Portland Trail Blazers 90, Phoenix Suns 89 — Lessons learned at the buzzer


Phoenx had three point blank chances to win at the buzzer, but the ball just wouldn’t go down as the Trail Blazers eked out a 90-89 win over the Suns in Portland. After a defensive miscue allowed Damian Lillard a walk-in layup that put Portland ahead by one point, the Suns called timeout and drew up a play for Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe got past Nic Batum, but his layup was too strong off the glass. P.J. Tucker followed up with a tip, but he too was too strong. Then Markieff Morris grabbed the rebound about six inches from the rim and went back up with it. The ball lingered for a moment that felt like an eternity before falling off the rim. Batum then went through the net to tip the ball out past the fray under the hoop and the game was over. Markieff grabbed his jersey in frustration. Bledsoe walked off the floor, slow and stoic, as red and white ticker tape fell from the rafters. The cheap ribbon stuck to the sweaty Suns the way I’m sure this loss will stick with them for a while.

The Suns were once again led by a 20-point performance from Bledsoe (23 points, six assists) and a double-double from Miles Plumlee (10 points, 10 rebounds). Gerald Green came off the bench and scored 17 to pace what is quickly becoming one of the best second units in the NBA. This was a grinder of a game where neither team shot the ball particularly well. For more in-depth analysis, let’s look at the three questions Kevin Zimmerman posed earlier today.

Will picking the right poisons continue to work for Jeff Hornacek?

The Suns game plan heading into tonight may have been the same as it was on opening night: let Lillard and Aldridge get theirs and keep the rest of the Trail Blazers from scoring. That plan went out the window early when it became clear LaMarcus Aldridge had not come to play at all. We’ll discuss Aldridge’s abysmal night in a minute, but when he went out with two fouls midway through the first quarter, the Blazers shifted their focus away from running plays for their stars toward very rapid ball movement. The Blazers zipped the ball around the floor in their half court offense and really made the Suns work to defend. Phoenix responded by jumping into passing lanes and forcing a ton of turnovers, especially in the second quarter. Portland’s 16 turnovers turned into 20 fast break points for the Suns who once again looked like the fastest team in the NBA. In the end, Thomas Robinson was the Blazers’ leading scorer with 15 points. Both Damian Lillard and Aldridge were not at their best, shooting 9-of-32 combined, but the Suns adjusted nicely on the fly and held the Blazers to less than 42% shooting from the field after Portland shot over 50% against Detroit on Monday. The Suns team defense is a thing of beauty. They communicate, rotate, and box out on every possession, and because of their immense effort, they are capable of holding offensively potent teams like the Blazers to 90 points at home.

How does Markieff Morris matchup with Aldridge?

As I mentioned, Aldridge was awful in this game. His first field goal didn’t come until the waning moments of the first half. He got it going at the beginning of the second with three quick buckets, but the Suns redoubled their defensive effort on him and really made him a non-factor down the stretch. Because of foul trouble, Aldridge ended up sharing the court with Markieff Morris more than he would have normally. When the two were matched up, Kieff had the clear advantage. Defensively, Morris stripped Aldridge of the ball on consecutive possessions, and his physical play forced Aldridge to miss several shots from inside three feet including an embarrassingly shorted dunk. One thing I noticed about Aldridge is that he doesn’t ever turn over his right shoulder in the post. That fact must have been in the Suns’ scouting report because they gave him the baseline every time he caught the ball on the left block, but LaMarcus refused to take advantage. Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Morris combined to do admirable job containing one of the better power forwards in the league. It was actually the Morris twins’ former college teammate, Thomas Robinson, who had the biggest impact in the paint for Portland. Robinson played with great energy and was a beast on the offensive glass.

Offensively, Kieff was not as effective as he has been over the last several games. He managed just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting. He settled for jumpers too often and didn’t assert himself in the paint the way he has been thus far this year. He missed shootaround with a mild illness, so it’s very possible he was not 100% on the court.

Will Goran Dragic start, and will he look improved from a game ago?

The Dragon cannot catch a break. Clearly energized by his clean bill of health, his return to the starting lineup, and the birth of his son, Dragic was incredibly active and agile in this game. In the first quarter, he actually dove for a loose ball twice on the same fast break, once on the offensive end and once near Portland’s basket. He was forced to sit with two quick fouls midway through the first, but when he returned to the game the spark was still there. He was dynamite in transition, getting to the basket with ease and finding open teammates for easy baskets. In the first half, he took several bumps on fast breaks that landed him on his backside, but he popped up each time no worse for the wear.

But he wasn’t so lucky in the fourth. Chasing down a loose ball on Portland’s end, Dragic’s head collided with Mo Williams’ dome. Goran started gushing blood immediately and had to be taken back to the locker room where he received 13 stitches according to Paul Coro. Losing Dragic was a big blow for the Suns. Before leaving the game with a boxer-like face cut, Goran had hit two step back threes on possessions when the Suns were really desperate for a bucket. Basketball is a game of inches, and in a game where the Suns literally lost by one inch, having the Dragon available for crunch time could have made all the difference.