1-1 Portland at 1-1 Phoenix

Coming off the emotional one point home win against the Spurs, the Blazers face another team that has been a tremendous nemesis. Suns games have been an exercise in futility for the Blazers recently. It isn't just that they have lost 9 straight...spanning more than the length of Brandon Roy's is that they have not even completed.

At least games with the Spurs had been close. Phoenix, however, tends to blow Portland out. A lot of it started with Amare Stoudemire.

Early in the season last year he had gotten inside the head of LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge had some extremely ineffectual games as a result and other Blazers shot poorly. Late in the season LA showed some improvement and it seems a match-up he is now ready to face. Of course, it is not the same Phoenix team that Portland will visit.

Interestingly enough, Joel Przybilla seems to do an above average job on Shaquille O'Neal. Despite the fact O'Neals' numbers looked good overall against the Vanilla Gorilla, those numbers were largely skewed by one game where Joel played poorly and O'Neal went off. 

As a general rule, Przybilla makes O'Neal take a lot of shots to get his points and does a nice job on the boards. He does not turn the match-up into a draw by any stretch of the imagination, but he generally at least makes the points coming out of the center into tough ones.

Joel's ability to match up one on one with the Big Cactus allows the other Blazers to stay with their men instead of fading low to double team. Unfortunately, they historically have still been lit up. 

Steve Blake struggles with guards who penetrate. He showed last night against Tony Parker that little factoid has not changed. Steve Nash figures to have a field day against him. The penetration of Nash is what will lead to open shots for Amare Stoudemire, Raja Bell, Grant Hill, and the other Phoenix shooters. 

It does not help that Stoudemire is quicker and stronger than Aldridge. He already scores easily and when that ability is amplified by the break-downs of the Blazer perimeter defenders, Stouedmire figures to have some big, big nights.

The Suns also are switching up their defensive structure under former Blazer great Terry Porter. It remains to be seen how completely they will buy into his system, but so far this season the points they are giving up seem to be down a bit. In Bell they have a superior wing defender, and in Stoudemire and O'Neal they have some serious rebounding potential. 

That makes it imperative for Portland to shoot a good percentage, something they have yet to accomplish this season. Roy looked like he was starting to get his groove back against the Spurs, as was Aldridge. This is a good sign as the Phoenix defenders are similar to the Spurs who matched up with them.

Bell is not as good a defender as Bruce Bowen, so in theory Roy will be able to get some good looks at the basket as well as create some open shots for his teammates. Aldridge will have to figure out ways to keep Stoudemire from poking the ball away as he did so effectively last year, but if LA can do that, he should score the ball well.

Meanwhile, the need to guard Roy and Aldridge should put a lesser defender on Travis Outlaw. This can be good or bad. It is bad if Outlaw falls in love with his jump shot and starts bombing away from the perimeter.

To be sure, Outlaw can be deadly when he is on. His jab step/fall back jumper is incredibly tough even to contest, much less block. Unfortunately, he gets overconfident and goes to that move to often from a little to deep on the floor. 

Conversely, when he penetrates good things tend to happen for Portland. The defense has to scramble which creates some holes for offensive rebounding and often leads to foul problems for the big men. Outlaw has the speed, agility, and quickness to create havoc when he drives.

In a similar way, Rudy Fenandez has the potential off the bench to cause problems for Suns defenders. If he is hitting his shot he will be a nightmare and a difference maker. If not, it could be a long night for Portland.

The other wildcard is Nicolas Boom Boom Batum. He got about 21 minutes at home against the Spurs. However, Coach McMillan has shown a real reluctance to play him on the road. Will that continue or will he get some minutes? If he gets minutes, don't be surprised to see McMillan revert to the ploy from last night of putting Batum on Nash.

While Parker did get past Batum a couple times, the length, instincts, and surprisingly good footwork of Batum did cause Parker more problems than anyone else the Blazers put on him. If Batum can slow Nash, it will give Portland a chance.

Not much of one, though. Phoenix is still a top team in the League, is playing at home, and is facing a team that has yet to show they are anywhere near the road team that they are home team. An average Phoenix effort still beats a good Portland effort.

For Portland to win they need a good shooting percentage, to have at least 3 scorers over 15 and several more close to double figures, they need to limit the Suns breaks and keep Nash from going off with his penetration.

It could happen, I just don't think the Blazers are ready yet. Look for a Phoenix win.

Boom Boom Batum: Did Portland find their defensive stopper?

In L.A. the Blazers started slow. They came close to recovering at one point before fading. Tonight against the Spurs they again started slowly, shooting in the low to mid 30s throughout the first quarter.

But on this night they would not fade away. With contributions across the board, Portland led most of the way while gradually improving their shooting percentage. It all began with their post game.

They started well, going to LaMarcus Aldridge inside against Kurt Thomas. It took Aldridge just one possession to get a feel for what he wanted to do. Throughout the night the Spurs would send a variety of defenders against him, from Thomas to Tim Duncan to Ime Udoka. It would be to no avail.

Aldridge showed the range of his game. He got assists on fast breaks. He scored facing up to his defender. He scored with mid-range jumpers. He even drained a corner three, draining one of his two attempts. But the most impressive move of the night came when he backed down Duncan and, as a second Spur came to defend, gave a move reminiscent of the great Hakeem Olajuwon's Dreamshake that had the fans standing and screaming.

Meanwhile, he was also a difference maker defensively. Twice in the first 3 minutes and nine seconds he blocked Tony Parker, once on a lay-up and once on a jumper. Though those would be the only two blocks he was credited with, he had set the tone. San Antonio would not drive at will.

Brandon Roy also had his fan-pleasing moments. He started slow, but once he hit his groove he was money. He also showed the breadth of his game. Ace defender Bruce Bowen was no match. Above average defender Ime Udoka got lit up. And time and again Roy posted up Roger Mason and time and again made him look foolish.  And he hit a trey with less than a second left in the first half to give Portland a nice 51-45 half time lead.

Roy scored inside and outside, from mid-range, off the drive, and on stop and pops. He distributed the ball. He tipped balls on defense. He did all the things that make him special. 

With their leaders showing the way, the Blazer role players stepped up. Channing Frye had an electrifying dunk where he shook Duncan at the top of the key, drove by a falling-down Duncan for the emphatic throw down. He also played some rugged defense, a nice switch for a guy sometimes criticized as soft.

Outlaw struggled from the field but was everywhere on defense. He tipped a lot of passes, picked off three steals, had a spectacular block and altered numerous others. He looked lost at times on offense, but that is to be expected with his changing role.

Rudy Fernandez had a weak stat line as he scored just 6 points on 1 of 5 shooting but as will be usual for him, he contributed in other ways. For example, in the first half he had 7 rebounds. He also made sure the ball was moving when and where it needed to move to.

At one point in the first half when Outlaw was holding the ball, Fernandez started directing him, got the ball moving and the Blazers ended up scoring on that possession and going on a little run. These are the types of moments that matter for this Blazer team. Outlaw is a valuable player for the Blazers but sometimes does get a little lost. Having players like Roy and Fernandez who are "coaches on the floor" should keep them from completely stalling as they sometimes did last year.

But the real unexpected contribution came from a guy who was not expected to get any time at all for this Blazers team. Nicolas Batum was a difference maker in this game. His stat line is pedestrian...12 points on 5-9 shooting, just 1 rebound, 1 assist, one steal, 1 turnover...but 2 blocks. And that is where he really made the difference, on defense.

Batum guarded almost the entire Spur line-up. He slowed down a Michael Finley who turned back the clock to when he was a 28 year old stud. Batum guarded Tim Duncan briefly. He guarded a red-hot Roger Mason. Most telling, at key points in the game he even guarded lightning quick Tony Parker. 

Parker scorched the Blazers all night. He made Steve Blake look positively foolish several times. Not that there is any shame in that...Parker can make some pretty good defensive players look foolish. 

So it was revealing indeed of how far Batum's stock has risen when he was put man on man on Parker with 3 minutes left in a 1 possession game. And when he was on the floor for that purpose with less than a minute left. 

Batum did not lock him down, per se, but he did make Parker's life more difficult. He showed his athleticism and versatility. On one drive, Parker eluded him and drove into the teeth of the defense. Batum recovered so quickly that he was one of three defenders who surrounded Parker. When Parker kicked the ball back to the center Batum was there to force a second pass. This pass went to the corner for a trey. Batum somehow got there in time to contest the shot. In about 4 seconds he made as many changes of direction and single-handed forced the Spurs to take a contested three. Parker beat him a couple other times, but not as often nor as badly as he was beating Blake. 

Batum was spectacular all night. His block of a Duncan dunk attempt was awesome. His tip of a pass which he recovered led to his redirecting 2 Spur defenders and converting a 1 on 2 fast break with ease. He tipped balls, he forced tough passes and shots, he redirected the Spurs offense. 

It was a clinic. It was the type of performance the Blazers need with Martell Webster out until January. Suddenly the Small Forward spot looks a whole lot better. 

This game was what Portland needed. Had Finley made the final shot, it would have hurt badly. Portland got big numbers from their stars...Roy had 26, Aldridge 23 including a clutch deuce from just inside the three point line with 34 seconds left for Portland's final points of the night.

They also got scoring from the supporting cast. Outlaw hit for 11, Batum for 12, Frye for 10. They rebounded well, piling up a 37-31 advantage and picked off 11 balls to only 1 for the Spurs. It was a close game because the Spurs got great shooting...56% from the field as a whole and from the 3-point line...and 14-15 from the line.

The Blazers finally got the Spurs monkey off their back. They found a reliable defender in Batum. They got Aldridge and Roy back on track, survived bad shooting nights from Outlaw and Fernandez, and showed they can play with the Spurs.

The biggest disappointment of the night however has to do with Batum. He is a budding star for Portland and as such needs a nickname.

Greg Oden is "G.O."
LaMarcus Aldridge is "L.A."

Okay, those are so-so. But then you get:
Brandon Roy with both "B-roy" and "The Natural."
Joel Przybilla with "The Thrilla" and "The Vanilla Gorilla". 
Travis Outlaw is either "T.O." or "Trout". 

So Batum should have a name. "Batum-shaka-laka" is gaining steam as a play off of Brian Wheeler's signature call, and it works. "Boom Boom Batum" also works to an extent. It is alliterative, it rhymes, and alludes to his surprisingly good range and tendency to provide the spectacular.

However, with his being French and wearing 88, it just feels wrong to not reference the classic German flak gun that rained bombs on Paris back in the Great War. So we will keep working on that. Under the radar local stars need great nick-names. Still working on it for Batum. 

Meanwhile, it was a great win for Portland and has them right where they need to be after 2 games: 1-1 and looking for more.