Time: 7:00 pm MDT
Tonight the Phoenix Suns return home from their successful southeast road trip to take on the Portland Trail Blazers for the third time in four weeks. After their opening night loss to the Suns, Portland has won 13 of their last 14 games, making them one of the hottest teams and biggest surprises in the NBA. Damian Lillard has improved on his Rookie of the Year campaign. LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 20 and 10 for the first time in his career. And Wesley Matthews is having his best year as a pro, becoming a legitimate third option on one of the NBA’s most potent offenses. On the flip side, the Suns are just .500 for the year, but they too can be viewed as overachievers, especially when considering how well they’ve played in Eric Bledsoe’s absence. No one believed Phoenix would sniff relevance this year, but 14 games in, the Suns are hanging tough and proving themselves to be farther along in the rebuilding process than any NBA pundit could have predicted.
It would seem Portland is the far superior team in this game, but Phoenix matches up with them quite well. The Suns definitely have a chance to throw some cold water on Portland’s hot start tonight. Phoenix will be looking to avenge their heartbreaking 1-point loss in Portland two weeks ago. Eric Bledsoe, who is likely to return to the court tonight, will definitely have something to prove after a defensive miscommunication between he and Channing Frye allowed Lillard to score the go-ahead layup, and his own subsequent attempt at a game winner was just a touch too strong. For more on tonight’s matchup, let’s look at three key questions to be answered.
Which Aldridge will show up?
In the first game between these two teams, LaMarcus Aldridge had 28 points on nearly 55% shooting. In the second, he had only 12 points and shot under 30%. Aldridge could do no right in the game two weeks ago. He missed easy buckets all night long, turned the ball over four times, and was more hindrance than help to the Blazers’ cause. Overall, he’s having a stellar season, but he has had been inconsistent lately, shooting under 40% in each of Portland’s last three games. The Suns are a tough defensive team with the size and depth to contain Aldridge. It will be interesting to see how LaMarcus attacks the Suns’ defensive game plan.
How will Eric Bledsoe’s potential return impact the lineup and team chemistry?
UPDATE: Eric Bledsoe is listed as a gametime-decision tonight but is undergoing a precautionary MRI.
Bledsoe update from Hornacek: "He's going to go get an MRI (today) and make sure there's no real other injury."
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) November 27, 2013
More Hornacek on Bledsoe: "They don't believe anything's wrong, but they want to make sure."
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) November 27, 2013
Though Phoenix went 2-3 in the games Bledsoe missed, his teammates definitely stepped up and proved themselves worthy of handling the scoring load in his absence. With Bledsoe potentially set to return tonight, it will be interesting to see how his presence alters the lineup and the rhythm the Suns have developed. Between injuries to Goran Dragic and Bledsoe, Gerald Green has spent plenty of time in the starting lineup this year. He has taken advantage of this opportunity and is having the best season of his career. Green is averaging a career-best 15 points per game. He’s shooting over 50% from inside the arc and 40% from beyond it. His athleticism, floor-spacing ability, and energy have all been huge assets for the Suns. Will his return to the sixth man role affect his commitment and production? Only time will tell. On the positive side, Bledsoe’s eventual return means Goran Dragic has fewer hats to wear. The reduced pressure will free Dragic up to score more and facilitate less. Plus with a pit bull like Bledsoe back on the floor, Dragic will definitely have to expend less energy on defense. One of our biggest questions coming into the year was how well these two could play together, but because of injuries, they haven’t had much opportunity to develop chemistry thus far this year.
Can the Suns close out the fourth quarter?
The Suns have been in too many close games already this year. If the first two meeting between these two Western Conference opponents are any indication, this game will likely come down to the wire as well. Will the Suns do a better job of closing this one out? Will home court advantage play any part? There’s no way to predict how Phoenix will play in crunch time, but it stands to reason their chances of pulling out a close win are significantly improved if Bledsoe is in the lineup and on the court.
The main reason the Suns have struggled to close out games is their offense. As the fourth quarter wears on Phoenix tends to stray from what has been working for them offensively the entire game. The Suns have noticeably tightened up late in close games. They’ve looked nervous and unsure of themselves. This is partly due to their youth and inexperience. But some of the blame has to fall on Coach Hornacek as well. The Suns have a free-wheeling offense built on ball movement, spacing, and above all running. The game slows down in crunch time and as such, the Suns can’t run the way they would like to. Thus, they need defined offensive sets late in games. Look for Phoenix to focus on their pick and roll with Plumlee and/or Frye as the game winds down.