Small Suns play big enough to hold off Blazers
PHOENIX — Our latest basketball lesson was presented Wednesday night by Portland coach Terry Stotts.
"Dribble penetration is probably the most difficult thing to guard in the NBA today," Stotts said, "and those three are very good at it and scoring in this league when you get to the paint, when you can get into transition … those teams tend to score well and now they got three guys who are very good at doing those things."
The "three guys" referenced are point guards employed by the Phoenix Suns, who withstood a rally by Stotts’ Trail Blazers for a 118-113 victory Wednesday night at US Airways Center.
Phoenix’s PG3 membership — Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas — combined to score 76 points against the second-seeded team in the Western Conference.
"We need to stop doing that," Dragic said.
"Come up 20 and then they come back and take the lead," Dragic said. "But we were focused enough in the fourth quarter to make big plays."
For the record, the Suns were up 25 before they fell behind by five late in the fourth.
The Blazers were working with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (injured left hand) and — despite leaving town at 31-12 — don’t have a deep roster. That makes dealing with the tempo generated by Phoenix’s sprinters even trickier.
Although critics of this ultra-small-ball scheme seem to include quite a few Suns fans, coach Jeff Hornacek’s commitment to closing games with his best players suggests this tactic isn’t anywhere near going away.
Having won 14 of 18 games, the Suns and their alleged gimmick could be doing a lot worse.
"Well, they’re getting there," Hornacek said of his guards finding a collective rhythm. "I think early in the season was a struggle because all their roles changed a little bit. … Goran’s the most of anybody, but you know, these guys all have to figure out if the best chance for us to win is all three of them out there sometimes, then they got to accept it and have to sacrifice parts of their game.
"Not just one guy, not just two guys, but all three of them. I think they’re starting to accept that a little bit more and consequently, they’re playing better and during this stretch they all have played very well."
On Wednesday it was Bledsoe (a career-high 33, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals) and Thomas (a season-high 27) hitting the Blazers for 60 points.
Even though they worked outside-in, the Suns finished with 50 points in the paint, made 51.1 percent of their shots and a committed a reasonable 13 turnovers.
With all three attack guards — along with Gerald Green — percolating in the first half, the Suns were up by 25 (58-33) with 5:10 remaining in the second quarter. By intermission, however, Portland had cut its deficit to 14.
"That was strictly because we didn’t move the ball," Hornacek said.
There you have it.
Although Hornacek’s attempt to unleash PG3 in limited doses has worked through its properties as a matchup nightmare, there are some side effects. The defense-and-rebounding issues are obvious.
But the really tricky part is avoiding the aforementioned lack of ball and player movement with three dominant ball handlers on the floor at the same time.
And even though all three are (to varying degrees) capable shot-makers off the ball, their ability of each to gouge the defense and finish plays often inspires teammates to stand around and watch.
Oh, and poleaxing good teams over the entire 48 minutes of a single game rarely happens in the NBA.
"It’s tough when you get up by that many and all of a sudden, they’re without one of their stars," Hornacek said, "and then they just start coming down and say, ‘What do we have to lose? We don’t have our guy, we’re down 25.’
"They basically just started jacking up threes, penetrating and then they just started making all kinds of them."
Penetrate and squeeze off some 3s? That seems pretty familiar.
Despite limiting the Blazers to 44.8 percent shooting overall and outrebounding them by six, the Suns were challenged in two other main categories.
With Nic Batum (27 points, 6 of 8 from 3) as the ringleader, Portland heated up enough to convert 40.6 percent of their 32 attempts from behind the arc. The Blazers also made 22 of 28 free throws (78.6 percent), while the Suns — with Bledsoe missing 5 of 15 — shot 62.5 percent at the line and only 33.3 on 3s.
OK, so the Suns were unable to cruise to the finish line.
But they did win and are unbeaten over the first half of a team-record, eight-game home stand.
James Harden and the Houston Rockets are next (Sunday), followed by the L.A. Clippers (Sunday), Washington Wizards (Jan. 28) and Chicago Bulls (Jan. 30).
The Suns are in Oakland a day later and then play in Memphis a couple of nights after that.
With the Oklahoma City Thunder starting to click, Phoenix’s bid to remain in the conference’s elite eight could be defined by how it survives the next couple of weeks.
Regardless of how observers feel about their unconventional rotations, the Suns will rise or fall by playing to their strengths.
And, based on how things are shaking out lately, it’s not difficult to understand what those strengths are.