Suddenly Elite Blazers Give Suns Shot at Redemption

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Portland last left Phoenix on the losing end of the regular season opener between the two teams, starting the season 0-1.

Tonight they return tied for the most wins in the league with a 13-2 record.

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The transformation isn’t sudden or surprising, at least not in the view of Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek.

“They’re a good team. They’ve been good in the past. They had injuries last year. They’ve added some great pieces in Lopez and Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright. They’re very deep with a lot of veteran guys.”

It’s where the depth starts, however, that has Portland blazing trails in the NBA standings. LaMarcus Aldridge (22.0ppg) and Damian Lillard (20.1 ppg) currently form one of just five NBA duos of 20-point-per-game scorers.

Former D-Leaguer and undrafted guard Wesley Matthews isn’t far behind, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 50.6 percent from beyond the arc, sixth-best in the league. As a team, Portland ranks third in the NBA in three-point shooting (41.8 percent).

KEY MATCHUP

Portland prefers that Nicolas Batum serve as a defensive pest on the opposing team’s best perimeter threat and/or ball-handler. In the past, including the teams’ earlier meetings this season, that has meant Goran Dragic and, to a lesser extent, Eric Bledsoe.

With Bledsoe a game-time decision after undergoing an precautionary MRI today, the Blazers run the risk of a severe mismatch if they hold to that plan. Gerald Green measures 6-foot-8, and would be able to get his shot off at will if the 6-1 Lillard switches over to allow the Batum-Dragic feud to continue.

It will be up to Green to make Portland pay for that mismatch should it occur. If it doesn’t, Dragic will be considerably more free to continue wreaking his recent streak of havoc (18.4 points, 8.6 assists over the last five games).

OPPONENT X-FACTOR

When the Suns beat Portland in the opener, they absorbed heavy scoring performances from Lillard (32 points) and Aldridge (28 points) while making sure none of their teammates scored more than nine.

When Phoenix lost to the Blazers two weeks later, six different Portland players scored in double figures.

Hornacek is adamant the first game’s defensive recipe was – and is – the successful one.

“You can’t overreact when the stars are scoring, ‘cause they’re going to score anyway,” Hornacek said. “It’s like the Miami game. If LeBron gets his 35 and Wade gets his 20, if we hold everybody else, we’ve got a chance. Instead Ray Allen gets 12, [Chris Andersen] gets 10 or 12. The stars are going to get their points. You’ve just got to make it hard for them and then try to eliminate other guys.”

FINAL THOUGHT

The last time these two teams played, it marked the start of a brutal stretch of heartbreaking losses and a four-game losing streak. Oh yeah, and Goran Dragic got 13 stitches as a reward for diving for a loose ball.

Phoenix led by nine in the second half only to see Portland storm back and win thanks to a defensive miscommunication that allowed Lilllard a wide-open path to the rim. Phoenix had a chance to win it, but saw a Bledsoe layup and two tip-ins fall off the rim.

In short, the Suns left Portland with a lot of negative momentum. Expect them be fired up to get it back tonight.