A Costly Home Loss
It's been said before that an early double-digit lead in the NBA is meaningless. That can be the case at times. Heck, the Trail Blazers have come from double-digit deficits nine times this season to win. Having that knowledge in your hip pocket, that you come back, can work for you and on some nights it can work against you.
On Tuesday night the Phoenix Suns almost seemed to catch the Blazers by surprise. That shouldn't happen. Portland was flat and sloppy. Phoenix was sharp and confident. On this night you saw a rare case where the first four minutes of a game told the complete story.
The Suns played with an amazing sense or urgency and passion off the opening tip. The Blazers did not. The first time the Blazers blinked they were down 12-0 and the tone of the evening was set. A Suns team, that came in riding a four-game losing skid, was suddenly confident and in control. Their first-quarter lead grew to 13. It then became 19, and Portland's fate seemed sealed.
It was a pattern we've seen at times this season for Portland. Dig a huge early hole, and then battle uphill the rest of the night trying to get back into the ballgame. They've done this before, and have survived at times, but it's a dangerous way to live, especially in a game where they had so much to gain, and so much to lose.
Comebacks take a ton of energy, and being the Blazers were playing without their emotional leader in Wesley Matthews, they would have even less firepower to rely on as they were digging out and attempting to recover following that awful start.
You knew a Blazer comeback would eventually get them in a position to strike. We've seen that so many times before. But, getting yourself in a position where there's just no margin for error will get you beat in this league more often than you'll win.
This didn't become a one-possession game until the final minute, when the Blazers got within two points, at 100-98. All it takes then is an empty offensive possession, a turnover, allowing a single offensive rebound, or leaving the wrong person open, to finish you off. The Suns, while staggered, did finally close Portland out 102-98, and picked up just their sixth road win of the season.
Offensively, the Blazers were able to sustain just enough to slowly chip away at Phoenix's big lead. But defensively, they were never able to come up with enough answers. Trading baskets is okay when you've effectively established what you should be able to establish at home. But, when you're playing with your backs against the wall after the first four minutes, relying on your opponent to leave the door cracked open, is just hoping when you should be executing.
The Suns do deserve some credit here. They're a tough matchup for the Blazers. They've got an attacking point guard and a big front line. And, they've got a decent bench, that happened to be better than decent on this night.
Goran Dragic finished the game with 16 points and a career-high 18 assists. Most of those assists came in pick-and-roll situations, and they had Portland running in circles all night. Luis Scola, always a problem for LaMarcus Aldridge, had 18 points. Jermaine O'Neal had 9 points and 13 rebounds off the bench, and Wesley Johnson could do no wrong in the second half, scoring 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting.
The Blazers were led by JJ Hickson's 25 points and 16 rebounds. He did his best to display the kind of scrap and hustle the Blazers needed for 48 minutes in a game like this. Aldridge did get 23 points, but was 7 for 16 shooting. Damian Lillard, following a very busy all-star weekend in Houston, finished with 24 points and 7 assists.
Without Matthews, the Blazers badly needed someone off the second unit to give them a lift. But, the bench finished the game just 2 for 15 shooting.
This game started a stretch that'll see the Blazers play 5 of their next 6 at home. That one road game is against the Lakers on Friday night, and then it's back home for a game against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. This was the one they had to have.
The Blazers have now lost six in a row and have fallen to 25-29. Again, no margin for error, and the clock is ticking. But, they've still got time. They've just got to realize that they're not good enough to play 40 minutes of a 48-minute game and live to tell about it.
The Lakers, who are going to be licking their chops on Friday night, are up next. Digging an early hole against that team, in that building, won't be the way to snap this skid.