Fast Breaks: Blazers-Suns, Game 1

Monday April 19th, 2010

Despite missing leading scorer Brandon Roy, the Blazers spoiled what otherwise was a perfect record for home teams during the opening weekend of the playoffs, pulling out a surprising win in Phoenix. As the Suns lick their wounds from the 105-100 loss, Steve Nash and Co. are likely to lose some sleep over the following elements that left them without homecourt in the first round.

Andre Miller sang for his supper. Early this season, it appeared Portland's decision to sign Miller to a $7 million per year free-agent deal last summer would be a disaster. Miller and Roy struggled to mesh on the court and Miller battled coach Nate McMillan over his role in the rotation. That all seemed a few seasons away Sunday, as Miller directed Portland's injury-riddled lineup with confidence and smarts. He pushed the ball into the paint against a soft-playing Phoenix frontcourt and either found his way to the hoop or dialed up a teammate for a three. And late in the game, he turned a four-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter into a one-point lead by scoring six straight points and nine of the Blazers' 11 in the stretch. If that wasn't enough, Miller also was Portland's second-leading rebounder for the night, grabbing five, including the game-clincher on Nash's game-tying attempt with three seconds left. We'll assume McMillan and the Blazers front office, at least for one night, don't have any regrets about Miller.

Marcus Camby is costing Amar'e Stoudemire millions. After entertaining trade offers up to the deadline, the Suns made Stoudemire the focal point of their offense, a decision that saw the free-agent-to-be average 26.6 points (on 56 percent shooting) since the All-Star Game. Those sorts of numbers were supposed to make Stoudemire one of the crown jewels of the summer shopping season. But are GMs willing to stake their millions on a player who can be bottled up by a player eight years his senior? Granted, Camby has long been one of the NBA's best defenders, but players looking to prove they're worth a maximum-level contract need to shoot better than 3-for-10 in the first half and score more than 18 points on 19 shots. They need to not disappear from the score sheet during crunch time. They need to find ways to create some space from the rangy, claustrophobic leanings of Camby. There's still plenty of time for Stoudemire to dominate this series, but he'll need to show a willingness to adapt to do so.

Defense still rules in the playoffs. Let's be honest -- without Roy and playing in Phoenix, the Blazers shouldn't have been in this game, let alone won it. But between Camby's active work on the blocks, Nicolas Batum's blanket coverage on Grant Hill and a team-wide effort to clog up and paint and limit Nash's pick-and-roll options, Portland made things uncomfortable for Phoenix. Why else would a team that led the league in shooting, at 49.2 percent, fall off to 41.8 percent? On the other side, Phoenix allowed Portland to knife its way through the lane to score on 22 of 34 shots in the paint. Can that sort of effort win this series? Sure, but with the Blazers' shortcomings, they have no leeway to rest at any point in this series. That's hard to do over the course of seven games. Hard, not impossible.

Jerryd Bayless saved Portland's bench. One of the few bright spots the Suns can take from Game 1 is the play of their bench, which totalled 39 points, 18 rebounds and six threes. They helped Phoenix shake off a sluggish start and forge a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. Normally the efforts of Leandro Barbosa and Channing Frye would have been enough to topple a depleted Blazers roster. But Bayless offered just enough resistance from Portland's second unit to counter the Suns. His nine consecutive points, bridging the third and fourth quarters, were instrumental in keeping the Suns from building any sense of momentum, and his toughness in attacking Stoudemire in the paint illustrated the grit the Blazers brought -- and the Suns didn't.

Batum could be the answer to Steve Nash. Late in the first half, Portland's young 6-foot-8 forward had to guard Nash after a defensive switch. Within a few seconds, Batum's length had closed off the interior passing lanes Nash loves to exploit, forcing the two-time MVP to pass out toward the top of the key. That moment represented one of the few instances the Blazers had exerted any sense of control on Nash, who otherwise abused Rudy Fernandez as a pawn to pass over, drive around or bounce off of for a feed to an open shooter. Batum's youth might catch him flat-footed a few times, but his physical traits alone would complicate Nash's life. With a disadvantage in the talent department entering the series, the Blazers have to change the Suns' dynamic, and Batum has the ability to do that to Phoenix's most important player.

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