Time: 7:00 pm MST
TV: FSAZAfter an offseason of wheeling and dealing the new look Phoenix Suns are ready to start their season. Many of last year’s biggest contributors are gone, but in the wake of those departures, the Suns have filled the roster with high-upside youth. These young players are as excited for the opportunity to prove themselves in the NBA as the front office and coaching staff are to see what they can become. For Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len and Miles Plumlee, tonight’s game is the first step in what everyone in the Valley of the Sun is hoping will be a long and fruitful career.
The Suns will kick off the year playing host to the Portland Trail Blazers, a team whose aspirations for this season include a trip to the playoffs. Let’s look at three questions to be answered in this matchup.
Can Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe hold their own against Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews?
One of the biggest storylines this season is how well “Bledic” will play together. In theory, their backcourt partnership should be a force considering the intensity the duo plays with night in and night out. But both guys are used to directing an offense and having the ball in their hands. Can they find a sharing balance? Another obstacle is the fact that Bledsoe has never been a full-time starter for an entire season. Much like Dragic did last year, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Eric had trouble adjusting to the role at the start of the season.
Every night Phoenix takes the floor, Dragic and Bledsoe will be playing a game-within-the-game against the opposing starting backcourt. It’s a tag-team match of sorts, where the duo with the best chemistry and communication will have the distinct advantage. Lillard and Matthews aren’t the best backcourt tandem in the NBA, but they are definitely in the top-12. Lillard is coming off an impressive rookie campaign where he averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists per game. Playing alongside Lillard, Matthews had one of his best seasons as a pro, averaging nearly 15 points a game and shooting almost 40% from downtown. For Bledsoe, the biggest challenge will be staying in front of Lillard and avoiding foul trouble. For Dragic, the key will be staying close to Matthews on the perimeter and not allowing him to shoot open threes. When the Suns play teams with elite point guards – which this year seems like nearly every team – Dragic will likely guard the 2 spot. His primary disadvantage there will be his size as many shooting guards in the NBA stand 6’6” and above. But Wes Matthews is only 6’5” and Dragic has long arms. So long as Goran remains tight on him, he should be able to keep a hand in Matthews’ face.
Who will step up and bang with Portland’s tough frontcourt?
LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best power forwards in the NBA. He’s not a high flier like Blake Griffin or a threat from downtown like Kevin Love, but inside the arc, he’s the best in the game for my money. In the offseason, the Trail Blazers brought in former Sun Robin Lopez to play center alongside Aldridge. They are a formidable opponent for a Phoenix front line which just lost its best player in Marcin Gortat. Can Markieff Morris, Channing Frye, Alex Len or Miles Plumlee be the next man up and answer the bell?
The Suns will play this matchup one of two ways. Option No. 1 1 is to simply look at their frontcourt as 24 fouls, 30 if you count Kravtsov. They can be physical with Aldridge and try to throw him off his game. Overly physical play has been known to inspire Robin Lopez to lose his mind. If it gets rough inside, Lopez will either pick up several fouls himself and be forced to the bench, or he’ll post a double-double in just a few minutes of play. Phoenix fans have seen both happen.
Option No. 2 is to go big and overwhelm Portland on the boards. Phoenix played Len and Plumlee together a few times in the preseason. Having two centers and a Morris twin on the floor together would give Phoenix a lot of size. It may not make them overly potent on offense, but it would certainly clog the paint and make it hard for Aldridge and Lillard to operate there.
How will Coach Hornacek adjust as the game goes along?
Lost in all the recent roster shuffling is the fact that this will be Jeff Hornacek’s first game as an NBA head coach. While I’m sure he’s been preparing for this moment for a long time, the pace and frequent dynamic changes of an NBA game are no joke. Hornacek has said the Suns will run, but will he be able to enforce that desire against a Blazers team that loves the half court? Will he be able to switch tactics and lineups on the fly? That remains to be seen. There’s an old Mike Tyson boxing adage, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” That seems oddly appropriate here at the dawn of what should be a fight of a Suns season.