Preview: Phoenix Suns (44-31) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (49-27)


Time: 7 p.m. MST

TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus

Trail Blazers

SunsJust more than a week ago, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like they might find themselves in the same predicament that the Phoenix Suns are in as they enter the Rose Garden on Friday night. LaMarcus Aldridge was injured, and All-Star point guard Damian Lillard didn’t have his best pick-and-roll mate, or any for that matter.

It was bigger than that.

Portland didn’t have the All-Star forward its entire offense revolved around, and Terry Stotts’ team went 3-8 from March 7 through March 25. To be fair, the first four losses of that streak came with Aldridge playing, but the snowball effect was a threat until he returned.

Aldridge has returned and with him, winning has too.

The Blazers host the Suns Friday on a four-game winning streak and with enough motivational memories of losing to Phoenix.

The Suns, meanwhile, could be on the brink of losing their psychological advantage that came in the form of youthful ignorance. They have played loose all along, as if they didn’t know the significance of their success. That was the case on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers, but a lackadaisical approach ended poorly in blowing a 17-point second-half lead to fall.

The worse news is that Phoenix’s two competitors for the final two playoff spots, Dallas and Memphis, have been there before. On Thursday night, Dallas built a 12-point lead against the Clippers with less than five minutes to play but let it slip down to two points in the final minute. Unlike Phoenix, Dirk Nowitzki and Co. closed out the win.

The Blazers have a 2.5 lead on sixth-place Golden State in the playoff standings but have enough motivation to play well just a game back of fourth-place Houston. Earning homecourt advantage against the Rockets would be important, of course, so that’s the carrot dangling in front of Portland.

It’s a wonder if the Suns realize just how big their carrot is — or if they can see it at all. Jeff Hornacek is likely laying the reality out for his inexperienced team, but it’s about to be too late for them to learn how to react.

What am I looking for in the battle between Phoenix and Portland?

How well do the Suns handle the pick-and-roll on defense and offense?

On Wednesday, Hornacek was disappointed the Clippers’ two point guards were the ones cutting up the Phoenix defense. He was also in a bind with Chris Paul getting Eric Bledsoe in foul trouble and then forcing Goran Dragic into an off shooting night. On offense, the Suns had best get the guards back into a groove, which they’ve proven quite possible in past games against the Blazers.

But on the other side of the ball, the guards and power forwards will need to be smart in defending Portland’s best weapon, the Aldridge-Lillard pick-and-roll. And once that’s locked down, Phoenix’s help must recover and stop shooters if the ball is kicked out and swung to the weak side.

Can the big brother Jayhawks beat on the little brother Jayhawk?

The Morris twins and Gerald Green gave the Suns tremendous offensive punch in the first half against the Clippers on Wednesday. They combined for 39 points as the Suns led 62-60 after a half. Then it all went silent.

The trio scored a combined three points in the second half and was part of the group that allowed Los Angeles to chop away at a double-digit deficit.

The Blazers have a better bench than last season, but it’s still on the thin side. Guard Mo Williams, guard Dorell Wright and the Morris twins’ little Jayhawk brother, Thomas Robinson, will be the main bench contributors, and Phoenix’s best advantage can’t afford to go cold in a big game.

Will Miles Plumlee give another active performance?

Plumlee was a bright spot against the Clippers — it wasn’t completely his fault he was left in as a matchup disadvantage a few times, most notably on an end-of-quarter, four-point play where he switched onto Chris Paul and was then left on an island.

Plumlee will give it a go against former Suns center Robin Lopez, who quietly has been one of the biggest factors for the Blazers’ improvement this year. He’s averaging about three more rebounds per game as he has in any prior season, is scoring in double-figures and is also contributing 1.8 blocks per game.

Upcoming schedule

A programming note for the future: Four Suns road games will be broadcast on Fox Sports Arizona Plus, including the game at Portland. Here are the four games on FSAZ-Plus.

Friday, April 4, @Portland
Wednesday, April 9, @New Orleans
Saturday, April 12, @Dallas (also on NBATV)
Wednesday, April 16, @Sacramento

How to find FSAZ-Plus

Cable One, 338
Century Link Prism, 763 (SD), 1763 (HD)
Century Link Choice, 999
Comcast (Tucson), 17
Cox, 73, 1073 (HD)
DirecTV, 686-1 (SD & HD)
DISH, 453 (SD), 9576 (HD) / Portland game only **
Mediacom (Apache Junction), 126
Mediacom (Nogales), 2
Orbitel, 29 (SD), 829 (HD)
Suddenlink NPG, 125
Western, 779

** DISH changes its channel location from game-to-game, so fans should check or their programming guide for updates.