Portland played pretty well for half a game in Phoenix.
Unfortunately, that half extended from late in the first quarter until early in the third quarter. Before and after those periods, they flat-out got toasted.
Making a mockery of my assertion that Joel "the Vanilla Gorilla" Przybilla plays him better than most, Shaquille O'Neal had a dominating game, missing something like two shots all night. As expected, Steve Nash ran wild, Amare Stoudemire scored seemingly at will, and Matt Barnes and Raja Bell scored a great deal.
If you are going to beat the Suns and let Stoudemire, Nash, and the Big Cactus score big numbers, you certainly better shut everyone else down completely if you want to win. Letting Barnes hit for 21 is not going to get the job done.
There were some good signs from the game. For one, after getting kicked in the teeth early and getting down by double digits, the Blazers' second unit came back to get them a lead which they then carried into the third quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge had a better offensive game against Stoudemire than he typically does, and is showing improved aggressiveness in looking for his shot.
And Nicolas "Boom Boom" Batum is looking more and more like a guy who can be used at crunch time to play defense on scoring point guards, talented wing defenders, and so forth.
On the downside, it was obvious to me even when Portland had a third-quarter lead that they would eventually lose. It had to do with the Blazers' radio announcers.
"The Wild One" Mike Rice is a complete and unapologetic homer. Any given Blazer could put a choke-hold on an opponent, drop a couple elbows, kick the guy in the groin, and Rice would think it was clean. Conversely, if there was no opponent over the mid-court line when a Blazer missed a dunk, he would be screaming for the (non-existent) foul to be called.
Brian "Wheels" Wheeler, on the other hand, is much more even-handed. He leans slightly towards homer-ism, without being as over the top as Rice.
Yet in this game, both guys were livid about the officiating, going on about horrific calls—an Aldridge block called a goaltend, a few hack jobs by the Suns not called while touch fouls were being called on the Blazers, free throws awarded when the Suns were kicking the ball outside—for minutes at a time.
This was while Portland was LEADING. When a young team gets distracted by the officiating—and it was clear from Wheel's call of the game they were—they are eventually going to lose. The only question remaining is by how much.
I suspect the calls were not as egregious as Wheels and Rice made them out to be, but when things start going south against a team that is in your head—as the Suns are after their recent dominance of the Blazers—you start looking for reasons to fail. Portland found one in the officials.
Not that the Suns need much help. They remain a top-shelf title contender. At home against a team that needs to click on all cylinders to beat them, the Suns are simply too good to let this game get away.
Ultimately, I figured Portland would come up short and they did.
After the game, I noticed another trend which somewhat stems from the unexpected success of Batum. Many Blazer fans are howling for Travis "Trout" Outlaw to be traded.
This is something I don't understand. Take Outlaw off last year's squad and the Blazers are maybe a 30-win team. Take him off this year's team and they are six to eight games worse at least. He provides the team with so many valuable assets.
As of this moment, Portland has two guys who can create their own shot—Brandon Roy and Trout. Roy, of course, looks to pass first. Outlaw's jab-step fall-away is all but impossible to block and not much easier to even contest. There are times that is a much-needed commodity.
He also provides versatility. He has the length to guard power forwards while still having the quickness and agility to defend small forwards and shooting guards.
To be fair, one of the complaints against Outlaw has been his defensive weaknesses. On a team that has given up 50 percent-plus shooting even on a night they won, that is hardly unusual or a fair criticism. He has defensive holes, but who doesn't?
Finally, he provides a very key component. He is a great chemistry guy. He is regularly referred to as the most-liked guy on the team, is credited for building a friendship between Aldridge and Roy, and can bring the team together.
So let's look at his positives—good scoring, clutch player, versatility, unstoppable offensive moves, over 50 percent from three-point range.
Now let's look at his negatives—he can stop the flow of the offense at times, sometimes has trouble getting to the right spot on defense, and is unsteady as a rebounder.
Why would anyone be in a hurry to get rid of this guy? He is working on a cheap contract, fills several valuable roles that nobody else on the current team can fill, provides a more than serviceable back-up at both forward positions and sometimes the shooting guard—and he can be a game-changer.
Every so often, there will be a game that completely changes direction based on one play or a short period of time involving two or three key plays. Outlaw has a knack for providing those. Sometimes it is a spectacular blocked shot, at others an adrenaline-boosting, highlight-reel dunk. He brings intensity to the Rose Garden and the Blazers. Players who can do that are few and far between.
There are some deals out there I would listen to that involve Outlaw. But they are not deals that the other teams would listen to.
Outlaw and Sergio Rodriguez for Tayshaun Prince, for example. Good for the Blazers as they would acquire a talented, versatile veteran who can play some lock-down D and is a good team guy. But why would the Pistons do that?
Outlaw, Blake, and Channing Frye for Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. I heard rumors of Portland offering Outlaw straight up for Conley and pretty much laughed them off. Yeah, as if Portland would trade a clutch fourth-quarter guy, a player who last year was one of Portland's big three, straight up for a guy who is sliding down the depth chart of Memphis, a team that will consider it a success if they top 30 wins this year?
Conversely, why would Memphis give up Rudy Gay, perhaps their most talented player and best drawing card? I suspect they would not think of the trade as good for them. I don't know (or care, since it is irrelevant) whether the salary match. I am only demonstrating how much regard I have for Outlaw and what I would want back.
Outlaw did not get worse over the course of the summer. He is not a cancer on the team. He is still a guy who will score double figures, bring energy to the second unit, and help the team win. Saying you would trade him straight up for an inferior player is just nonsensical. Hopefully Blazer fans wake up soon and stop their bleating.
We have a seminal collection of talent on the floor. The only reason to get rid of any of it is to improve the team. Getting rid of Outlaw makes the team noticeably worse in so many ways—so let's not think about it, unless we get like value in return.
And frankly, that ain't going to happen.