all numbers from this season come from a small, but increasingly large, sample size. Any and all statistical measures are subject to the regression fairy; numbers cited in this preview merely illustrate how the teams have played through a handful of games. That said, Portland looks impressive, and Phoenix obviously has problems.

The Blazers offense is so potent for two major reasons. First, they hold onto the ball with a death grip — only the Los Angeles Clippers turn the ball over fewer times per 100 possessions. Behind Ray Felton’s steady hand and a core of wings and bigs adept at turning their touches into shots on the rim and free throw attempts, Portland’s turnover rate hovers just over 12. Coupled with their increased pace, the Blazers are averaging 84 field goal attempts per game, giving them plenty of opportunities to take advantage of their offensive prowess. The Suns have done well to keep possession themselves; they’re just behind Portland at a 12.60 turnover rate, but the impact is lessened by the Suns’ inability to get quality shots. On this front, the game may turn on a battle of ball control.

Second, the Blazers are extremely efficient with their shot selection. They rank sixth highest in percentage of field goal attempts at the rim (34.3 percent) and are distributing their shots sixth most effectively of any team in the league, as measured by HoopData.com’s expected effective field goal percentage. (XeFG%). Portland is a top ten shooting team by true shooting percentage, bolstered by their second best free throw percentage — another category in which they rank just ahead of the Suns. Phoenix doesn’t foul often, relative to field goal attempts allowed (they’re 25th in free throw rate), but their inability to get to the line renders their accuracy there null.

Phoenix may very well be in trouble on the glass, as well. Portland is fifth in total rebounding rate and 10th best at rebounding their own misses, despite LaMarcus Aldridge’s apparent aversion to rebounding. It helps to have Marcus Camby and solid rebounders at every other position. The Suns, conversely, have seen their already shaky rebounding numbers plummet; they are 25th in defensive rebound rate, 26th in total rate, and have the sixth worst differential between team and opponent offensive rates. Portland is fifth in said differential. Channing Frye leads the Suns with a 21 percent total rebound percentage while Marcin Gortat has secured less than 14 percent of rebounds while he’s on the floor. Blame it on the splint or blame it on a small sample size. Either way, Phoenix will be in for a long night if Gortat and company are unable to keep the Blazers off the boards.

And even if Phoenix can hold their own with rebounding, they’ll need to figure out how to get better shots than they have to date. Hakim Warrick leads the team in points per game while playing the seventh fewest minutes. That overstates Warrick’s impact so far, however, as he’s taking 10 shots to score less than 13 points per game on 49 percent eFG%; league average for someone playing 15-plus minutes per game is 48.3 percent. Steve Nash’s eFG is way down on the season as well, thanks largely in part to bruised ribs suffered in the first game against the New Orleans Hornets. The Suns are settling for too many long two-pointers — they’re 10th in the league in field goal attempts between 16 and 23 feet but shoot the eighth worst percentage from that distance. More strikingly, they’re attempting the same percentage of their total field goals from 16-23 feet as they are from three. Defensively, they “allow” the fourth most long twos — not necessarily a bad thing — but the Blazers are knocking down those shots this year at the fourth best rate in the league.

Crash-tastic Voyage

The Blazers knew what they were getting when they acquired Gerald Wallace from the Charlotte Bobcats, but I’m not sure either he or they expected this kind of performance. Wallace is posting a career year in eFG percentage, TS percentage and turnover rate, and he’s redistributed his shot selection much more effectively. Serving as an initiator/finisher on the fast break and a lethal off-ball cutter in the half-court offense has taken his mid and long-range two-pointers and turned them into shots at the rim and in the paint instead. In fact, according to HoopData’s shot locations, Wallace has yet to take a shot from 10 to 15 feet and is averaging just one attempt from 16 to 23. Between improved efficiency and spot-on defense, Wallace is a huge part of what the Blazers have shown this season.

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