What the Phoenix Suns were subjected to Sunday night was the silver lining of the Blazers’ injury-plagued season. Due in large part to their almost freakish and unending misfortune, Portland were prepared to play without their All-Star, Brandon Roy. In fact, they were confident.
Had it happened any other year—one where the team hadn’t lost the most player games to injury of any playoff team—the Blazers’ proclamations of confidence might’ve rang hollow. But Portland have been there—over and over and over again. They emerged calm, clear and consistent—the Three “C’s,” as Nate McMillan calls them.
Winning 105-100 in Phoenix Sunday, the Blazers scored the only game-one upset of the playoffs.
They did it as they have done all season: multiple contributions helmed by Andre Miller.
With 8:30 to play the Suns had just capped of a 9-2 run. They led 81-77 and the crowd was going wild. It was a do or die moment for the Blazers—the kind of thing where one crushing blow can detonate the Three “C’s.”
Sensing the critical juncture, coach McMillan told Andre Miller his break was over.
The veteran point guard got up off the bench and, as he has done so many times this season, willed his way to the basket and scored, effectively clipping the Suns momentum. He did it again. And again. Three straight buckets and one offensive rebound, all contested, pressured, and delivered on the basis of sheer will.
He wasn’t done. But this time, rather than stopping the Suns momentum, Miller would give the Blazers their own.
Down two with just under five minutes to play, Miller found himself with the ball, 25 feet from the basket. Wide open.
The man who made just 16 three’s all season looked quickly to each side, as if to ask, “wow, am I really this open?” He was, and he knew he had to take the shot. Bang. The Blazers were up and they wouldn’t trail again.
“I knew they was gonna bluff me so I had to take the shot,” Miller told Craig Sager in what was the most gregarious interview I’ve ever seen him give. And while Miller’s game-changing stretch would put the Blazers in position to win, there was still some ways to go.
A tip from LaMarcus Aldridge, a huge three from Nicolas Batum and a pair of free throws by Jerryd Bayless gave the Blazers a seven point lead with just 1:29 left to play.
Then, as TNT announcer Doug Collins noted, “Portland (did) everything wrong you could do in the last minute and a half of this game.”
Whistled for a moving screen (with a lot of help from an elegant Steve Nash flop), Aldridge caused a turnover. Then, on what would’ve given the Blazers a game-ending separation, Marcus Camby missed a wide-open dunk after streaking down the court as the Suns attempted to contest an inbounds pass. Finally, Bayless missed a pair of free throws.
All the while the Suns had their chances. And while they made a few buckets to keep hope alive, a number of three’s that would’ve tightened or tied the game missed their mark.
By historical standards, going into Phoenix and stealing game one is akin to saving the series. The Blazers are 3-24 all-time in playoff series after losing game one and 1-17 in the first round. Conversely, the are 15-1 all-time in the playoffs after winning game one. Sunday’s win was the first time Portland have taken a series opener on the road since April 20th, 1983 (at Seattle), ending a string of 18 such losses. Sunday’s victory was Portland’s first playoff win on the road since 2003 (at Dallas).
Afterwards Nate McMillan tied the team’s performance in the absence of Brandon Roy to their experience with such luck. “This is what the guys have done all season long,” McMillan said. “When an opportunity comes, they take advantage of it.”
Jerryd Bayless answered that call with aplomb Sunday. Playing in his home state, the second-year guard was tenacious, and for the most part, relatively steady. Bayless fought to the basket and the line for 18 points.
The Suns, it appears, could be without an answer for Bayless. Backup point guard Goran Dragic is too small and weak, while other Phoenix defenders are too slow. The performance was especially encouraging, as it is basically Bayless’ first real playoff game. As a rookie last season Bayless played 11 total minutes, scoring 6 points.
Nicolas Batum also helped shoulder the scoring load. He was efficient and confident, making the Blazers first bucket—a three—and another from downtown during the critical fourth-quarter run.
And although he got substantial minutes in last year’s postseason, Batum’s performance was dismal—so much so that he was yanked from the starting lineup in game four. But after Sunday’s impressive outing of 18 points, a new playoff high, Batum appears to have settled in to the postseason’s rhythm.
In his first playoff game after missing last year with an injured foot, Martell Webster also looked solid. Although he scored just five points, Webster was involved and played solid defense, including a stunning display where he stuffed Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson on back-to-back attempts. It’s important that Webster remain confident and ready throughout the series, as there will come a time when his perimeter shooting is needed.
The Blazers, however, were not impressive across the board.
Starting in place of Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez was essentially a non-factor. He scored seven points on as many shots in 28 minutes.
LaMarcus Aldridge, 8-20, was also woefully off the mark, but thanks to free throw shooting the Blazers power forward was able to pile up 22 points. And what will surely be the talk of the town until game two, Aldridge will be chastised for grabbing just three rebounds.
Fortunately for Portland, Marcus Camby made up the difference. He had 17 boards while handling Amare Stoudemire admirably on the defensive end. The Suns’ leading scorer was held to 18 points on 8-19 shooting.
“I though Camby made him work and didn’t give him anything easy in the post,” McMillan said afterward.
Stoudemire, who averages 9.2 free throw attempts per game, went to the line just three times. On the other end, he chalked up a number of whistles before fouling out late in the fourth.
Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry pointed to the difference in free throws (Portland shot 31 to Phoenix’s 16) and the Suns lack of fast break points (four) as evidence of the Blazers determination and grit.
“I think we didn’t push the ball and impose our will on them,” Gentry said.
Perhaps the Blazers were, in part, inspired by the horrible game one performance they suffered last year at the hands of Houston, who effectively ended the series by halftime. The Rockets came out and crippled the Blazers, but in doing so, taught them another important lesson: the importance of game one can be enormous.
But then again, last year the Blazers didn’t have Andre Miller. Or Marcus Camby. Or Juwan Howard. Or ANY real playoff experience.
Gentry pointed to one thing—or player—in particular. He singled out Andre Millers, saying that, “for the most part he controlled the game with his isolation.”