The Scouting Report: at Phoenix Suns #2

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

In an attempt to help you get to know the Blazers opponent each night, we are going to post a little bit of a scouting report of each team on the blog before each game. Tonight’s opponent are the 7-7 Phoenix Suns. Tip-off is at 6PM on CSNNW.

Projected starting line-up: Eric Bledsoe (gametime decision), Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee

So, since the Blazers and Suns have met three times in less than a month, we are doing something different with the scouting report today. Myself and Andrew Lynch, host of ESPN’s Daily Dime Live, writer for Hardwood Paroxysm and Phoenix Suns fan, did an e-mail exchange.

You can follow Andrew on twitter: @AndrewLynch


Erik: So, it’s been not so long since the Suns and Trail Blazers last met and it seems like both teams have gone in opposite directions. What do you think has been the biggest reason for the Suns struggles since their loss against the Blazers on November 13th?

Andrew: There’s a macro- and a micro-level reason for Phoenix’s regression since these two teams last saw each other. In the larger picture, the Suns had been playing with fire for much of the season. Their first 10 games were all within 5 points with 5 minutes or less to play, and those close games beg for a bounce of the ball to go against a team and send them careening to a loss. When all of your games come down to the final minutes, it’s pretty easy to put together a losing streak.

The other issue for Phoenix has been the continued absence of Eric Bledsoe, who’s missed five straight games after injuring his shin in the Suns’ at-the-buzzer loss to Brooklyn on the 15th.
While Phoenix is still in good hands with fellow starting guard Goran Dragic, the team is truly built around having both of its premier ball handlers healthy and playing at the same time. Bledsoe missing time means that Gerald Green has to step up as a starter, and that weakens Phoenix’s bench as other players have to fill in the gaps on the back end.
Their already minimal margin for error shrank to zero when Bledsoe went down; hopefully, he’ll be back against Portland.
Meanwhile, the Blazers just keep on keepin’ on. At what point do people in Portland and across the NBA landscape accept that, regardless of the seeming weakness of the schedule, the Blazers are just really, really good?
Erik: That sounds a lot like the 2012-2013 Blazers when it comes to winning close games early.

I know the schedule is easy to point to, but have you also seen who Indiana has played on their way to the best record in the NBA? The Pacers have played two Western Conference teams and they only played one East team over .500 in the Bulls. They took the Heat to seven games last year and that likely gives them a pass but Portland’s schedule hasn’t been any easier than that, especially in a deeper Western Conference.

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

During the winning streak, their offense offensive efficiency has been third in the NBA and that’s what everybody has been talking about. All of a sudden Coach Stotts’ flow offense has become the talk of the league. But you know what? They’ve been 8th in the league in defensive efficiency since their last loss and Stotts deserves some love for that too.

They’re doing it on both ends and they’re tied with the fourth-best net rating (the difference between their offensive and defensive efficiencies) with Oklahoma CIty and only trailing the Pacers, Spurs and Heat. That’s pretty good company to be in, no matter who you play.  I know the Suns have struggled and losing Bledsoe has been huge, but is Gerald Green being this good of a shooter here to stay? 

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Andrew: It’s so tough to say, especially since we still have to fend off that “it’s early, but…” line of thinking. 3-point shooting is one of those things that’s most vulnerable to regression as a season goes on, and that certainly doesn’t help. But I think there are two things that bode well for Green. First, he’s a pretty good shooter for his career; including this season, he’s shot 35.7% from deep as an NBA player.

Second, and perhaps more important, is the guiding hand of coach Jeff Hornacek. You alluded to just how important a coach can be with Coach Stotts, and Hornacek is a nice reflection of that principle in Phoenix. His offensive system is all about making the most of the personnel on the floor and putting the players in the right place at the right time.
For a player like Green, who seems to operate on innate instincts beyond his otherworldly athleticism, taking most of the guesswork out is huge. When a play starts, everyone on the floor for Phoenix knows where to be and when to be there, and it opens up the game for everyone. Green hits his marks in the flow of the offense, and his point guards know where to find him to get him the best possible shot. It’s not quite on the level of Portland’s flow offense yet, but it’s truly a thing of beauty to behold.
Portland’s defense will obviously be one of the keys to how good they can be this year, and when I think of the Blazers on that end, Robin Lopez immediately comes to mind. He was fighting a string of injuries in the last couple years he played in Phoenix, but he looks healthy and lethal for Portland. How big has Lopez’s addition been? Who else really stands out on that end?
(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

(AP Photo/Steve Dykes)        

Erik: Defensively Lopez has been fantastic. Another guy that stands out because of his pure consistency is Aldridge. He’s a better defender than he’s given credit for but he makes a positive impact on that end of the floor. Damian Lillard has improved a lot as he is doing more of the little things like consistently fighting over picks. Matthews stands out for his effort and Nic Batum has been effective in guarding point guards. 

One thing I’ve noticed that has probably helped some is a lot of cross matching in second halves of games with Lillard and Batum’s man. Teams are then trying to post up Lillard and it bates them into inefficient plays. 
On the bench, Joel Freeland deserves a lot of love bringing stability to the second unit and along with Thomas Robinson, they provide a no-nonsense back-up front line on defense. 
Hornacek had a history of being a good shooting coach but did you ever imagine that such a young team would play such good defense like the Suns have? Bledsoe obviously has an impact with the havoc he creates but who else on the team has helped them become so solid?
Andrew: All hail Mike Longabardi, Hornacek’s defensive assistant. Longabardi had previously been with the Celtics since the 2007-08 season, helping to keep Boston’s defensive system running on all cylinders after Tom Thibodeau took the head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls. He joined Hornacek in Phoenix this year and brought with him Thibodeau’s strong-side pressure defensive system. The Suns have bought into it whole hog, and Miles Plumlee has proven to be the defensive linchpin that Kevin Garnett was in Boston and Joakim Noah has been in Chicago.

And of course, P.J. Tucker is the best defender on the perimeter for the Suns not named Eric Bledsoe. It’s another case of players knowing what the system is going to ask of them and, in turn, being where they need to be in order to be effective. Phoenix’s players are talking more than I’ve heard them communicate in a long, long time, calling out when they need to “ice” — that is, hedge a side pick and roll so that the ball handler is forced to the baseline and unable to get to the middle of the court. On paper, there aren’t a ton of good defenders on the Suns, but the coaching staff has done a remarkable job of making sure that even the worst defenders on the team know what their responsibilities are and how they can fulfill them.
So with all that said, what kind of game do you think we’ll have on our hands? So much depends for Phoenix depends on whether or not Bledsoe can go, of course. Assuming he plays, do you think we’ll go down to the wire again?
Erik: Phoenix, especially trips to Phoenix, with this team has never been easy. Even without Bledsoe last season, the Suns have match-ed up very well with the Blazers in the past. 

This season, they commit to playing jump shooting fours and they stretch out Portland’s defense to some degree. They also play good team defense. 
I’d say yes. Portland should want to head into three days off still riding their hot streak before taking on the Lakers on Sunday. The Suns, I would imagine, would love nothing more than to snap the Blazers streak heading in to two games against hapless Utah Jazz team. 
Either way, it should be a fun and competitive game, especially if Bledsoe is in the fold. 
Erik Gundersen

Erik Gundersen

Erik Gundersen is the Trail Blazers beat reporter for The Columbian. He's a graduate of the Allen School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in addition earning a degree in Spanish. He's covered the NBA for four seasons. You can also occasionally find his work on's NBA section for their TrueCities series. He also fist-bumped with Kanye West once. Follow @BlazerBanter on twitter for more Blazers and NBA news.

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