Blazers prevail behind late lineup change

PORTLAND -- The story of the Trail Blazers' 106-92 opening win over Phoenix might be a recurring one all season: They’re a lot tougher to guard when they have an extra shooter on the court instead of their starting five.

Trailing the Suns by two with just under six minutes left, the Blazers removed Marcus Camby and slid Nicolas Batum up the four spot, rendering Phoenix’s strategy of immediately double-teaming post-ups far more problematic. Batum promptly started raining jumpers, scoring eleven points in the final five minutes, as the Blazers used an 18-1 game-ending run to avenge last year's playoff defeat to the Suns.

The larger implications here are the same ones Blazers fans have fretted over all season: Namely, that Portland’s starting five doesn’t mesh together nearly as well as some other combinations. With starters Andre Miller and Marcus Camby both non-shooters, Phoenix could double-team LaMarcus Aldridge with impunity.

For three-and-a-half quarters, that’s just what they did. Aldridge took only nine shots despite being covered by the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick, as the Suns happily forced the ball out of his hands and into those of Miller or Camby on the perimeter.

As a result, Portland’s offense looked stuck in the mud despite playing at home against one of the league’s weakest defensive squads. The only thing that saved the Blazers was a massive offensive rebound disparity, with Batum -- who was guarded by Steve Nash much of the game – plucking five of the Blazers’ 18 offensive caroms.

Blazer coach Nate McMillan was frustrated by his team’s inability to take advantage of the double-teams, saying his team missed some easy reads out of the double teams that should have produced better look. But the fact is Phoenix could clog the paint easily by sagging off Camby and Miller and forcing Portland into lower-percentage looks. Their best looks with the starting unit, in fact, came when Miller handled the ball and Roy played off of it – Roy hit several jumpers off the catch, and Miller had to guarded as long as he had the rock.

All told it was a positive opener for Portland, especially at the defensive end. The Blazers held the Phoenix juggernaut to 11 points in the fourth quarter and harassed Steve Nash into nine turnovers, with newcomer Wesley Matthews and rookie Armon Johnson proving particularly meddlesome pests.

Nonetheless, the questions about how the pieces on the starting group fit -- particularly the Roy-Miller combo in the backcourt – were left very much unanswered on this night. Offensively, one still wonders if the Blazers' whole is less than the sum of its parts.