A season after both finished well under .500, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns weren't expected to improve significantly.
After all, the teams accounted for only one real notable offseason acquisition, though it is that man - Eric Bledsoe - who has keyed Phoenix's surprising start and will try to help prevent Portland from winning a fourth straight game Wednesday night.
The Suns head to the Pacific Northwest with a 5-2 record - same as the Blazers - after going a Western Conference-worst 25-57 last season. Portland also missed the playoffs at 33-49 and didn't make any major changes under second-year coach Terry Stotts, but Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard is off to a hot start while LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews are averaging career highs.
"I think guys are coming back and being more comfortable," Aldridge said. "Just being in this system another year, I feel like guys are just growing. Guys are fitting in well."
Phoenix, on the other hand, hired Jeff Hornacek as coach and underwent a roster overhaul which featured the arrival of Bledsoe. The former Clippers point guard has flourished in his first season as a full-time starter, averaging team highs of 20.9 points and 7.3 assists.
Plus, Bledsoe has been clutch. He's among the league leaders averaging 8.7 points in the fourth quarter, including seven in the final four minutes of a 101-94 win over New Orleans on Sunday.
"We're just a young team and we play extremely hard," Bledsoe said after scoring a game-high 24.
Markieff Morris added 23 on 9-of-12 shooting, scoring more than 20 for the third straight game. He joined Dwight Howard and Charles Barkley as the only players since 1989 to post three straight games hitting at least 75 percent from the field while taking at least 12 shots.
Morris could face a tough matchup with Aldridge, who is coming off his first two double-doubles of the season. His season high of 28 points came in a season-opening 104-91 loss in Phoenix, a game which Morris missed due to a suspension.
Lillard had a season-high 32 that night, but he and Aldridge were the Blazers' only double-figure scorers. They've had at least four in every game since then, winning five of six.
Portland posted a third consecutive victory Monday, 109-103 over Detroit as Lillard led six Blazers in double figures with 25 points.
"Last year some games we'd have an answer and get a big win and other times we'd let the game get away from us," Lillard said. "Now we've got a different level of confidence in those situations and we expect to win those games."
So do the Suns, whose victories have been by an average of 8.0 points.
"This team has a great will to win and that is something that is natural and just shows at the end of the games, we just turn it up a notch," center Miles Plumlee said. "We definitely have to execute better throughout the rest of the game."
Plumlee had 18 points and 15 rebounds against Portland last month in his first career start as he easily outplayed former Suns center Robin Lopez. However, Lopez is coming off a second straight double-double with 17 points and 10 boards Monday.
"I love Robin," Stotts said. "He just plays hard every minute he's out there. He gives effort at the boards at both ends. He's a great team player and does what we need him to do."
- Sports & Recreation
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Eric Bledsoe
- Damian Lillard