The three words on the dry erase board in Phoenix’s locker room told the whole story: “Must Hit First.”
Scribbled out in red marker, the Suns heeded Alvin Gentry’s pregame command by sticking and moving in Game 3 on Thursday night at the Rose Garden — and Portland never swung back on either end of the floor until it was far too late. It was Game 2 all over again — another absolute blowout by Phoenix — except this time around, the Blazers may be down and out for the count. After mounting as much as a 31-point lead in the first half, Phoenix won, 108-89, and now has a 2-1 lead in this NBA playoff first-round series behind an encore performance from Jason Richardson, who set a new playoff career high.
“I think it is my best game as a pro. After nine years in the league, I’ve only been to the playoffs twice,” said Richardson, who finished with 42 points. “I’ve spent seven summers at home, and I don’t take anything for granted. It’s like my first playoffs pretty much, so I’m leaving everything on the floor.”
But this was more than Richardson and his eight 3-pointers.
When it comes to delivering a knockout blow, the Suns typically turn to Amar’e Stoudemire.
Game 3 was no different.
From the look on his face during pregame introductions, you knew Stoudemire was all business. The game was physical early and often with Stoudemire and Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge exchanging shoves after a first-quarter whistle.
Before the start of the fourth quarter, the two mixed it up again. Aldridge took an elbow from Stoudemire, leaving some to wonder if the league office would review the play.
“It’s the playoffs, and it’s going to be a physical game,” said Stoudemire, who added 20 points.
“I think for the most part we handled ourselves very well and made sure we stayed under control and we got the win. That’s what’s most important. We played great defensively, and we were all over them. That’s what allowed us to get off to a great start. That’s what we need to continue to do.”
The Suns aren’t about to change their strategy.
“It was really important for us to establish how we were going to be able to play,” said Gentry. For Portland, things have reached a point where head coach Nate McMillan has to wonder if the Blazers have enough to sustain another go-around with Phoenix, let alone a drawn-out series.
This goes beyond another bad loss. Now, it’s about being beat emotionally and mentally.
“We are not controlling our emotions and being able to play at this level without being calm out there,” McMillan said. “The pressure you see this time of year, you can’t give in to that. We gave in to that. We have to get ourselves open.
"It’s going to be a physical game. They are going to be aggressive. Especially tonight — we talk about our ‘Three C’s’ being calm, clear about what we want to do and being consistent. And that hasn’t happened these last two games.”
In the last two games, Portland nearly lost Nicolas Batum to a shoulder injury and Rudy Fernandez’s confidence. Luckily for the Blazers, both made brief appearances in Game 3.
With a flurry of 3-pointers by Fernandez, Portland cut the lead to 11 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. It was too late.
The Blazers’ shooting guard was out two hours before tip-off working on his 3-point shot and entered Game 3 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and finished with 12 points, after going 4-for-7 from deep.
“We need Rudy whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. This is not on Rudy,” added McMillan.
Batum, who started the game for Portland despite battling an injured right shoulder, was active early, and flashed a dunk on the baseline to open the game. But by halftime, with the contest seemingly out of reach, the second-year small forward headed for the locker room.
He returned to the bench in street clothes late in the third quarter and is listed as a game-time decision for Game 4.
By then, Portland’s postseason survival might also be a question mark.
It simply depends on if the Blazers are going to come out and hit first or take punch after punch.
“I don’t see physicality being a problem for us,” Aldridge said afterward.” Last year with Houston, it was a much more physical team. This team is more spread out. We just have to find ways to control it.