The Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers are stylistic opposites, and it’s been largely assumed that the winner of the series will be the team that can assert their own stylistic preference on their opponent; if the Suns can make the Blazers run, Phoenix would seem to have the advantage, and if the Blazers can force the Suns to slow down, Portland would be presumed to have an edge.
I can understand the logic, but I’m not sure I agree. Instead, I’d propose that neither team will be able to force their style onto the series conclusively, and both teams will be left with a back-and-forth between the Suns pushing the pace and the Blazers grinding the game down to a mechanical halt. Instead, the winner of the series (at least based on the four games so far) will be the team that can better acclimate themselves to the style of the other, with the series depending on how the Blazers can both run and defend the break and how Phoenix can operate.
First, consider Paul Coro’s account of the pace of Game 4 from the Arizona Republic:
It might have taken a double take to recognize the Suns, who scored 87 points, hardly resembled the NBA’s best-shooting team and often walked up the ball to give Portland the pace it wanted. Previous Suns teams starved for a stretch such as the one Saturday in which Portland missed 12 shots in a row over 8:29 of the second half. But the Suns scored just 11 points and did not take the lead during that span.
“If you walk it up and they get in a half-court situation, I think their defense is as good as anybody’s in the NBA,” Gentry said. “Our wings have to run. Steve (Nash) has to push it. Our bigs got to get down so we can run drags and step-up. It’s not one person. It’s the way we’re approaching it from a team standpoint. That’s something we have to get away from right away.”
A perfectly reasonable perspective given the way the game went, and in particular the Suns’ 87-point total. That said, the difference in pace between Games 2 (90 possessions), 3 (89), and 4 (88) was negligible, despite the radically different results. It’s not as if Games 2 and 3 were out-and-out track meets, the Suns were just much better at containing Andre Miller than they had been in Game 1, and their offense thrived after finding a rhythm in the open court. For Phoenix, it’s no longer paramount that they push the ball at every opportunity, but that they use the open space of the break to establish offensive momentum.
That’s where the Suns failed in Game 4, but it shouldn’t shock anyone to find out that the Blazers won the day using the very same plan of attack. Portland outscored Phoenix on the break 16-4 in Game 4, and the number of note is the Blazers’ 16, not the Suns’ 4. Once Portland was able to get free points and establish their offense on the break, Phoenix’s defensive adjustments weren’t quite so stifling. Things became substantially easier for the Blazers as they opened up the game, despite the clear departure from their style.
The winner of every game thus far has been the leader in fast break points, but every game has also been more in line with Portland’s average page (90) than Phoenix’s (97.6). The fastest game of the series was the Blazers’ Game 1 victory, and the two run-and-gun Suns wins were in games with very few possessions. Those aren’t signs that either team is struggling with the sense of identity, but rather that the series itself has become something of a compromise.