Hello Blogtown readers and Blazer fans! Tonight the Blazers take on the Phoenix Suns, 7:00 p.m., here at the Rose Garden.
This is not the Phoenix Suns that ran Portland out of the playoffs two and a half years ago on their way to the Western Conference Finals. That championship-worthy team was promptly dismantled after being run out of the playoffs by the Lakers, and since then Phoenix has wandered the wilderness, cobbling together line-ups and over-performing thanks to stalwart coach Alvin Gentry. They've traded Goran Dragic, then signed him back as starting point guard, they've lost valuable role players and defensive stalwarts like Jason Richardson and Grant Hill, and most significantly, last summer superstar Steve Nash left for the hated Lakers.
So, Blazer fans, Phoenix has also known pain. Still, when Portland faced them a month ago, Phoenix won handily. Since then however, the Suns have had a streaky season and personnel issues. Unfortunately for Portland, Phoenix arrives in town tonight on something of a hot streak. They've coalesced, played well, and won four in row.
But guess who else is on a hot streak? The Portland Trail Blazers! They have also coalesced, also played well, and also won four in a row. The Blazers have found role players in unlikely places (looking at you, Babbitt) and rookie Damian Lillard is getting recognition from around the league as a superior point guard.
Even with their awful 2-10 road record the Suns present a challenge to the Blazers in the form of the chin-strapped Polish sensation, Marcin Gortat. An athletic center, Gortat will eat the Blazers alive inside if LaMarcus Aldridge isn't playing (he sprained his ankle last week and is listed as a game time decision). And if Gortat is being guarded well that means power forward Luis Scola will be available to score. Point guard Goran Dragic is also a crafty player, skilled at driving and getting into the lane. Bottling him up and denying Gortat the ball will be key to winning this game.
Pregame update: Looks like Aldridge is starting.
10:50 - After some sloppy plays Aldridge finds Hickson on an inside pass for a hook shot. 2-0 Blazers.
9:41 - Another inside pass leads to one of Batum's smooth dunks, and the Suns answer with their first basket. 4-2 Blazers.
7:26 - If they weren't, y'know, performing astounding feats of athleticism, I might say that both teams look a little shaky tonight. An outside three from Shannon Brown and a teardrop from Dragic wake up the Blazers, with Aldridge hitting two nice jumpers in a row. 12-7 Blazers.
5:18 - The Blazers are cold from outside but some good work from Hickson inside is keeping them in the game. Meanwhile the Suns are fighting their way back in. 15-12 Blazers.
P.S. - Luis Scola gets booed whenever he touches the ball. Do you think players who get booed go home and wonder why no one likes them?
4:46 - Out of the timeout Dragic drains a three to give the Suns their first lead, but on the other side Hickson fights his way in for another bucket. Hickson leads the Blazers with 9 points.
2:26 - When all else fails, double team Aldridge. But be warned, he will pass out, and the Blazers will find Hickson, again and again, who is the only one on the floor playing with urgency right now. 21-19 Blazers.
Timeout: Lillard has but one shot attempt so far.
1:30 - A couple wearing some insane Christmas sweaters gets engaged on camera. Babbitt checks in and is called for an over and back violation on the inbounds. Then Markieff Morris scores with Luke's hand in his face, but still, it's a good effort. 21-21.
:20 - Lillard misses a three but Hickson picks it up, whips it to Batum, who gets it inside to Victor Claver who suprises everyone, especially me, with a fancy shot in Gortat's face. 25-23 Phoenix.
END OF QUARTER.
Well this is new. The B-Team is fully in place with only Batum in representing the starting line up. Claver. Meyers Leonard. Ronnie Price. Babbitt. Bring it!
11:09 - AND ON CUE. Poster dunk by Meyers Leonard. 26-25 Blazers.
9:29 - An exciting offensive set for the Blazers, featuring a lot of movement and passing, ends with a three-in-the-key violation and a turnover. 31-30 Phoenix.
8:48 - The Blazers tighten up the defense and the rotations, then cause and win a jump ball. On the other end Batum finds himself wide open at the arc and drains a three. 33-31 Blazers.
7:43 - LMA and Will Barton enter the game as the Blazers scoring starts to falter. Beasley hits a jumper, and Jermaine O'Neal also scores. In other news, Jermaine O'Neal is healthy and still playing basketball. 35-36 Phoenix.
6:28 - A Meyers Leonard turnover and a three on the other end from Sebastian Telfair convince Terry Stotts to call a time out. Still it's nice that our much maligned bench is shaping up. 41-35 Phoenix.
5:22 - Starters back in, but the offense still struggles. The Suns run up another basket in transition. 45-35 Phoenix.
4:44 - After another close call turnover, Lillard decides he's had enough and books it to the basket, forcing Phoenix to foul him for easy shots. He splits the free throws. On the other end Portland turns up the pressure and Phoenix gets called for a shot clock violation. 47-36 Phoenix.
3:36 - Lillard shows off some fancy footwork, drawing in his defender for another foul. 47-38 Phoenix.
2:14 - Lillard again shows off his offensive repertoire, this time with a tear drop in the lane. On the other end Markieff Morris makes a lay up with Aldridge draped on him like a shawl. Lillard, still turning up the pressure, takes it to the basket again, but gets called for a charge. TIMEOUT. 49-40 Phoenix.
1:10 - Closely covered, Aldridge bullies his way into Scola, drawing a shove and a foul, earning him two shots. 49-44 Phoenix.
The first half ends with a strange sequence. Batum loses the ball right in front of the bench, yells at the ref about it, then bodies up on defense and gets a steal, only to throw it way too fast to Lillard. Scola picks it off for a last second half court shot which almost goes in. The Rose Garden gasps...and exhales. 53-44 Phoenix.
END OF HALF.
Wesley Matthews will not be returning for the night. No word on what his injury is, but his hip has been troubling him.
11:09 - Right out the gate the Blazers go back to what works, J.J. Hickson inside. Shannon Brown answers with a 2, and then Aldridge hits two foul shots. 55-48 Phoenix.
10:04 - After a dispiriting turnover and another bucket from Brown, Lillard hits his first three of the night.
8:41 - The teams continue to trade baskets, but a three from Claver raises everyone's spirits. A Phoenix turnover plus an Aldridge bucket forces Gentry to call a time out. 61-58 Phoenix.
6:58 - A baskets from Aldridge and Lillard bring Portland within sight of the lead. 63-62 Phoenix.
5:15 - The Suns are tumblers, hitting the deck a lot. A Gortat dunk coupled with some Blazer misses extends the lead. 67-63 Phoenix.
4:19 - The Blazers are playing well and defending well but Phoenix is controlling the pace of the game, running out on rebounds and turnovers and hustling the Blazers out of their comfort zone. Stotts calls time out to halt the momentum. 71-63 Phoenix.
The Suns play the bad guys well and the crowd loves booing them. Some dude just won an iPad mini in the most ridiculously easy jumbotron game ever.
3:45 - Seriously the Blazers are playing good defense, I swear. But Phoenix keeps wearing them down and exposing them. 73-63 Phoenix.
2:06 - After bringing the Rose Garden to a frenzy with a three, Babbitt crashes into Jared Dudley in mid air, sending him to the free throw line. 75-68 Phoenix.
1:24 - Batum gets his own three and the crowd is getting rowdier. Then Batum tips in a Babbitt miss and the Blazers are within two. 75-73 Phoenix.
:25 - Some Phoenix defense forces the Blazers to go for a weak three. On the other end Dragic misses one of his hope-and-prayer drives, leading to a Lillard drive and make. The quarter ends with a tie 75-75.
11:29 - J.J. Hickson with the shot and the foul for the lead. He throws back his head and laughs. 78-75 Blazers.
10:48 - Babbitt loses a pass, then forces one of the silliest turnovers I've ever seen, with the Suns running around pointing fingers, and Alvin Gentry looking like he's going to personally block the in bound pass. Unfortunately it only leads to a very long, very wide three from Batum.
9:20 - After a few sloppy plays, Batum gets mugged going to the basket, causing the Rose Garden to boo with full throats. Batum has 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 11 points. But he is 2/9 from the three and has seven turnovers. Wait, now he has 13 points. 80-78 Blazers.
8:12 - Now it's Hickson's turn to get shoved. His foul shot gives the Blazers a slight lead. 81-80 Blazers.
7:04 - A foul from Michael Beasley pushes the Suns into the penalty, which might be the edge the Blazers need right now. The game has turned into a grind. Lots of foul shots, hard defense, tied score. 82-82.
6:01 - Ronnie Price drives right to the hoop after some fast ball movement. 84-83 Blazers.
5:13 - Portland calls a time out after a merciful Goran Dragic foul. Both teams are desperate for a way to break this game open and pull away. The Blazers need to find their outside shot. My money is on Luke Babbitt entering the game. 84-83 Blazers.
4:47 - I was wrong about Babbitt, but Pavlovic hits a three instead. Who gets my money? 89-85 Blazers.
4:02 - Lillard slips behind a screen and knocks down a three. We are in chalupa territory and the Rose Garden can smell it. 92-85 Blazers.
2:37 - Aldridge saves a broken possession and the crowd freaks out, only to vociferously protest when it's called out of bounds. 94-89 Blazers.
1:25 - After a turnover Gortat glides to the rim and lays it in. Aldridge is off his shot and the Blazers are paying for it. But Lillard's ability to get to the rim is improving with every game. 94-91 Blazers.
1:04 - A Hickson tip in is ruled offensive goaltending and the basket does not count. I wonder what the spread is on this game. 94-91 Blazers.
:41 - Lillard drains a miracle step back. He was open, but it was really cool. 96-91 Blazers.
And the Blazers are over .500! A pile up with no foul leads to a confused sequence featuring two Suns misses, and that takes us to the horn. 96-93 Blazers win. Lillard played strong in the fourth quarter and J.J. Hickson continues his double-double streak. Tomorrow they take on the Kings in Sacramento.