Knee Jerk Reactions: Suns 114, Blazers 87

By the time the news spread that Nicolas Batum was battling a cold and J.J. Hickson was not suiting up due to a sore shoulder, the Trail Blazers were already experiencing a depth problem.

The actual game only brought into focus the greatest concern for this roster: What would the team look like if a starter goes down?

Now, Hickson’s injury shouldn’t cause alarm and Batum did in fact play, but just getting a glance of the Blazer starting five in a weakened state wasn’t the prettiest sight.

In his first NBA regular-season start, rookie Meyers Leonard had a good first half: 10 points, 5 for 7 shooting and 2 blocks. And while he was a much more smooth offensive choice at the 5 spot, Leonard did not come close to matching Hickson’s greatest attribute. Leonard had one rebound at halftime, and finished with just five total in 35 minutes, 43 seconds of play.

Again, understanding that Leonard was only goofing off as a college kid about eight months ago and now he’s battling grown men under the boards, you would have to rate his game tonight as above expectations. Yes, the Blazers were a -20 with Leonard in the lineup tonight – but every single last player had a negative plus/minus number. And yes, there was a point in the third quarter when Leonard focused too hard on trying to show up Marcin Gortat and playing keep away with the ball, only to get caught staring on the very next play down court as Gortat scored easily inside. But you have to like the fact that Leonard wanted to stand up for himself against the stronger, craftier veteran.

Leonard’s 12 points at the end of the night matched LaMarcus Aldridge’s total – and that’s something no one would have expected. Batum and Wesley Matthews had 13 and Damian Lillard kept this game from reaching truly embarrassing levels by dropping his 24. The Blazers can spare one off night from a starter, but with this roster, they can’t have three guys barely scratching over 10 points.

  • There’s a silver lining in this blowout: every starter played under his season average in minutes. With an off day tomorrow for Thanksgiving, they should be rested for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.

  • After a solid stretch of defense (the Blazers’ defensive field-goal percentage for the last four games was under 50), the team forgot all about that floor awareness and communication that helped so much before. The Suns shot 59% and outscored the Blazers in the paint 54-24. That’s troubling considering these points came from guys like second-year player Markieff Morris and retread Jermaine O’Neal, who absolutely loved going against the Blazer rookies. Joel Freeland matched up against O’Neal for two straight possessions in the fourth quarter and each time – even after throwing a forearm across O’Neal’s back – Freeland walked away from the play slapping his hands in frustration. O’Neal had taken him to school each time.

  • The bench must develop… the bench doesn’t have scorers… the bench has to contribute in other ways … by now, we’ve all heard the explanations and excuses made on behalf of the Blazer bench. But it’s hard to justify the Blazers getting their first bench field goal late in the third quarter (Ronnie Price knocking on an open 3-pointer) – especially on a night like this when depth could have helped.

  • He’s no Steve Nash, but Goran Dragic is no scrub either. As the Suns pulled away in the third quarter, Dragic had 5 assists and 12 points (7 coming from the free throw line). Just in the final two minutes, he drew three fouls from the Blazers and the one he forced Batum to commit was the smartest play of the game. Dragic had stolen a bad pass from Price to Lillard and looked behind his shoulder just enough to feel Batum following him on the break. Dragic, who must have read the scouting report about Batum’s chase-down blocks, did not go up for the lay up, instead jump stopped and waited for Batum to commit to his leap. When Dragic felt the contact, he then attempted his bunny. It missed but drew a two-shot foul and Dragic made both to give the Suns the 86-67 lead.

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