The Phoenix Suns
are prohibitive favorites to defeat the Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs.
Lets get that off our chest first thing. The players who will be on the floor throughout the series have produced more effectively and more cohesively for the Suns
than the Blazers.
In Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash they have the two best players who will appear on the court. In Grant Hill and Jason Richardson they have guys who are above average secondary players that can light up a score sheet.
In Channing Frye, Louis Amundsen, Leandro Barbossa and Jared Dudley they have guys who know their roles and take pride in them.
The bottom line is the Suns record is no accident. They got the three seed on the last day of the season, but they put themselves in a position to get that seed by winning tough, important games in tough situations like Utah
on the road when both teams were fighting for high seeding.
Any Blazer fan who looks at this series as anything other than a very probably second consecutive first round exit is delusional.
At the same time, any Blazer fan who does not have at least some hope that the upset is likely enough to induce them to purchase tickets for the playoffs and have a fair amount of optimism they will get to see the Blazers in Game 6 has not been paying attention.
season is a learning experience. It takes time for players, no matter how talented, to learn to play together. This was evidenced early in the season when a Blazer team that was more talented than last seasons' 54 win edition was struggling, giving up bad losses on their home floor.
20 games in, I had this to say:Yet 20 games into the season Portland has already lost four home games, including a blow-out loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, has trailed for 11 consecutive quarters, and worse yet, looks like they are a team that does not care. What happened?
Part of the answer was they were struggling to adapt to a different playing style, to a different mix of players on the floor.
Entering the playoffs, that is happening again. The addition of Marcus Camby turned Portland into a better team. The loss of Brandon Roy makes them worse...but presents an opportunity.
Lest anyone misunderstand what comes next, let's get this out there. The Trailblazers with Brandon Roy are vastly better than the Blazers without Brandon Roy.
With that said, arguably the best line-up the Blazers currently possess does not necessarily include Roy. Camby, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster and Andre Miller is a team that can give any team in the NBA fits.
Defensively, they are quick, agile, aggressive, and interchangeable. Camby calls sets, has the agility and willingness to cover everything from a post-up center down to brief periods of at least contesting the small, quick guards. Under his tutelage, Aldridge is showing flashes of being a superior defender who plays off the Camby style and has, with the exception of the shot-blocking, the same set of capabilities, though not at the same level.
Batum and Webster both get up on their man, switch with little to no drop-off, and this season have shown a consistent dedication to defense.
This unit is capable of putting out stretches of defensive coverage that can hold even explosive offensive teams to sub-20 quarters or multiple minute stretches of scorelessness. Nor are they hapless offensively.
Blazer fans regularly label Aldridge as soft because he does not post up as often as they would like. I reject that assessment. He knows his strengths, plays to them, and has been working at his post game, showing improvement from season to season, month to month, and at times game to game.
Last year, I would have said trying to run the offense through him against Stoudemire would be a disaster. This season, he has improved to the point where it is something Portland can do. Aldridge has improved to the point where he commands the double team which opens up Webster and Batum to stretch the defense with their very capable outside shooting.
The problem is, that line-up cannot play 48 minutes. So what are the Suns weaknesses the Blazers can exploit over the course of the game?
Frye, Amundson, Dragic and Dudley. Please note; I have respect for their games. I am a big Channing Frye guy to the point where I encourage you to check out his blog
. I want him to tear it up against every team except Portland.
But they are the weak link for the Suns. They do not have a history of producing in the playoffs. (The cynic might point out Hill has as many second round appearances as this Blazer team, but I have too much respect for his game and do not think that is his fault.)
They are exploitable. Dudley and Amundson are not the type of players who dominate a game so much as fill a role. Those roles can be stifled which creates an opportunity for the Blazers to steal a game here and there. When they are going good, they make the Suns great if not unbeatable, but they are less likely to show greatness game after game after game like Stoudemire, Nash, Richardson, Hill and Barbosa.
Of course, the problem for the Blazers is that all the negatives I just pointed out about the Suns point to some pretty important guys for the Blazers; Batum, Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless...
All of which means the Blazer need several things to break right in order to pull off the upset.
Aldridge needs to have the oft-cited "breakout series" where he dials up 25+ points a night, as does Miller. The second tier guys like Batum, Webster, Bayless and Fernandez need to be the players they are in flashes rather than the players they are that keep them fighting for time and recognition.
Webster, Fernandez and Batum in particular are vital. These are three guys who, when hitting their shots, make the Blazers nearly unbeatable when combined with the stifling defense the Blazer line-up referenced above is capable of playing. When they are engaged in the game, hitting their shots, and involved there is no team in the NBA that they are not capable of beating or even blowing out.
That defines the series. Not necessarily the play of Nash, Stoudemire, Richardson, Hill, Aldridge and Miller...but the play of guys like Frye and Fernandez.
If the second tier players of one team are more consistent than the production seen by the other, that decides the series.
As a Blazer fan, I dearly want the upset. I want to see the Blazer defense slow the Suns, guys like Webster to have those scoring explosions we sporadically see, and the Blazers squeeze into the second round.
They have the talent to do it. they have the will.
At the end of the day, whichever team wins this series is the one I want to see in the NBA Finals. I am fully aware it is a long-shot for the Blazers. I am just grateful that they have a team talented enough that, even if it is unlikely, it is at least a remote, remote, remote possibility.
I hope this series goes seven games in a call-back to the classic battles of the Kevin Johnson/Dan Majerle Suns verse the Clyde Drexler/Terry Porter Blazers. I want to see 7 games decided in the final minute with clutch shots from unlikely players. I want to see the upset.
The recipe for the Blazers is simple. Pound the ball inside to Aldridge and play off the double teams to generate open looks which their role players must convert. Dominate the boards, play stifling defense, and hope Nash, Stoudemire, Richardson and Hill forget that is who they are and play like mortals.
Good luck and good health to both teams.