Portland Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum discuss how they were affected by playing with Suns coach Earl Watson, following Sunday’s Portland win over Phoenix. Doug Haller/azcentral sports
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Suns guard Devin Booker talks about his team’s fight in Tuesday’s loss to the Wizards and the team’s attitude after P.J. Tucker was traded at the trade deadline. Doug Haller/azcentral sports
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Phoenix Suns’ Tyler Ulis talks about his game-winning shot against the Celtics on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (Doug Haller/azcentral sports)
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Jay Dieffenbach and Doug Haller of azcentral sports talk about the Suns’ defensive future and the trade of P.J. Tucker to Toronto. Hannah Gaber/azcentral.com
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Phoenix Suns center Alan Williams watches his mother, Jeri Williams, sworn in as Phoenix police chief in Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Paul Coro/azcentral sports)
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The Suns this month overcame Russell Westbrook’s 48 points. They survived Isaiah Thomas’s 35. But Sunday night in downtown Phoenix, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were just too much.
The Portland guards combined for 65 points to fuel the Trail Blazers to a 110-101 win over the slow-starting Suns in front of 16,664 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“Dame dominated the first half, it wasn’t even close,” Suns coach Earl Watson said. “And he wasn’t even an All-Star this year. It shows how difficult it is in this league to be an All-Star point guard in the West. I thought C.J. was consistent in his balancing attack. He hit big shots down the stretch.”
BOX SCORE: Blazers 110, Suns 101
Watson can speak authoritatively on the Portland guards. He knows them well. During the 2013-14 season, the Suns coach played his final NBA season with the Trail Blazers. At the time, Lillard was in his second year, McCollum in his first.
Both learned from Watson.
“Earl was always on me about just controlling the game, directing my teammates, just doing the things that a point guard should do and a leader should do,” Lillard said. “He was actually the person that gave me the idea as a leader to get your team together over the summer. He was trying to get me to do that in my second year, and now that’s what we do. We get together and go to San Diego. He really made a difference in my career.”
Said McCollum: “Earl’s a good guy. I spent a lot of time with him in L.A. and different cities over the course of my career, just trying to pick his brain and even working out with him. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
On the court, none of that mattered. Lillard scored 28 of his 39 points in the first half, while McCollum, picking his spots, scored 15 of his 26 in the second. Coming off a tough home overtime loss the previous night, both guards were proud of how Portland (29-36) responded, showing fight, finding a way to win, even if wasn’t pretty.
That’s where the Suns were lacking. The energy that powered Saturday’s last-second win in Dallas didn’t carry over. The Suns trailed 33-18 in the first quarter and had to play catch up. They trailed 66-50 at halftime and by as many as 18 in the third quarter.
“Our energy was down to start,” Watson said. “In the second half, the motivation picked up, the edge picked up, but it wasn’t the same. We can’t say anything about the back-to-back. They played a back-to-back, (too, and) we got in before they got in, so it’s all a mindset.”
The Suns (22-45) have had positive stretches since the All-Star break. They beat Westbrook and Oklahoma City, as well as Thomas and the Celtics. Saturday’s win over Dallas, and how it happened with Devin Booker beating the buzzer, was a nice moment. But the highs have been off-set by the lows, first a home loss to the Lakers and now the Portland setback. Both opponents are young and building, the type the Suns will battle in future postseason positioning.
“Coach said someone needs to step up and be the vocal leader for us and that’s the truth, especially with Tyson’s absence,” said Booker, referring to veteran center Tyson Chandler, who hasn’t played since the All-Star break because of the organization’s youth movement. Chandler also wasn’t with the team Sunday because of personal reasons.
“With Tyson’s absence, we didn’t have communication or anybody in the huddle talking and that’s something we need.”
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Booker had 28 points, two coming on a reverse lay-up with four minutes left that gave the Suns a 95-94 lead. But Lillard and McCollum combined for seven points and the Trail Blazers never trailed again.
If anything, Lillard was impressed by Phoenix’s second-half fight.
“I can tell that that team is coached by Earl Watson,” he said. “Just from knowing him as a teammate.”
Watson said the Suns can learn from the Portland guards.
“The mindset is: Every game can we bring that energy and bring that edge physically until we grow with experience to give us amazing intangibles that those two have from playing in the playoffs for the past couple years?” Watson said. “We have steps to go.”
Key player: Damian Lillard set the tone from the start, scoring 15 of his 39 points in the first quarter. The Portland point guard shot 13 of 26 from the field and made 9 of 9 from the foul line.
Key moment: Both teams got into Phoenix late Saturday night. Both were playing the back end of a back-to-back. Portland just responded better. The Blazers put Phoenix into an 18-point hole and the Suns spent the rest of the night catching up.
View from the press box: The Suns were without all three of their 7-footers. Forward Dragan Bender remains out recovering from minor ankle surgery. Center Alex Len missed his second consecutive game because of a hip issue and Tyson Chandler – who hasn’t played since the All-Star break – wasn’t with the team for personal reasons.