Preview: Phoenix Suns (11-15) at Portland Trail Blazers (12-12)

Portland Trail Blazers 96, Phoenix Suns 93

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Trail Blazers

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have started to turn around their season by playing good enough basketball to rip off four wins in a row.

The big caveat, however, remains that all four games were won in the friendly confines of US Airways Center and that the Suns have taken just two games in 12 tries away from downtown Phoenix.

The Suns will attempt to prove that this latest win streak was about more than home cooking when they head to Portland to face a hot Trail Blazers team that has also won four in a row on its home floor, including a victory over the Spurs.

The last time the Suns hit the road they were on their way to losing their seventh consecutive game, six of which came as the visitors.

Earlier this season in the Valley, the Suns won in rare blowout fashion over the Blazers, an occurrence that has really only happened in the team’s previous win over Charlotte otherwise. Phoenix put together perhaps its best performance of the season on that night by shooting around 60 percent and scoring 25 points per 100 possessions higher than its season average to that point.

That game was the first after Markieff Morris and Shannon Brown joined the starting lineup, and the Suns received consistent play from both units. The Blazers got practically nothing from their bench and Morris helped limit LaMarcus Aldridge to 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

The Blazers remain a top-heavy team with their top four players (Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews) averaging between about 36-38 minutes a night and scoring 16-21 points per game. After the two-headed center combination of J.J. Hickson and Meyers Leonard, the Blazers don’t have much to speak of in terms of a bench, so the Suns should hold a major advantage in this particular area.

However, this group has not exactly dominated as in 336 minutes with Hickson it has been outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions and in 78 minutes with Leonard (who Suns centers torched in the first meeting) Portland holds a 6.5 point edge per 100.

The Rose Garden is traditionally a pretty tough place to play, and this season is no exception with Portland 8-4 at home but just 4-8 on the road. A win here would go a long way toward proving this win streak is about more than just a long homestand and catching teams at the right time.

Goran Dragic, for one, can see the Suns playing better basketball overall.

“Early in the season our spacing was pretty bad,” Dragic said. “The guys were not in the right spots, but now in this system we know where everybody should be. If you space the floor I can operate.”

The Suns’ new starting lineup throughout the winning streak has been fantastic, but I’m still not sold on a Telfair-Tucker-Beasley-Morris-O’Neal bench unit. It sure feels like Tucker and Beasley should be playing the three and four instead of the two and three, respectively, yet for now this is the only way for Gentry to play a 10-man rotation with the 10 players he wants.

If you consider JD a three, the Suns essentially have three power forwards and only one shooting guard, so keeping this rotation as it is requires this square peg, round hole lineup.

Granted this was the lineup that got the Suns some separation on Wednesday night, but along with Gortat the majority of this unit also prompted Gentry to call two timeouts in the first two minutes and bring back the starters in a game many thought the bench would finish.

Since the Blazers ride their starters so hard it will be interesting to see how the Suns’ reserve unit fares against the Portland starters since they are bound to be matched up against each other at some point on Saturday night.

Overall for Phoenix, Saturday provides the team with an opportunity to continue its hot streak by nabbing a rare road win against another hot team to set up a showdown on Sunday night between the two teams with the NBA’s longest current winning streaks.

  • Scott

    @Michael -

    Theoretically, Johnson can play SG, but if Beasley is going to be a volume shooter at SF, it makes sense to pair him with a defender who is an efficient scorer who doesn’t need the ball, like Tucker.

    It’s like last year’s combinations of Brown and Redd. They were not as effective together because both needed the ball, and neither was providing lockdown defense. It was better to pair either of them with Hill, Dudley, or Childress than with each other.

    Another option at SG is Garrett, but at this point he doesn’t defend as well as Tucker, and he doesn’t score as well as Tucker. He would help distribute the ball, but Telfair is doing a better job of that this year than last, so – as I see it – that would seem to leave Tucker as the clear choice for SG if you have Beasley at SF.

    If you play Beasley at PF, then you could move Tucker to SF and put Johnson in at SG, as Johnson would be the scoring complement to Tucker.

    If you have Beasley at PF, though, it seems to me that with O’Neal at C you should expect Beasley to jack up shots because the paint will be clogged. That’s not going to be his most efficient offense. If you want Beasley slashing to the hoop from short range – his most efficient play – then you need a C who can get out of the paint and make the perimeter shot, like Morris.

  • Scott

    Technically, another option for sharpshooting C – aside from Morris – would be Zeller. I assume Morris would be a better defensive C than Zeller, but Zeller is about 2″ taller, and they are the same weight, so who knows?

    If you want to see Zeller get open shots from 3, then have him trail the play with Beasley heading to the basket.

  • silver

    Wes Johnson is not a SG. He’s as bad at SG as Beasley is at SF.

  • Scott

    @silver -

    I should have listed Beasley as an option at SG … ;)