Even the hottest, most glorious fires will die out if not properly tended. When the flames die, a chill sets in and glowing ash is all that remains. But sometimes, the heat from that ash, the embers of a once great fire, are enough to survive. This was the story of the Phoenix Suns’ 102-98 victory over the Portland Trailblazers.
This game was a game of yin and yang for the Suns who netted just their sixth road win of the season. The first half was all yin (order). Phoenix jumped out to a 12-0 lead and shot nearly 73 percent from the field in the first quarter. By halftime their lead had swelled to 16 points. Goran Dragic had dished out 12 assists en route to a career-high 18, and Luis Scola was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field. The Blazers looked sluggish and disheartened as the Suns hit jumper after jumper. Everything was shaping up for a runaway victory.
But the second half was all yang (chaos). Phoenix shot just 38 percent from the floor and did everything possible late in the fourth to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Dragic and Scola got into foul trouble, and the Suns got tighter and tighter as the Blazers got closer and closer in the fourth. Despite holding a 10-point lead with four and a half minutes to play, the Suns had no momentum at all. It was clear at that point the Blazers had one final run in them. Portland cut the lead to two points, but the Suns, to their credit, weathered the storm in the final minute and secured victory with a pair of Dragic free throws.
While Phoenix will be happy to start the second half of their season off with a victory, this win was far more of a struggle than it should have been. The Suns led by at least 13 points in every quarter. The Blazers cut the lead to eight or less in every quarter. Ultimately, Portland’s downfall was their ice cold shooting. As a team, the Blazers hit only 42 percent of their shots. They were just never able to string together enough buckets to take control of the game even though at times Phoenix was dying to give it to them. Each time the Blazers went on a run, the Suns were able to get a few stops and string together a few easy buckets to put them back on top.
Phoenix did not play defense particularly well in this game. Damian Lillard, the surefire Rookie of the Year, had 24 points. He was able to penetrate past Dragic seemingly at will though he had trouble finishing inside against Phoenix’s frontline. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum had 21 and 15 points respectively, but J.J. Hickson stole the show for the Blazers. Hickson grabbed 16 boards (six offensive) and scored 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He outworked whoever the Suns put on him. His effort on the offensive end is what kept this game from getting completely out of hand before Portland made its final run.
Despite giving up a ton of boards to Hickson, Phoenix actually out-rebounded the Blazers 51-37. It was their rebounding, not their defense, that kept Portland at bay for much of this game. Phoenix still has a ton of work to do when it comes to defending active players like Hickson inside. The Suns also continue to struggle against crafty guards like Lillard in the pick and roll.
Offensively, the Suns had five players in double-figures, including Wesley Johnson. Playing a season high 29 minutes, Johnson had 14 points (5-of-8 shooting) and eight rebounds. He hit one three and was fouled on another, making all three free throws. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that Johnson was on the floor in crunch time. Johnson playing this many minutes right out of the gate could be an indication of coach Lindsey Hunter’s plan for him over the final 28 games of the year.
Another surprise performance worth noting was Jermaine O’Neal’s 13 rebounds. It was the second time in as many games that O’Neal had grabbed a baker’s dozen boards. He has brought toughness to this team all season, especially when playing extended minutes in place of Marcin Gortat. The change of pace that O’Neal provides allows Phoenix to be versatile on the frontline. Against his former team, O’Neal looked rejuvenated and bouncy. His minutes could very well increase down the stretch of this season.
In the end, the Suns had just enough left in the tank to secure the win. If this were a Lakers’ blog, I’d proclaim the Suns 1-0.
- Damian Lillard is everything he’s purported to be and more. He has all the skills and potential necessary to supplant entrenched All-Stars like Chris Paul and Tony Parker as the best point guard in the West. The only flaw I can see in his game is his reliance on the referees to bail him out after contact. Lillard was constantly barreling into Suns’ defenders like he was 2006 Dwyane Wade. He didn’t get all the calls he expected and was visibly frustrated.
- Kendall Marshall has to play with more confidence. When he came into the game to spell Dragic in the second quarter, the Suns’ offense completely stagnated. Phoenix turned it over five times in five minutes and Marshall was totally abused by the Blazers’ Nolan Smith. To be fair, he was slightly better in the second half, but his lack of confidence and production is a serious issue for both him and the franchise.