The Phoenix Suns know that these preseason games don’t count, which is why they played so well in their 104-98 victory over the Trail Blazers in the Moda Center on Tuesday. Once the regular season begins, the Suns will be a well-oiled machine of poor execution and unstoppable failure, relentlessly working towards their goal of a top-3 overall draft pick and the opportunity to grab Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker or Dante Exum or you, should you become a world renowned basketball prospect between now and then. But for now, the Suns are very much still in preseason form. They looked dynamic offensively, active defensively, and played with a general aggression and fire that felt wildly out of place in the casual, careless, Cher-friendly, perfect for a marriage proposal (congrats you two! Twitter wishes you the best!) environment of preseason basketball.
Brian Wheeler and Antonio Harvey might have been discussing the legitimacy of the “Farewell” tag on the last couple Cher tours on the radio feed, but the two teams looked to have hearts of stone, ready to put a few more notches in their shillelaghs. The (preseason!) game saw 6 total technical fouls, highlighted by the ejection of Thomas Robinson for what looked on replay like an attempted elbow shot at longtime Blazer fan crush, Marcin Gortat (whether the elbow actually landed anywhere at all on Gortat’s person is another matter). Another stretch featured a double-technical on LaMarcus Aldridge—who was back from the hip flexor strain that kept him out on Monday—and Markieff Morris, followed by a foul on Morris trying to keep Aldridge from establishing post position, which was then immediately followed by an offensive foul on Aldridge, who was trying to out-muscle Morris for that aforementioned post position. Then as they ran down to the other end, the two forwards kept jawing at one another as Aldridge presumably asked which of the Morri he was talking to, in order to make sure he wouldn’t accidentally later write mean sub-tweets at Markieff’s twin brother, Marcus. It was the purest of bloodlusts in the air tonight, friends.
In danger of being lost amidst the persistent threats of imminent violence were a few fine performances from the Blazer backcourt. Damian Lillard again looked in regular season form in the way he attacked the rim off the dribble with an assassin’s efficiency en route to his 19 points. But maybe more encouraging due to the injury to rookie C.J. McCollum was the play of Will Barton and Allen Crabbe. Crabbe struggled mightily in Las Vegas Summer League, unable to find his place within the polyrhythmic, chaotic style of play and rushing his shots when they came. While he looked much improved in the first preseason game, the second round pick looked NBA-ready in this one, finishing with 13 points. As expected from his scouting report at the University of California, Crabbe slipped on his cashmere sweater of a shooting stroke to bang a few open jumpers, but also showed an unexpected ability to put the ball on the deck and pick spots to slash inside. Meanwhile, the master of the unexpected, Will Barton carved out his section of the highlight tape, as he’s prone to do, with an alley-oop lob to Robinson, an isolation pull-up jumper from just inside the arc over the Suns’ P.J. Tucker, and a no-look drop pass to a cutting Crabbe. Then in the second half, Barton even spotted up for back-to-back corner 3’s, letting the powers that be know (I see you, Ben Falk!) that while The Thrill likes to thrill in the classical sense, The Thrill can also appreciate the lusty thrills of modern basketball analytics reshaping the philosophy of the game in the name of efficiency—mmm…analytics, efficiency, corner 3’s…feel the passion!
More curious though than speculating about what gives Ben Falk lusty thrills, or Barton’s 13 points or his 5-6 shooting, was his +14 plus/minus rating, by far the highest on the team. After the regular starters (minus Nicolas Batum, who sat out with a concussion) were run off the court in the first half, the bench unit featuring Barton, Crabbe, and Sweet Mo Williams would engineer a comeback at the tail ends of each half. In the 4th quarter, Barton entered the game with the Blazers down 19 and quickly boosted a run that cut the Phoenix lead all the way to three points with mere minutes left. Unfortunately, the Portland run finally ran out of steam before they could take a lead but the impact and combination play of Crabbe, Barton, and Sweet Mo – who’s line of 9 points on 3-10 shooting belies his influence on the game as a facilitator – bode well for the capacity of the bench unit to create offense once the games start actually counting. Now, if only the starters could start looking like starters at some point before then, we might just have a fun team to watch this year.