We're LIVE at the Rose Garden, where sure as the sun is setting, your Portland Trail Blazers enter the (unofficial) second half of the season ahead of Phoenix in the standings.
That may not be much to write home about (the Suns have the worst record in the Western Conference) but so it goes for a Portland team that returns to Rip City for the first time in 17 days carrying just one more win than they left with. During that long, strange trip, the Blazers lost five in a row (including a 36-point shitastrophe to New Orleans), dispatched LaMarcus Aldridge to All-Star duty and picked up some hardware when 2012-13 Western Conference Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard won the Taco Bell Skills Challenge (and was clearly overcome with joy).
Tonight, two teams who
hobbled limped dragged slithered slinked gumshoed (yes, gumshoed!) their way into the break enter this season's second act on divergent paths. Phoenix appears to be a lock for the Lottery, having lost 8 of 10 while amassing a 5-23 away record this season—the NBA's worst. Their leading scorer (fourth-year guard Goran Dragic) is averaging 14 points (yes, really), while the team as a whole has committed 19 turnovers per game during its latest four-game losing skid (yikes).
The jury's still out on the Blazers, who are still advertising a "Playoff Push Pack" of tickets during pregame announcements. If such a run is to commence, Portland's starters will need help—each regular averages double-figures and Lillard leads all NBA players in minutes played this season. The Blazer bench—"led" by Luke Babbitt and Meyers Leonard's 4.2 points per game a piece—simply needs to be more reliable. If they aren't, adjust those eyes to darkness, Blazer fans, because the dawn may not be here until October.
Oh, but in the meantime, click past the jump and follow along, as I deftly describe the action—on and off the court.
Phoenix (17-36)—F PJ Tucker, F Luis Scola, C Marcin Gortat, G Jared Dudley, G Doran Dragic
Portland (25-28)—F Nicolas Batum, F LaMarcus Aldridge, C JJ Hickson, G Victor Claver, G Damian Lillard.
Portland's Wes Matthews, who missed shootaround this morning, is listed as inactive tonight. Batum, who's shown big-time improvement across all statistical categories this season, will need to step up even more in Matthews' absence.
A moment of silence for the late Dr. Jerry Buss, the legendary Lakers owner who passed away over the weekend. Classy move by the Blazers and the Rose Garden fans for honoring such a hated rival.
Shortly after, Lillard is brought to midcourt and (ho hum) handed his latest Rookie of the Month trophy, which is becoming old hat for him.
11:01—The Suns are off to a quick start, with Tucker and Gortat hitting open jumpers and the Blazers coming up empty on their first two possessions. 4-0 Phx.
10:23—And now Scola hits a J, as the Suns start a perfect 3-of-3 from the field. The Rose Garden crowd with a bit of a rising slow clap, seemingly reminding their club that the All-Star break is, in fact, over.
8:43—Uhhh...fellas? Scola gets a dish in the paint from Dudley and finishes with a layup to put the Suns up 10-0. Blazers are 0-for-7 from the field, while the Suns are 5-of-7. Shades of the Blazers' fugly loss at NOLA, which was fugly as fugly gets.
7:18—The Blazers have scored! Hickson knocks down a jumper after Portland missed its first eight shots from the field. The home crowd lets out a rather sarcastic cheer. Suns lead 12-2, but the home team is on the board. So there's that.
6:07—Will Barton checks in for Claver. Aldridge hits a pair of free throws after going strong to the hoop and leveling Dudley. Phx leads 16-7.
5:31—Dudley spins around Barton and gets to the hoop +1. Leonard checks in as Dudley converts the free throw and the Suns again lead by a dozen.
3:50—Dragic goes right at the Blazer defense and curls a pass underneath to Gortat for a bucket. Dragic's eighth assist of the night already, and Phoenix seems to be playing in a different gear than Portland at the moment.
3:05—Lillard knocks down a 3-ball and the Suns take a timeout, up 25-16. Phoenix shooting 75% from the field, which is slightly above their average. Slightly.
2:38—Jermaine O'Neal ('memba him?) hits one of two free throws and hears a few jeers from the home crowd. On the other end, Lillard goes right to the hoop and scores +1. Free throw, good.
1:57—Dragic has nine assists in this one and we're not even out of the first quarter. The latest is an easy pass on the baseline to Markieff Morris, who flushes home a dunk. Phoenix leads 30-21.
0:59—Johnson dribbles from half-court all the way into the lane before he dishes to Morris on the baseline. Defensive breakdown by the Blazers. If this was soccer, someone would be yelling, "MARK UP!" But it's not, so instead the crowd groans as Morris is fouled and hits one of two free throws. Phoenix up 10.
0:29—Dragic nails a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Suns up 13. Their biggest lead of a night Dragic has chosen to have a banner game (think playing the best young PG in the league has anything to do with that?)
0:00—Sloppy end to the quarter for both teams as Barton heaves up a 3-pointer with 7.5 seconds left on the clock. Phoenix gets it down the court for a 3-point attempt by Wesley Johnson, but it rims out. In any case, the Blazers have been slooooow to get going tonight while Phoenix has shot nearly 73% from the field. Suns lead, 36-23 behind Dragic's 10 assists.
10:58—Johnson hits a fadeaway from the right wing, because of course he did. Suns have quieted the crowd with a 15-point lead.
9:52—Sasha Pavlovic streaks down the baseline and finds Hickson, who jams it home. The Rose Garden crowd comes to life a bit, eager to cheer for just about anything. Finally, the Blazers' engine appears to be de-flooded.
7:01—Hickson hits a jumper from the top of the key, and on the ensuing inbound pass, Smith steps in front and knocks it off a Sun for a turnover. Aldridge then hits a quick jumper, and just like that, the Blazers are back in it, down 42-33.
5:51—Timeout on the floor and the Blazers are beginning to make a move. Phoenix has come back to earth shooting-wise and Portland is taking it inside. This has all happened without Dragic on the floor however, and the point guard will check in after the break.
5:20—Johnson drains a 3-pointer from the left corner after a Blazers turnover. Phoenix back up double-figures, 47-35, and so much for that Portland run.
3:47—Johnson misses a 3, but Claver fouls him on the way up. Soft call there. That'll be three shots for Johnson, who has a season-high 10 points after hitting all three free throws. Suns really pouring it on now, up 54-38.
3:14—Hickson rises to grab a free-throw miss by Batum and jams it home. Fans are back into it, but the Blazers still trail by 13.
1:11—Batum hits a 3-pointer from the right wing, then Dudley answers with one on the other end. Blazers then commit their eighth turnover and Dudley dishes to Dragic for an uncontested layup. Suns with their biggest lead of the night once again, up 17.
0:30—After another easy bucket for Phoenix, Lillard hits a 3 to stop the
Halftime—Suns lead 63-47. An ugly first half for the Blazers, who are shooting just 40% from the field. The Phoenix bench is outscoring Portland's 24-4. That's not going to get it done, especially when the starters struggle like they are tonight. Aldridge leads the way with 12 points, followed by Batum and Lillard with 11 each.
For Phoenix, Johnson is having a career game with 12 points so far, followed by 10 points each from Scola and Gortat. Dragic is having himself a night—he has 9 points and 12 assists in the first half.
11:27—Hickson called for three seconds in the key and the second half starts with a thud as both teams trade turnovers.
10:46—Hickson with a fadeaway jumper from the right elbow and we have a bucket. He leads Portland with 14 points and seven assists is appears well on his way to another double-double.
9:48—Lillard drives up the lane and dishes to the corner for Claver, who knocks down a 3. First field goal of the night for the Spanish rookie starting for Matthews.
8:32—Dragic with 13 assists now after he dishes to Scola for a 20-foot jumper. After a Blazer turnover, Dudley knocks down an open jumper and the Suns lead 71-56.
6:48—Claver with a steal that ends up with Aldridge on the wing. He shoots and misses, but Hickson is there to tip it home. Blazers within 10.
6:07—Blazers on a 7-0 run after Aldridge puts his head down and goes hard to the hoop from the right baseline. Just when the crowd begins to rise, Phoenix coach Lindsey Hunter wisely calls a timeout. Still, we've got a ballgame now, with Phoenix leading 71-63.
4:25—Batum called for a frustration goaltending after his pass is stolen by Dragic. On the 2-on-1 break, Dudley goes to the hoop and Batum gets a piece of it from behind. The crowd hates the call, but the ball was clearly on its way down. It's science.
3:38—Lillard with a pretty hesitation move on Dragic to draw a foul. He hits both free throws and the Blazers pull within single digits once again, 75-67. Lillard can sense it's his time to take over, and he's taking it right to Dragic.
1:38—Jared Jeffries checks in for Hickson. Think the ever-hustling Hickson is worried about being traded? Doesn't look like it—he has 21 points and 13 boards so far. Something like his 147th double-double of the season.
0:58—Lillard goes strong to the hoop but doesn't draw a foul. Phoenix outlets ahead to Dragic, who knocks knees with a diving Jeffries. Blazers coach Terry Stotts is still bent about the non-call on the other end, and it'll be a technical foul on the Blazers bench.
0:50.5—Pavlovic fakes a 3 and drives before being bumped by Beasley on a basket +1. He can't convert the free throw, however, and the Suns lead 84-73.
0:00—Lillard takes it himself and misses a fadeaway jumper as the game clock expires. Phoenix leads 84-73 as every Blazer mini-run is being answered by the Suns.
12:00—Blazers start with the ball as Nolan Smith checks in for Lillard. That will let Dragic, who has four fouls, sit for a spell.
10:44—Beasley hits a baseline jumper to give Phoenix an 88-73 edge. The Suns' bench is now outscoring the Blazers' reserves 34-6.
9:54—Johnson hits a runner in the lane and the Suns lead 90-74. That's 14 points for Johnson, who's inexplicably torching the Blazers while doubling his season-best in points tonight. Blazer fans are sitting tight for the most part, but if the lead is this big at the next timeout, we may have a run for the exits.
8:50—Aldridge now has two straight jumpers and the Blazers are within a dozen.
8:12—Lillard juuuuust misses a 3 from the left corner, but Hickson is there to rebound and tip it home. Blazers have scored six straight while Dragic rests, but Phoenix is still up 10.
7:26—Suns are bailed out as Claver fouls Beasley on his way to the hoop while the shot clock runs down. The crowd doesn't like it, but the contact was definitely there. Beasley hits both, and Phoenix leads 92-80.
6:27—Smith misses a corner 3-point attempt rather badly, and there are a smattering of boos. Same team, guys!
5:43—Beasley called for an offensive foul as he runs over Batum as the clock winds down. Phoenix in unfamiliar territory here—they've only won five road games this season.
5:21—Batum with a lob to Hickson and it's an alley-oop jam. Too little, too late? Plenty of fans think so, as folks start streaming out with jackets on. Phoenix leads, 94-84, and the Blazers need a run. Like, now.
4:54—Lillard drives, skies and reverses for a highlight-reel quality layup. Outstanding body control there and the crowd loves it. This kid, I tells ya, he might be pretty good.
4:31—But Dragic finds Scola on the other end, and the big man drains a jumper. Just when the Blazers get something going, the Suns snuff it out.
4:21—Aldridge goes strong to the hoop for the bucket +1. He hits the free throw and Portland pulls within seven points, 96-89. Rose Garden getting louder ...
3:47—And now Lillard crushes a 3 from the top of the key as the Blazers are within four points. Smith and Dragic have words on the sideline and the Blazers' bench is fired up. Portland hasn't been this close since the opening minute, and the home crowd is on their feet.
2:46—Scola drives and scoops to just beat the shot clock. Tough break for the Blazers there, who looked like they might have held off Phoenix in a crucial possession.
2:33—But on the other end, Batum nails a 3 and the Blazers again fight to keep it interesting. Suns lead, 100-95.
1:28—Scola fouls Smith as he dribbles away from the hoop and he'll head to the line for a pair of big-time free throws. He hasn't hit a field goal tonight, but hits 1 of 2 from the charity stripe and the Blazers are within four. He reeeeeealy needed to hit both there, but all is not lost.
1:13—Phoenix called for an over-and-back! Crucial turnover there, and Scola hates the call. No matter, Blazers will have the ball after the Suns commit their 17th turnover of the night.
0:37.5—Lillard drives and loses the handle, but on the other end, the Suns return the favor and knock it out of bounds. Suns lead 100-96, but the Blazers have the ball. They need a quick score and a stop.
0:30.9—Portland takes a timeout after Tucker knocks it out of bounds on a dangerous play while Batum was rising for a 3-point shot. Blazers with the ball, 17 seconds left on the shot clock.
0:20.5—Smith takes a 3, but it's off the top of the backboard. But before the Rose Garden crowd can groan too loud, Aldridge rebounds and is fouled. He hits both, and it's 100-98.
0:13.5—Batum fouls Dragic after Portland lets Gortat get a pass away. Dragic adds to a monster night by hitting both free throws, and Phoenix leads 102-98. Timeout on the floor as the Blazers take their final :20. A nice late-game surge here by Portland, but they dug themselves too big of a hole in this one, it would seem.
0:00—Blazers get two looks from beyond the arch, but Lillard and Batum can't convert off-balance heaves.
FINAL: Suns win, 102-98.
Just when you thought a long break might do this team some good, Portland spotted lowly Phoenix the first 12 points of this one and rallied a bit too late to avoid dropping the season series to the worst team in the Western Conference. Ouch. It was nowhere in the neighborhood of pretty much of the game, and the Blazers really only were able to get back into this one when the Suns—who've now won just six road games this year—stumbled their way to an unfamiliar (read: victorious) finish.
A banner night for two players whose scrappy style seems tailor-made for such sloppy contests: For Phoenix, Goran Dragic had 16 points, 18 assists and five rebounds, while four other Suns scored in double figures. For Portland, it was once again Hickson hustling his way to a double-double. The potential trade bait finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds to pace Portland, which also saw solid statistical nights out of Lillard (24 points, 7 assists), Aldridge (23 points) and Batum (15 points, five boards, five assists). But Phoenix plain out-hustled Portland for large stretches of the game, out-rebounding the Blazers 51-37, while winning the battle of the bench 40-7. Relying so heavily on starters is a recipe for a slow decline, and it appears the Blazers may be starting their own as long minutes catch up the likes of Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and company.
So where do they go from here? Hollywood, for starters—Portland heads to Staples to take on the Lakers (a team nipping at their heels in the playoff chase) on Friday before returning home to host the Celtics on Sunday night.