EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns scratch and claw past stupendous Lillard outing, beat Blazers

May 14, 2021, 12:03 AM | Updated: 1:15 am
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is pressured by Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) a...

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is pressured by Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) and forward Dario Saric, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Whoever said basketball is a game of runs did not watch Thursday’s showdown between the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns.

Outside of a brief 10-point lead for Phoenix near the end of the third quarter, the game was tight all night, with 25 lead changes and 18 tied-up scores.

In a game the Blazers had a clear sense of desperation in, the Suns punched back throughout, eventually holding on 118-117 in a thriller.

Before we run through a maddening finish and excellent game, a few things to establish for the Blazers:

Portland clearly treated this like one of its biggest games of the season. The Blazers are fighting against the Dallas Mavericks for either the fifth or sixth seed in the Western Conference, with fifth very likely dodging the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.

On the second game of a road back-to-back, they played four starters at least 37 minutes: Damian Lillard (43), Norman Powell (41), C.J. McCollum (39) and Robert Covington (37).

And even with that in mind, the Blazers were strapped up and locked in from the jump.

Lillard led that and was incredible. He put on his cape in a superstar performance of 41 points, five rebounds and five assists on 16-of-23 shooting. And McCollum was almost as good with 27 points and six assists on 11-for-19 shooting.

Portland shot 15-of-33 (45.5%) from three-point range too.

Despite all of that, a 5-of-17 shooting night for Devin Booker and no Deandre Ayton (left knee soreness), the Suns still won.

We needed to really hammer that down because Phoenix was not playing like itself as of late, lacking that true fight and outworking mentality that is its signature.

It is impossible to win a game like this without that.

The Suns hung around through the first 2.5 quarters, battling like all hell to wind up being plus-9 on the glass without Ayton to counter the Blazers’ center duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter that must feel like boxing out a boulder.

“To hold this team to one offensive rebound, it speaks to the toughness of our guys, the ability to lock into a gameplan but it also speaks to how rebounding translates to winning,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

No team led by more than four points until the mid-third quarter when a random 10 straight points from Suns wing Torrey Craig gave Phoenix a 10-point edge. One Lillard layin cut that down to eight at the end of the period.

That’s when the game got off the rails.

In the first 6:05 of the fourth quarter, the two teams combined to score 43 points. It was an insane level of shot-making by both sides, mainly Lillard and Chris Paul one-upping each other.

Paul scored 17 of his 26 in the second half while Lillard had a jaw-dropping 24 in the fourth quarter alone. Twenty! Freaking! Four! On a back-to-back!

The madness subdued there with the Suns up 107-101 and five minutes left. A Booker jumper and two free throws in the next three minutes were the only Suns points, all while Lillard scored or assisted eight of Portland’s 10 points to have us tied at 111 with 2:12 to play.

Then we flew back off those rails again.

Paul hit his mid-range classic to put the Suns up two before it was a free-throw shooting competition. Lillard and Covington made their four total attempts, and with 1:04 left and the Suns down two, Dario Saric (starting in place of Ayton) missed one of his.

After Portland didn’t score, Saric went to the line again with 49 seconds left, but this time failed to convert on both free tosses. The Suns were now down one when they should have been up two.

Lillard then made Mikal Bridges — an All-Defense candidate who made it hard for Lillard most of the night — look like nothing as he drove right through him to get another layup to have the Blazers up 3.

“After Dario missed those free throws, it would have been easy to mail it in, tuck your tail,” Williams said. “We fought like heck to even be in the game.”

With 37 seconds left, Bridges got the inbound, quickly drove and was fouled. He drilled his two, and after great defense to force a Lillard miss with nine seconds left, Booker looked to push with numbers in transition but double-dribbled.

Covington was fouled on the inbound, but this time, he bricked both to keep the score at 117-116 Blazers with four seconds left, giving the Suns a shot at a win off any bucket.

For those who have watched the Suns the past two years, you knew where the ball was going.

“I think [Booker] knew I was coming to him there,” Williams said.

Even with Booker’s poor shooting night, he got the inbound, was fouled at the elbow on a jumper and calmly put down his free throws to win the game for Phoenix.

“The mental toughness, stamina, all the stuff we talk about to be able to make plays in those moments after you had a game where you haven’t shot it that well — it happens, but the great ones have a short memory,” Williams said.

“Book was mad that he didn’t make the shot but I told him I didn’t care as long as he got to his spot, and he did,” Paul said.

Cameron Payne was part of that barrage in the first half of the fourth quarter and was outstanding off the bench, scoring 21 points and also adding six rebounds and five assists. Williams has been playing Payne with Paul more in the past couple of weeks, a look both Williams and Paul like with the extra ball-handling and vision the team gains.

“I love it,” Paul said. “Me and Monty talk all the time, and that was actually a suggestion I made to him … I love it when I get a chance to play with another ball-handler in Cam. The way that he plays and sees the game. It’s just a different dynamic for our team when Book is getting his rest.”

And this came on a night where Payne tweaked his right knee in warmups. Roughly 90 minutes before tip-off, Payne had to spend 15 of ’em testing out his knee and getting evaluated to make sure he was good after staying down on the floor for a bit.

Given the journey Payne has been on from out of the NBA to back in, all right before a postseason run and unrestricted free agency, it’s safe to say he was freaking out a bit. He had the staff and coaches calming him down as he did, and rightfully so.

“Scared,” he said of how he felt while being checked out. “I felt like I’ve done so much hard work to get back here, and to mess up on me, it was on me in warmups, it was kind of sad.”

Payne came back on the court 15 minutes later to finish his warmup, looked fine and went on to have one of his best games of the year.

Leave it to Bridges to be the guy to grab a game-high 11 rebounds while chasing Lillard around all night. Oh yeah, and he had 21 points on just nine shot attempts.

The Suns now head to San Antonio, where they’ll play a back-to-back of 11 a.m. games over the weekend to wrap the regular season. The Spurs are cemented in 10th, with nothing left to do besides tune-up for the play-in games. Phoenix, meanwhile, could still drop to third or climb to first.

That leaves the question of how the Suns choose to handle those games. Rest? Go for it?

Williams, as he has said all year, is primarily focused elsewhere than the standings.

“We’ve been in these big-time games now for, shucks, what, three weeks, so it’s not anything we’re not used to,” he said. “Obviously, we understand what’s on the line. But, look, in the Western Conference seeding doesn’t necessarily matter, man. There’s tough teams 1-8. You gotta win on the road, you gotta be able to protect homecourt in any matchup … As I told you guys before, I’m more concerned with how we play than the seeding and I’m gonna stick to that.

“I think if we play the way we played tonight and get everybody healthy, we’re gonna be a tough team to beat.”

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