The biggest contrast in styles in the opening round of the playoffs will pit the Phoenix Suns against the Portland Trail Blazers, and we're not talking about the weather in the two cities. While the Suns are no longer quite the run-and-gun juggernaut they were in the Seven Seconds or Less days, Phoenix still ranked fourth in the NBA in pace of play this season. Meanwhile, the Blazers were the league's slowest team, averaging 7.5 fewer possessions per 48 minutes than the Suns.
In the past decade, there have been just four matchups with a larger pace difference between the two opponents, two of them involving Phoenix (2008 against San Antonio and 2006 against Dallas). Recent history doesn't seem to indicate that either team will necessarily gain an advantage from the stylistic mismatch, however. On average, the 10 series in that span with the largest differences in pace played out basically exactly as we'd expect based on home-court advantage, regular-season point differential and the head-to-head series.
Besides pace, the other wild card in this series is the availability of Portland guard Brandon Roy. Roy suffered a partial tear of the meniscus in his right knee last Sunday against the L.A. Lakers. Ordinarily, such an injury would mean immediate surgery, since the timetable for return (4-6 weeks) is relatively rapid. Of course, with the playoffs upon us, that kind of rehab schedule would likely end Roy's season, so he plans to attempt to see if he can play through the swelling and discomfort associated with the injury if cleared by doctors later this week.
While the Suns will be getting no injury-related sympathy from the Pacific Northwest, Phoenix will be without starting center Robin Lopez due to a bulging disc in his lower back. Lopez might be able to play later in the postseason, but has been ruled out for the first round by Alvin Gentry.
WHEN PHOENIX HAS THE BALL
Pace: 94.0 possessions per 48 minutes (4th NBA)
Phoenix Offensive Rating: 117.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
Portland Defensive Rating: 108.3 points per 100 possessions (13th NBA)
Yawn. The Suns led the NBA in Offensive Rating, which barely qualifies as news at this point. It's the fifth time in the last six seasons Phoenix has been the league's most efficient offensive club. The lone exception saw the Suns finish second in 2007-08. Naturally, the leader is Steve Nash, who put together another remarkable season at age 36. Nash led the league in assist percentage and had the fourth-highest True Shooting Percentage of any full-time starter.
Portland counters with Andre Miller, who had a solid defensive season despite his own advanced age. Miller's physical presence can bother Nash. The Blazers may also use long-limbed Nicolas Batum to defend Nash at times, though Batum struggles against the ball screens the Suns love to use with Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. The All-Star big man has come on over the second half of the season, making 58.5 percent of his two-point attempts in March and April. LaMarcus Aldridge is a good physical match for Stoudemire and also effective when asked to switch and defend the smaller Nash on the perimeter, but Stoudemire will surely find his opportunities.
Phoenix's attack also continues to be marked by lights-out shooting from beyond the arc. The Suns made 41.2 percent of their three-point attempts, the second-highest accuracy and NBA history and best ever with the current 23'9" three-point line (the Charlotte Hornets made 42.8 percent of their threes in 1996-97, the last year the line was moved in to 22'). The bulk of the work was done by Nash, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye and Jason Richardson, all of whom made at least 120 three-pointers. Atlanta and Indiana were the sole other teams with at least three players to make 120 triples.
Frye's emergence as a dangerous threat beyond the arc will be an interesting storyline in this series, since he spent the last two seasons in Portland and was ultimately phased out of the Blazers' rotation. By taking his jumpshot out a few extra feet, Frye revitalized his career, and he will be dangerous in this series if matched against Marcus Camby, who prefers to play on the interior. There isn't really a good matchup for Camby, who will have to be conscious of his man rather than thinking about providing help defense while playing either Frye or Stoudemire.
That said, do not underestimate the effect Camby has had on the Portland defense. His presence in the paint helped the Blazers get back to their effective defensive ways from early in the season after they struggled when Juwan Howard and Jeff Pendergraph were the team's options at center. Check out Portland's defensive performance by primary center.
Center 2P% DRtg
Oden .459 104.7
Przybilla .488 108.0
Howard .529 113.0
Camby .499 105.0
Total .499 108.3
With Camby--as well as a healthy Batum--the Blazers have been one of the league's 10 best defensive teams.
WHEN PORTLAND HAS THE BALL
Pace: 86.5 possessions per 48 minutes (30th NBA)
Portland Offensive Rating: 112.5 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
Phoenix Defensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA)
In 2008-09, Portland battled Phoenix for the title of league's top offense. The 2009-10 incarnation of the Blazers' offense was not nearly so effective. It didn't help that Roy was either absent or banged up much of the second half of the season. Portland was actually able to survive on offense without Roy, putting up a 111.1 Offensive Rating in the games he missed, but the Blazers are surely at their best when he is scoring efficiently, especially down the stretch.
Without Roy, Aldridge becomes Portland's first option. He loves to operate in the left block on offense, relying primarily on his turnaround jumper. Phoenix will probably start with Jarron Collins on Aldridge during his token minutes as the starting center. Collins, who spent training camp with the Blazers, is the Suns' best post defender. While the Phoenix offense has suffered badly with Collins on the floor, the Suns' defense picks up with him, which explains the team's late surge into the NBA's top 20 in Defensive Rating.
Nate McMillan will surely also look to exploit Miller against Nash, both with post-ups and in the pick-and-roll. The crafty Miller remains effective at getting to the basket and finishing, and he was a big part of Portland's Feb. 10 win at the US Airways Center in a game Roy missed, scoring 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting. It will be interesting to see whether Gentry considers hiding Nash on Rudy Fernandez or Martell Webster, both of whom are bigger but function primarily as spot-up shooters for the Blazers.
If Roy sits, it will be important for Portland to get scoring from at least one other source besides Aldridge and Miller. In Monday's key win over Oklahoma City, that player was Camby, who scored a season-high 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting. It's safe to say the Blazers cannot count on getting that kind of offensive production from Camby on a regular basis. In Sunday's win against the Lakers, the third player was Webster, who came off the bench to score 16 points. The streaky Fernandez is another candidate, as is Batum, who posted a sparkling .657 True Shooting Percentage in a limited offensive role after returning from injury.
The offensive glass should also be another source of easy points for Portland. The addition of Camby reignited that aspect of the Blazers' offense, and the team finished the season fourth in the league in offensive rebound percentage. Phoenix, meanwhile, ranked 29th on the defensive glass and was even worse than that without Lopez.
The assumption might be that Portland needs Roy to have any chance of winning this series. The Blazers' back-to-back wins against a pair of playoff teams should temper that assessment. It would be silly and inaccurate to say that Portland is better without Roy, but the Blazers' ball movement and offensive balance are somewhat better when he's removed from the equation.
Ultimately, the bigger factor in this series will probably be the play of the respective benches. Phoenix's reserve unit has emerged as one of the best in the NBA this season. Four Suns bench players--Dudley, Frye, Louis Amundson and Goran Dragic--have posted at least two WARP this season, and Phoenix doesn't really play any worse with its second unit on the floor. That's the biggest thing that separates this Suns squad from previous incarnations, since Mike D'Antoni was much more unwilling to trust his reserves and Phoenix didn't have this kind of young talent on the roster.
Meanwhile, Portland's bench has been a question mark over the final month of the season. Regular playing time should help Webster be more effective in this series, but Jerryd Bayless' ability to run the team when Miller is on the bench is shaky at best. Howard, meanwhile, has done far more than the Blazers ever could have expected this season, but he's simply not good enough at protecting the paint to man the center position.
It's easy to see the starters playing close, but the Suns' reserves blowing games open in the second and fourth quarters--especially at home, where they can force turnovers, run the court and get the crowd going. Phoenix also figures to have the edge late in close games, where the Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll is a more reliable option than anything Portland has with Roy hobbled at best or unavailable at worst. All of that points to the Suns winning their first playoff series since 2007.
Phoenix in 6
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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