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Suns-Blazers Series Playoff Preview

J-Rich and STAT are third-highest scoring duo in the NBA since the All-Star break.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: April 16, 2010

After routing the Jazz on Wednesday to lock up the third seed in the Western Conference, the Suns play host to the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.

The Suns have been red-hot, as of late, sporting the second-best record in the NBA since the All-Star break and winning 14 of their last 16. Phoenix has been devastating at home all season, capturing eight-straight and finishing tied for the third-best home record in the West during the regular season.

However, Portland has been a club that has given the Suns trouble this season, winning two of three from Phoenix. The last time the Blazers defeated the Suns was on February 10, when a Brandon Roy-less Portland club snapped a nine-game road losing streak in Phoenix.

It was good practice for the Blazers, who will be without Roy’s services for the first round. The three-time All-Star announced that he will have surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee.

“Obviously, if a team loses their best player they’re not as talented, but it’s a dangerous team,” Steve Nash said. “Everyone has an opportunity to step up and show what they can do. Their energy and motivation will be high and on top of that, they have nothing to lose.”

From Phoenix’s point of view, Roy will not be missed, having averaged 25 a game against the Suns this season. In last season’s playoffs he was unstoppable, torching Houston for 26.7 ppg.

But Portland has had some success without its star, finishing 8-9 without him this year (including Wednesday's throw-away game against Golden State) and 3-0 in games in which Roy left due to injury. Most of the scoring slack will have to be taken up by forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.9 points and eight boards a night) and point guard Andre Miller (14 points and 5.4 assists).

Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry believes that guard Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez will be the most likely candidate to fill the offensive void left by Roy.

“Obviously (Bayless) hurt us in the game up there,” Gentry said. “Rudy Fernandez is a three-point shooter that comes in, get hot and do some things. He’s an athletic guy. Those two guys will probably be the biggest X-factors for them.”

In addition, Marcus Camby, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless are all capable of exploding offensively, having all erupted for at least 25 points in a game this season. But without their main scorer, the key to the Blazers success will be their stingy defense.

The Blazers allowed the fewest points per game (94.8) of any team in the West and led the league in total rebounds and in defensive rebounds allowed. Their discipline carries over to the offensive end, too, with the Blazers ranking second in the league and first in the Western Conference with just 12.3 turnovers per game.

But that defense will have to contend with the most potent offense in the NBA. The Suns ranked first in the league in points, three-point percentage and second in field-goal percentage. The offense has been anchored by two-time MVP Steve Nash, who became the oldest player to lead the NBA in assists this season.

“Controlling the tempo,” former Blazer and current Sun Channing Frye said is the key to the series. “They like to slow it down and average about 98 points, so we want to get it up in the 100s and want to get possessions. We need to keep them off the glass because they’re long and athletic.”

Although Nash averaged 16.5 points and 11 assists, Amar’e Stoudemire might be playing at an even higher level right now. STAT averaged 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds this season, but has been on a tear recently, averaging 26.8 points and 9.4 rebounds on 59.7 percent shooting in his last 16 games.

The five-time All-Star has had 11 30-point efforts since the All-Star break, which ranked second behind only the Thunder’s Kevin Durant for the most in the NBA. He’s also received a boost from Jason Richardson, with the duo becoming the league’s third-highest scoring combo since the All-Star break at 44.4 a night.

But everyone has always known the Suns are a force on the attack, but the secret key to their success this season has been their improvement on the defensive end. Since the All-Star break, Phoenix has held its opponents to under 100 points and below 40 percent shooting from the field nine times since the All-Star break.

For all of the attention Portland’s defense garners, the Suns actually hold opponents to a lower field goal percentage than the Blazers. And they’ll need it.

“We’ve won games where we’ve scored in the low 90s, but you have to be able to execute against them,” Gentry said. “But if we execute and they slow the ball down and take time in possessions, then we can still shoot in the high 40s and low 50s and still have an opportunity to win the game, even if we score 90-95 points.”

Because just like the scorching Suns, the Blazers are also one of the hottest teams in the league, having won 13 of their last 17 and holding the NBA's fourth-best record after the All-Star break. But as the series begins, the Blazers will have to try to remain hot without their star, and against a Suns team that shows no sign of slowing down.

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