Trail Blazers 129, Suns 109 – Streak deep-sixed


OK, so we all knew the Suns weren’t going to win 17 straight games to charge into the playoffs, right?

There would be days like this, days in which the Suns run into a talented, rested club that just clobbers them after a decent start as the Trail Blazers did in their 129-109 victory Thursday night.

Players have talked about putting together something like a 15-2 run, and with my rose-colored glasses firmly entrenched on my face, that’s still possible.

That is assuming the Suns beat all of the numerous bad teams left on their schedule, take down the teams they’re looking up at directly in the standings on their home floors in Utah and Dallas and sneak out with a win over Houston at US Airways Center.

That leaves room for a loss in New Orleans, and maybe one more defeat depending on how the Mavs do.

I understand that’s overly optimistic. If nothing else, it goes to show how impossibly tough the Suns’ road to the playoffs still is despite their six-game winning streak. They basically have to go 9-1 or 8-2 at worst to have a realistic shot barring a collapse that doesn’t seem too likely from a team ahead of them.

You can now cross Portland off the list of teams that could collapse. The sixth-place Blazers are now safely five games ahead of the Suns with 10 play. Even if the Suns do go 9-1 that would require a 4-6 Blazers stretch that doesn’t seem too likely the way Portland played tonight.

This could end up being the trip in which the Suns cross off teams they can catch off their list with a monster game in Utah on Saturday that will determine whether or not Phoenix can realistically catch the Jazz.

They’re not going to catch Portland because the Blazers set season highs in points, field goals, field-goal percentage and points in the paint. They did what they wanted when they wanted, as the Suns really had no answer for LaMarcus Aldridge down low and then struggled to rotate out to Portland’s shooters in their zone.

“We cut ourselves into a deep hole with too many mistakes, and they capitalized on our mistakes,” Shaq told The Associated Press. “We left their shooters open way too much and they knocked down the shots. They had a lot of energy.”

At the other end, the Blazers held the Suns to 50 percent shooting, which is actually rather low for Phoenix, and 30 percent shooting on threes. The Suns also ran out to just 10 fast-break points, an incredibly low figure for the Gentry Suns, and most of those points came in the opening minutes of the ballgame.

Phoenix struggled to score all night, and I’m actually kind of surprised that this thing was close reasonably close before the Blazers blew it open to end the third.

Shaq was very good with 20 points, seven boards and four assists and Steve Nash was solid with 15 and five, but Grant Hill wasn’t exactly the world beater he had been in the previous two home games with just six points, two assists and one board.

Still, Shaq didn’t want to make excuses about the Suns playing in a back-to-back situation after a grueling victory over Utah last night.

“We can’t blame tonight on not having our legs,” O’Neal said. “We have to fight through it. A lot of teams play back-to-backs, a lot of teams get in late. When we step on the court we have to be ready to play.”

If you don’t believe the back-to-back affected the Suns, surely you must believe in the Curse of TNT.

The Suns lost their 10th game in 10 tries on TNT this season, making nobody in the organization too sad that they won’t be seeing Doug Collins and Cheryl Miller again unless they reach postseason play. The Suns are a very robust 40-22 in games not televised by TNT, and they even lost a preseason game on the network.

Once Portland ended the third with a five-point Rudy Fernandez flurry (man, would he ever look good in a Suns uniform right about now), head coach Alvin Gentry called off the dogs for another night by playing his bench unit to start the fourth trailing by 21.

This just wasn’t the Suns’ night, and there was really no chance of a major comeback. I like the move to get your key guys ready for Saturday’s showdown in Utah and then give your youngsters more experience in the Rose Garden’s raucous atmosphere.

One more interesting sequence from this game came when Shaq ripped into Robin Lopez late in the contest apparently for not going hard enough for a shot block on an easy Portland bucket.

Doug Collins noted that it’s good to see a veteran involved in the game even when he’s done for the day.

Lopez certainly seemed engaged listening to what the big man had to say and played with a different fire during the rest of his meaningless minutes, probably so as not to upset the Shaqtus.

As Gentry recently wrote on his Twitter feed, “Anyone would enjoy coaching this group of guys. It’s what a team should be. Young players learning from the veterans. Vets that work hard.”

Now the Suns must regroup quickly because if they don’t, the final games of the season will be more about Shaq teaching Lopez and Nash tutoring Goran Dragic than Matt Barnes and Jason Richardson channeling their inner Golden State Warrior.