for this game

Suns nearly blow huge lead, hold on to down Blazers

Mar 5, 2008 - 7:33 AM PORTLAND, Oregon (Ticker) -- The Phoenix Suns' transition into the Shaquille O'Neal era has been rougher than expected. If Tuesday was any indication, they have a few more kinks to work out.

Amare Stoudemire scored 22 points and Steve Nash added 19 for the Suns as they held on after nearly squandering a huge second-half lead to down the Portland Trail Blazers, 97-92, at the Rose Garden.

Phoenix has struggled since the O'Neal trade, going just 3-4 while allowing six points over their 104.0 season average in its seven games since the deal - a significant figure considering that the Suns acquired the 14-time All-Star largely to serve as a dominant inside defensive presence.

"We're still trying to figure it all out," Suns forward Grant Hill said. "Continuing to play the way we have always played, then incorporating the big fella (O'Neal) in the half court."

In this one, O'Neal finished with six points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, perhaps none bigger than one to stymie a comeback attempt from Portland.

Facing their largest halftime deficit of the season at 60-41, and allowing the Suns to shoot 54 percent (22-for-41) from the field after 24 minutes, the Blazers slowed down the tempo and appeared to take the Suns completely out of their element.

"(In) the first half, we did a great job defensively and we got (their) guys out of their comfort zone," Stoudemire said. (In the) second half, Portland came out aggressive. They really tried to change the momentum and they did that."

Portland held the Phoenix to 29 percent (4-for-14) shooting in the third period, outscoring it, 30-19, in the quarter.

"We just lost our rhythm," Nash said. "We walked the ball up and that slowed us down enough to let them back in."

After Hill's jumper from the arc with a minute left, Steve Blake answered with a 3-pointer of his own to key a quarter-ending 7-0 run which left the Blazers down, 79-71.

Blake continued the surge with a layup to open the fourth quarter to begin an 10-4 stretch that pulled Portland to within 83-81, capped by Joel Przybilla's layup with 7:41 left in the contest.

The Blazers had multiple chances to tie the game on their next possession, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy could not convert on any of their three opportunities, leading to a layup from Nash on the other end - the Suns' last field goal of the game - with 6:52 remaining.

Facing an 85-81 deficit, Roy attempted to retaliate on the other end but was turned away by O'Neal.

"We're getting used to what he can bring to us on the defensive end," Hill said. "He comes over and blocks a shot and creates a turnover from the help side. We gotta learn to get up on guys and funnel them over to him as opposed to having guys shoot over us."

Stoudemire hit four free throws, but the Blazers maintained the pressure as Jarrett Jack's layup capped a 6-0 run to trim the deficit to 89-87. However, Stoudemire hit two more free throws on the next possession, and Nash iced the game with six more from the foul line to preserve the win.

"That's something I'm very confident in," said Stoudemire of his free-throw shooting. "I practice free throws. I practice the game of basketball. Once I get in the position to make plays, I feel confident doing it because I've done it in practice."

Leading 29-20 after one quarter, Phoenix created the huge working margin when O'Neal opened the second period with a three-point play, sparking a quarter-opening 21-10 run that left the Suns ahead 51-30 with 4:45 left before intermission.

"It was a half of good basketball," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I told them that (the first half) was the blueprint on how we want to play. Can we extend that to 48 minutes? That's our goal."

Roy finished with 25 points for the Blazers, who lost for the 11th time in their last 12 meetings against the Suns and have lost two straight.