Ask any NBA basketball fan who isn't painting "Rip City" on his bald head this instant what he believes will come of the Blazers-Suns first round matchup, and most likely you'll hear some variation of the following response:
"Brandon Roy isn't playing; forget it, the series is over."
But the games haven't even started yet and...
"I don't care what you have to say; without Roy, the Suns will sweep."
Damn. And here I thought the battle being waged on the U.S. government by Tea Party folks was rough. Good luck trying to convince anyone the Blazers have a fighting chance against Steve Nash & Co.
Of course, to totally abandon the possibility the Blazers could win would be to ignore the reality that upsets do happen all the time.
After all, no one expected the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors to knock off the top-ranked Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. No one expected the Denver Nuggets to take out the Seattle Super Sonics in 1994 (the Sonics won 63 games that year, 21 more than the Nuggets).
How about the Blazers in 1977? In the Finals, they faced a heavily favored Philadelphia team that was considered to be one of the most talented teams in history. The series was supposed to be a cakewalk for the 76ers.
Philly won the first game, and was then in process of blowing out Portland in Game Two when Darryl Dawkins violently threw Blazers' forward Bobby Gross to the floor during a rebound. Tensions flared and Maurice Lucas responded by smacking Dawkins upside the head as a challenge to go toe-to-toe with him.
At that point, Portland's message became clear; they might have been David but they sure as hell weren't scared of Goliath. The Blazers would go on to win the next four games and claim their one and only championship.
The message in the story here is simple—don't sleep. With that in mind, let's look at how the Blazers and Suns match up heading into their series.
Seasons in the NBA: Suns 42, Blazers 40.
Win/Loss percentage: Suns .561, Blazers .534.
Years in playoffs: Suns 29, Blazers 28.
Division titles: Suns 6, Blazers 5.
Conference titles: Blazers 3, Suns 2.
Championships: Blazers 1, Suns 0.
In 194 games against each other, the Suns have gone 108-86, winning 56 percent of the time.
They have met three times this season; here are the outcomes:
December 17, 2009, in Portland: Blazers 105, Suns 102. The Suns were up 15 at one point in the third quarter but the Blazers rallied to pull out a win. Jerryd Bayless scored a career-high 29 points off the bench and made the game-winning free throws with nine seconds left.
February 10, 2010, in Phoenix: Blazers 108, Suns 101.
Without an injured Brandon Roy, Portland shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field to blow out the Suns. Phoenix cut the lead late in the game with Portland's starters on the bench.
March 21, 2010, in Phoenix. Suns 93, Blazers 87. This was an ugly game that featured a combined 13-for-47 shooting performance in the third quarter. The game was close in the fourth until Phoenix went into a zone defense; Portland ran out of gas and failed to attack.
Currently, the Suns are one of the hottest teams in basketball right now. They're 27-7 over their last 34 games, with the losses coming to Portland, Dallas, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and the Lakers. These seven losses—all against playoff teams—have been decided by an average of 6.9 points; a 10-point loss to the Mavericks was the only double-digit defeat.
Portland has been impressive since acquiring Marcus Camby at the trade deadline. They were 32-24 (.571) before the deal, and 16-8 (.667) afterward. Five of those eight losses were decided by six points or fewer, including two in overtime.
Needless to say, both teams are playing well heading into the postseason.
Center: Jarron Collins/ Channing Frye vs. Marcus Camby/ Juwan Howard
Frye's ability to draw the opposing center out of the paint with his three-point shooting is invaluable. However, at the end of the day, you want your bigs to be about defending at the rim and securing rebounds.
Big Edge: Blazers
Power Forward: Amar’e Stoudemire versus LaMarcus Aldridge
If you want to really start an endless debate, how about asking the following question: Who's a worse post defender, Stoudemire or Aldridge? Seriously, these guys are softer than a down pillow. Aldridge presents greater size but Stoudemire gets the nod in speed. Offensively, Stoudemire has a much easier time scoring.
Small Forward: Grant Hill/ Jared Dudley vs. Nicolas Batum/ Martell Webster
Hill is a pro whose experience is like gold to a team. Dudley is an excellent backup with the versatility to create mismatches. But don't sleep on Batum and Webster. These two guys are long and play excellent defense. I'd even go as far to give Batum's defense the nod over any pluses the rest of these guys bring.
Shooting Guard: Jason Richardson/ Leandro Barbosa vs. Jerryd Bayless/ Rudy Fernandez
Richardson is secretly the most valuable player on the Suns (more to follow on this). Barbosa is working his way back into shape and trying to find a comfortable role. While they have each shown flashes of brilliance, Bayless and Fernandez are both complete wild cards at this point. You have to go with the established on this one.
Point Guard: Steve Nash vs. Andre Miller
If it were the regular season, I'd say there's no contest here. I love the under-appreciated Miller but Nash is an all-time great. Unfortunately for Nash, playoff ball means the game shifts to half-court execution and defense, two areas in which he is below average. Miller isn't the best defender or athlete but few players in the league possess more guile.
Slight Edge: Suns
Bench: The Suns have more talent but the Blazers have more grit.
Coaching: This is Nate McMillan’s 10th season as a head coach and just his fourth playoff appearance. He’s been to the second round only once. Gentry has coached for several teams but mostly in interim roles. This is only his third full season as a coach, and his team posted the fifth-best record in the league and never came undone despite the rumors surrounding Stoudemire’s future.
Slight Edge: Blazers
I mentioned in the previous section how Jason Richardson is the most important player on the Suns. Check this out:
When Richardson scores his season average (15.7—we'll say 16) or more points, the Suns are 34-7. When he scores fewer than 16 points, they’re just 18-20.
Nash and Stoudemire get theirs no matter what; the numbers they have amassed in wins and losses are nearly identical. But it's Richardson, the third option, who swings the game in one direction or another. When he's shut down, the team struggles mightily.
How has Richardson fared against Portland this season? In one win, he scored 16 points. In one loss, he scored 13. In the other loss, he didn’t play.
Who’s the key for Portland? Another guy you wouldn't expect—Nicolas Batum. Yes, that's right. The Blazers are 18-7 with him as a starter. In those 18 wins, he has averaged 12.5 points, 1 block and 2 threes on mind-blowing .56/.47/.90 shooting percentages.
The 21-year-old Frenchman is the team’s best defender, and often assigned to the opposing team’s top offensive weapon. In two wins against the Thunder this season, Batum guarded Kevin Durant and held him to 8-for-20 and 7-for-18 shooting performances, respectively. In a win over the Lakers, Batum helped hold Bryant to 8-for-23 from the field.
The Blazers' two greatest strengths, both of which are huge advantages over the Suns, are playing defense and protecting the ball on offense. If McMillan's boys can slow the tempo down and limit the effectiveness of the Suns' roles players, they will turn each game into a boring, ugly, grind-it-out affair. And if they do that, they can win.
For the Suns, it's all about playing their style of ball. Any time they can get out and run, they're going to get easy buckets. With Roy out of action, the Blazers are going to have a hard time winning from behind. Expect the Suns to come out full blast with the goal of putting the game out of reach by halftime.
The bottom line is this: The Suns will have an easier time getting a basket when necessary.
Suns in Six