After emphasizing defense throughout training camp and preseason, the Portland Trail Blazers put on a clinic in their historic 124-76 opening night victory versus the Suns in Phoenix Wednesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Portland held Phoenix to 27 percent shooting from the field and 19 percent shooting from three in the first three quarters before a garbage time fourth quarter allowed the Suns to improve to 32 percent shooting for the game. In short, it was easily one of the Trail Blazers’ best defensive performances in the last two seasons.
Perhaps more important the the raw numbers was the attitude the Trail Blazers brought to the defensive end Wednesday night, particularly the way they stayed aggressive throughout the entire game despite getting into foul trouble early in the first quarter. That was especially true for Maurice Harkless, who started at small forward and picked up two fouls before five minutes had elapsed in the first quarter. But the 6-9 forward didn’t let the early calls that went against him change his approach, as evidenced by the highlight reel block he got on Suns rookie Josh Jackson at the 2:10 mark of the second quarter.
For a moment, it looked as if Jackson had an open path to the rim after using a crossover dribble to to get Harkless off balance. But Harkless recovered to beat Jackson to the rim, pinning the ball against the backboard while simultaneously starting a fastbreak and bringing the Portland bench to their feet.
“Plays like that get the whole team excited,” said Harkless, who finished the game with eight points, five rebounds, two assists and that one block in 25 minutes. “It kind of sparks everyone to play like that on defense. So if that’s what I’ve got to do, then that’s what I got to do.”
If Harkless and the rest of the Trail Blazers are able to makes those kind of plays without fouling, something that has plagued their best defensive efforts over the past two seasons, there’s a real opportunity to become the kind of defensive team they need to make the jump from Western Conference upstart to certified contender.
“That’s usually the moment when we foul,” said Damian Lillard of Harkless’ block. “We have a good defensive possession and then we finish it with a foul and it’s like ‘Ah, we almost did it!’ But (Jackson) came downhill, Moe stayed there, he went up, Moe went and got the block, we get it, we’re going the other way. Those are the situations where usually we’d have a foul right there and they shoot free throws and who knows what happens next.”