The Portland Trail Blazers practice Tuesday at their facility in Tualatin in preparation for Wednesday night’s game against the Suns at the Moda Center (tipoff at 7 PM on CSNNW and 620 AM). The Trail Blazers were beaten soundly by the Suns in Phoenix in the season opener, so expect no lack of focus from either team when they meet tomorrow.
Some notes from today’s practice …
· Terry Stotts described the first game against the Suns as a ” setback” immediately following the loss. Portland finished the preseason schedule, statistically, as the best defensive team in the league, so allowing the Suns to shoot 52 percent from the field while scoring 31 fast-break points and 52 points in the paint in the opener served as a reminder that, while improvements had been made during training camp and preseason, there was more work to be done.
“I’ll say that we rebounded well from it,” said Stotts. “Going to Denver after that game we shored up some things that were made pretty evident when we played Phoenix.”
While some issues, particularly allowing points in the paint, continue to be a work in progress, the growth the Trail Blazers have undergone since that first game in Phoenix has been evident, which makes Wednesday night’s contest a potential marker for how far Portland has come the last two weeks.
Then again, there’s an assumption that losing to a team like the Suns has more to do with what you’ve done wrong than what they’ve done right. Phoenix’s victories haven’t been against top competition, but for a team many assumed would be the worst in the league, credit has to be given to the players and coaching staff.
“For a young team, they really established an identity early,” said Stotts. “They know how they need to play, they have a style that they’ve really bought into. I think what’s probably surprising is they’re one of the top defensive teams as well. They’re young, they play with energy, they share the ball. The way they played against us isn’t a fluke. They’ve continued that and they’re playing very well.”
· By trading one of their best players, center Marcin Gortat, to the Wizards for an injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round pick in the 2014 Draft just days before the start of the regular season, the Suns front office made their intention of putting more emphasis on the future of the team than the present clear. But that doesn’t mean the players were ever going to roll over. In fact, you could argue the opposite has been true.
“They’re competitors just like we are,” said Damian Lillard. “In this league, anybody can win and lose on any given night. And it’s still early, but right now they’re playing really well. I’m not surprised by it because I’ve never been one to underestimate a team, especially one with the type of talent that they have.”
While some might have accused the Suns of “tanking” going into the 2013-14 regular season, Stotts said the circumstances in Phoenix are not so dissimilar than the plan the Trail Blazers entered last season with, which could be more accurately described as trying to develop talent and establish a system rather than necessarily trying to lose.
“We were in the situation last year where we had a lot of young guys and for five months we played at a higher level than a lot of people expected,” said Stotts. “But expectations were low and in some ways that allows a certain amount of freedom to play a style. Confidence is a big part of his league and when you’re playing with a confidence where you can play through mistakes and expectations aren’t as high, it in some ways makes it easier.”
· The Suns’ guard duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic did the bulk of the damage in Portland’s opening night loss, combining for 48 points on 19 of 33 shooting to go along with 15 assists and just seven turnovers. So it’s no surprise that the Trail Blazers stressed the need play the pick and roll better this time around.
“Probably just get up into them more on pick and rolls so they can’t come off as clean and be isolated with the big man,” said Lillard when asked what he needed to do differently defensively. “For a big to be one-on-one with a guard that can pullup and make those mid-range jumpers and get to the rim and finish, it’s tough for them, especially backpedaling. So as the guards we’ve got to do a better job of getting into they body and not letting them come off clean and just do whatever they want to the bigs.”
And while Stotts, as he has done all year, has stressed the need for the Trail Blazers to force opponents to adapt to their style of play rather than the other way around, he did concede that there might be some opportunity to juggle his rotation, particularly at the center position, to counter Phoenix’s lineups featuring three-point shooting bigs like Channing Frye and Markeiff Morris, who recently won Western Conference Player of the Week honors.
“I think we have to play our style,” said Stotts. “There may come a time in the game that you change the rotation or you look at matchups a little bit but I think it’s important that we establish ourselves and play the way we’re capable of playing.”