The Portland Trail Blazers faces the Phoenix Suns under serious disadvantages tonight. Damian Lillard was still healing from a calf injury. Fellow starter Anfernee Simons joined him with a foot injury, eliminating Portland’s two top scorers from the start. With Gary Payton II also out, the Blazers were suddenly thin at guard. Joining rookie Shaedon Sharpe was starting small forward Josh Hart, while Justise Winslow filled Hart’s position as best he could. The Blazers are expected to face Chris Paul and Devin Booker with no point guard in sight.
Considering the situation, Portland performed incredibly well. Their starters kept them close early in the game, denying Phoenix the expected blowout. Portland’s bench actually built a significant lead in the second, which they held for most of the third period as well.
Behind superstar Devin Booker, Phoenix came back strong in the fourth. Although the Suns took a slight late lead, the Blazers held their heads high. They led a slow attack through Jusuf Nurkic, who had played a mediocre game up to that point. Nurk delivered with a three-pointer and an offensive rebound, allowing his team to withstand Booker’s flurry.
With the score tied at 106, Phoenix had the last possession of the game. Portland forced Mikal Bridges to travel down the lane, getting a counter shot with just one second left.
And then that…
The Blazers once again beat the Suns improbably and narrowly, 108-106. Grant finished with 30 points on 10-17 shooting to lead the team.
The Blazers struggled to contain the Suns from a distance early in the game. Five of Phoenix’s first eight shots went beyond the arc. Four of them fell. Portland’s offense was measured and smart – they tried to feed Jusuf Nurkic inside or score the dribble in the paint – but with all those triples falling, it didn’t take long for the Suns to overtake them on the scoreboard, 15-7 .
What the Blazers lacked in overt firepower, they tried to make up for with speed. With the half-court offense uneven, Portland pushed the ball on every rebound, trying to get out with Hart and Sharpe for easy buckets. Keon Johnson also added his defensive flair and a bit of attacking tempo. But the pace didn’t favor Nurkic, who looked tired as the quarter wore on. The Suns started scoring inside rather than outside, with easy buckets keeping them top of the scoreboard.
At least that progress was a little slower than the three-point shoot-off. Suns forward Cam Johnson also left late in the first with a knee injury. It helped a bit. So did a three, a steal and a layup from Johnson in the final two minutes. Unfortunately, Sharpe committed his third foul on the last play of the quarter, a predictable outcome after trying to watch Devin Booker. Johnson’s latest flurry disguised Phoenix’s advantage in depth and momentum. The Suns’ lead was only 28-25 after one.
Turnovers started to show up early in the second period. The Blazers aren’t used to playing together under normal circumstances. Their cobbled-together lineup, almost completely devoid of isolation markers, was plagued with hesitation and confusion. Winslow proved to be a one-man wrecking machine, making up some of the difference. He worked hard on the glass, defended vigorously and tried to put up plays. He helped the Blazers survive the opening minutes of the period as their other starters got some well-deserved rest.
Offensive rebounds also helped the Blazers in the first half of the second period. Winslow and Jabari Walker were masterful from within two feet of the cut, snatching rebounds from the Phoenix greats who seemed to think the ball was rightfully theirs. Blazers forwards corrected them.
Portland’s defense also remained intact in the opener of the second. It was pretty impressive to see the second and third strings working hard and staying connected. The Blazers hit bodies with the Suns. This seemed to knock Phoenix out of their game.
As the quarter progressed, Phoenix returned some of the same turnovers they had forced into Portland earlier. Portland’s defense was so good in the second, Phoenix only managed six runs in the first six minutes of the frame.
In theory, that was supposed to change when Booker and company returned to the game. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Portland continued to play flawless defense, rebound hard, and they mounted Jerami Grant by making Half a dozen strokes in the period. Nassir Little added 10 in the half in addition to Grant’s 18. I’d love to say Phoenix didn’t know what hit them, but they didn’t even know they were fighting. Portland led 59-49 at halftime.
The Suns started the third period the way they started the first: trying to run and hit three against a bigger, slower Portland formation. It worked pretty well too. Layups and a long shot turned up the heat on the sizzle. But the Blazers had confidence on the other side. They were patient, working the ball inside for contested but achievable shots. Despite shooting well, the Suns looked up at the scoreboard after four minutes and not only hadn’t caught up, they were actually down three points.
It wasn’t in the script.
It was around this time that Devin Booker took one look at this script and tried to flip it. He went straight for Portland defenders, reaching the half-court hoop and converting layups. The only meaningful response from the Blazers was to foul. Winslow landed his fourth early, hurting Portland’s depth even more.
Wielding star power should have brought the Suns back immediately, but Grant continued to pressure Phoenix on the other end. He wasn’t trying as many punches as pushing the tempo, penetrating and sometimes diving. Grant was the shot that gave Phoenix pause and kept them at bay, only to find a right hook crashing into their jaw in the form of a three from Nurkic and Johnson, both assisted by Grant.
Booker attempted to return the favor on the other end. Portland dedicated additional defenders to him; he dutifully passed on to his teammates. The rest of the Suns weren’t as effective as their Blazers counterparts. No matter what Phoenix did, Portland’s lead stayed stubbornly around a dozen bakers.
However, the Blazers seemed to be running out of steam as the third period unfolded. Without ball carriers to absorb possessions – allowing the rest of the team to relax – the ball and players had to move on every play in order to generate reasonable looks. Phoenix grabbed the pattern, forcing the ball into corners, sidelines and scoreless positions, then doubling hard. Grant and company couldn’t dribble or find passing lanes. Slowly, those good looks started to evaporate.
Had Booker been able to light the fuse in his offensive game, Phoenix would have come all the way at this point. He tried. Powerfully. But Portland defended well, pushing him away from the edge. And Booker’s contested shots just wouldn’t fall. The Blazers weren’t fouling him on every second possession either.
The Suns completely ate away Portland’s lead late in the third period. The foundations shook, but they did not collapse. (Although a four-point play for Landry Shamet with 6 seconds remaining didn’t help.) The Blazers led 86-80 after three.
The start of the fourth period was choppy, with both teams scoring in spurts. The Blazers kept coming in, but they weren’t able to get the offensive rebounds from the misfires that had backed them up in previous quarters. Meanwhile, Phoenix has started warming up again from a distance. In a few deep shots, Portland’s lead was reduced from eight to just one possession, and that was with half of Phoenix’s stars on the bench. Halfway through the period, the Blazers were leading by just three.
By then, the Suns had timed Portland’s offense. It eventually became apparent that the Blazers didn’t rely on individual players as much as the spaces between them. Cutting passing lanes, the Suns also created choke points in the Blazers’ offense. After that, all they had to do was duck into the lane to avoid layups and offensive boards. Like a marathon runner whose stride begins to struggle, the Blazers heard the footsteps behind them.
At the same time, Damion Lee, who opened the Suns’ three-point scoring in the period, took a flamethrower. The Blazers couldn’t catch his corner attempts, one of which eventually tied the game with 4:15 to go.
The teams tried to match the finish. Nurkic drew a fifth foul on Deandre Ayton in possession after the tie and on subsequent possessions afterwards. Portland tried to use Nurk to draw the defense inside. His post moves weren’t threatening enough to get the job done. Meanwhile, the Suns tried to run and break in, moving around defenders and hoping to fire whistles that had eluded them for most of the night.
Booker and Nurkic traded buckets as time passed three minutes. Then Paul and Josh Hart traded duds. Throughout, the Suns always had a place and a player to start the offense, while Portland inevitably took half a dozen dribbles or passes trying to achieve the same. It actually worked a bit to the Blazers advantage, as it ate the clock without allowing Phoenix to get too many backstabs to score.
As seemed fitting, the score was tied at 101 with one minute remaining.
Booker missed a layup in the final minute, but Ayton converted the rebound. Then Nurkic, of all people, hit a three to put Portland up one again. But Booker came back seconds later with his. With 31 seconds left, Phoenix led 106-104. Once again, Portland needed a bucket. Again, they should work hard to succeed in their attempt.
Grant missed a lean on the drive, but Nurkic returned the favor to Ayton, grabbing the rebound. The score was tied at 106. Phoenix had final possession. But Mikal Bridges got stuck in the hallway against good defense and traveled, leaving Portland one last try with a second remaining.
On the last play of the match, Jerami Grant had Billy Ray Bates cut to the rim for the alley-oop, but instead of lobbing the lob, Winslow swung it over everyone’s head. Grant caught him backpedaling to the other side of the hoop. He took four steps back (yes, he was traveling, and probably a timer violation to start) and sank an open 13-footer for the win.
Stay tuned for our detailed recap with analysis of the evening.
The Blazers will draw those same Suns again tomorrow night with the game starting at 7:00 p.m. Pacific.