PHOENIX — Two home games remain before the Phoenix Suns hit a six-game road trip that, while the opponents make look less daunting on paper, is nonetheless a long time away from US Airways Center.
Head coach Alvin Gentry often preaches about taking care of home court — and how difficult it is to win on the road — so Wednesday’s home game against the Portland Trail Blazers is a chance to regain confidence after three losses in a row.
“Tomorrow is a very important game for us,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “We just have to limit those bad stretches in the game. I know everybody is talking about that, but when we fix that, it’s going to be that much easier.
“Those two games are very important for us to get ourselves back on track.”
Portland hasn’t struggled to the extent that some preseason projections expected. They’ve won three in a row, the most impressive of the games coming Sunday against the Chicago Bulls. Although not a deep team, the Trail Blazers are riding on four 16-plus point scorers to produce for first-year coach Terry Stotts.
LaMarcus Aldridge has continued his All-Star caliber play by ranking ninth in the NBA at 21.1 points per game, and 2012 free agent Nicolas Batum has backed up his new paycheck by averaging 20.8 points and six rebounds a night. Wes Matthews has averaged 16.4 points a night while shooting 40 percent from three-point range, and rookie point guard Damian Lillard is making a valid case for Rookie of the Year consideration.
Lillard is averaging 19 points, 6.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds a night.
“He’s a terrific player,” Gentry said. “He’s a very understated guy. He’s not a real rah-rah guy. But he’s a very Derrick Rose-like guy. He’ll attack, probably shoots the ball better. They’re a good, solid, young team.
“He handles the ball a lot,” Gentry added of Lillard. “Then you add LaMarcus Aldridge to the mix, and Batum has had great games for them in the regular season.”
How much is the ball in Lillard’s hands? Aldridge leads the team and is 26th in John Hollinger’s usage rate, but Lillard is 47th in usage rate and among rookies is only behind Minnesota’s Alexey Shved (for what it’s worth, Suns fans might find it concerning that Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley are in the NBA’s top 25 in usage rate).
With four players giving Portland some sort of top-heavy balance, the Suns will attempt to keep up with a new-look lineup and the same type of rotations. Gentry said that he’ll continue to use the same players overall, just in different combinations.
Three keys for Phoenix
Attack with a Dragic-Gortat pick-and-roll. Lillard handles the ball a lot as both a playmaker and a scorer, and because the Trail Blazers give up 101.8 points per game (28th in the NBA), there’s a good chance their pick-and-roll defense isn’t great. Making J.J. Hickson play far from the hoop not only will help take him out of the rebounding picture, but will also give Dragic chances to score and tire out Lillard. Oh, and maybe Gortat will get more of those touches he’s been seeking.
Be crisp with the ball. After what Gentry called two very good practices, he and Dragic said they’ll focus on the turnover problems that have led to gaps in sound play.
“We watch the tape,” Dragic said, “and every time when we hit that (bad streak) it’s because we turn the ball over a lot. We have to be a lot more careful about our turnovers.”
That’s especially true against Portland’s length. Batum averages 2.1 steals a night, and although the Trail Blazers are statistically a bad defensive team, their athleticism alone makes them dangerous. Phoenix can’t let Portland jump into the passing lanes and then get out on the break, because if there’s one team the Suns might not be able to run with, it’s these guys.
Heavy doses of Bassy and P.J. Stotts hasn’t shown much interest in going deep into his bench, and for good reason. Former Suns point guard Ronnie Price has hit the 20-minute mark in two of the past three games, and that’s telling of the talent gap in Portland. If Gentry uses Sebastian Telfair and P.J. Tucker in heavy doses to drain Lillard, Batum and Matthews (heck, maybe Tucker can even guard former Texas Longhorn teammate LaMarcus Aldridge), that will do wonders down the stretch if the game is close.