PHOENIX — Topping 100 points. Shooting better than 50 percent.
The Phoenix Suns accomplished both Wednesday, but what separated them from the Portland Trail Blazers in game one was their effort on the other end of the court.
“Defense is what won the game,” P.J. Tucker said of the Suns’ first season opening victory since 2009.
“If we can play defense we’ll be in a lot games,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek, who made that a priority from the moment he was hired.
The emphasis on defense showed early in the Suns’ 104-91 win.
The Suns allowed only 16 first-quarter points, forcing Portland into missing 17-of-22 shots. There were mistakes made in quarter number two, according to Hornacek, that let the Trail Blazers pull to within four at halftime. However, order was quickly restored with a 31-23 third quarter in which the Suns scored 12 unanswered points during one stretch.
“That was when we would lose games (last year). We would be up against the best teams in the league at halftime and we would come out in the third quarter and lose the game, literally, in two or three minutes,” Tucker said Thursday.
“When they came back, it was because our defense lacked.”
The Suns aggressively trapped Portland ball handlers, regardless of their position on the floor.
“Our plan was when (LaMarcus) Aldridge got the ball on that low post area that we were going to double-team him and try to force him to pass the ball,” Goran Dragic said. “We know he’s not good at passing that ball out. I think we did that well. From those kind of situations, we got a lot of steals.”
Eight to be exact, including a game-high three by Marcus Morris.
“When you play aggressive like that, especially on guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, that if you don’t pressure him, he’s going to sit there and kill you,” said Tucker, who finished with two steals. “We have to put pressure on guys, make them make extra passes and more plays then you get 24-second shot clock (violations) and the turnovers and get transition points.”
A presence inside helped as well.
With the 6-foot-11 Miles Plumlee manning the middle, Portland scored only 24 points in the paint. Credited with three block shots, Plumlee altered several other attempts.
“That’s a key for us, to have some defensive presence in there that will help us not give up the easy in-the-paint points,” said Hornacek, whose team made one final defensive push late.
With 3:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Suns held Portland scoreless. The Trail Blazers missed their last eight shots at the basket.
Said Tucker of the effort, “I think we see that when we play together on defense and have our rotations and do our assignments, that we got a chance to win every night.”