|Suns set sights on Trail Blazers in opener|
PHOENIX -- The Portland Trail Blazers were an energized team after adding center Jusuf Nurkic for the stretch drive last season, rolling to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
The Phoenix Suns enter the 2017-18 season hoping that another year of experience for their young cast can lead to at least postseason contention.
The Western Conference teams open their regular season Wednesday at Talking Stick Resort Arena with the first of four games in the season series.
Portland was 41-41 last season, winning 17 of its last 23 games to finish one game ahead of Denver for the final playoff spot in the West before being swept by the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the first round.
The Blazers did not make any major offseason changes, preferring growth through continuity.
The Trail Blazers have one of the best guard combinations in the league in point guard Damian Lillard and off guard CJ McCollum. Lillard led the Blazers with a scoring average of 27 points a game last season, and McCollum added 23.
Nurkic, 7-foot and 275 pounds after losing 30 pounds over the winter, averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in 22 games after being acquired in a trade from the Denver Nuggets in mid-February. The Blazers were 14-5 when he started.
Defense was the Blazers' emphasis during the preseason.
"It's no secret," Portland coach Terry Stotts told the Oregonian. "We have to be better defensively. That's been our Achilles' heel. Two or three years ago, when we were a top-10 defensive team, we were an elite team. That's still important."
The Blazers won three of four from Phoenix last year.
The Suns franchise may be 50 years old this season, but the club's youth movement continues.
The Suns, 24-58 a year ago, integrated two first-year players, forward Marquese Chriss and backup point guard Tyler Ulis, into a group that already included 20-year-old off guard Devin Booker, who led the team with a 22.1 scoring average and had a signature 70-point game at Boston on March 24.
This summer they continued to rely on the draft for their major moves, adding small forward Josh Jackson (the fourth pick overall) to join Booker (2015 first-round pick, 13th overall) and 2016 first-rounders Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Chriss (eighth). Booker, Chriss and Jackson are 20. Bender, a forward who did little last year, is 19.
"Last season was about development, allowing guys to play, opportunities that their game can grow, their confidence can grow," Suns coach Earl Watson said. "This season is about structure, even though we have a chance to allow Josh and our young guys to grow. Playing a certain way within what we do. Kind of bringing it back.
"Very disciplined style of basketball, with 3-point shooting and a fast pace."
The Suns, who won 23 games in 2015-16, held point guard Eric Bledsoe out of the final 16 games last season. They believe the move sabotaged their victory total but was necessary as an attempt to keep him healthy after he sustained injuries to each knee in previous years.
Portland will play the opener without McCollum, who was suspended for the first game of the regular season after leaving the bench area during an altercation between teammate Caleb Swanigan and Suns center Alex Len in a preseason game on Oct. 11 in Phoenix. The principals traded shoves, but McCollum did not engage in any physical contact.
"I was disappointed," McCollum said. "Obviously I wasn't trying to escalate the situation. I was trying to look out for a teammate. You work so hard to prepare for the season. You go through a lot of preseason games that don't mean anything, and then you miss a regular-season game because of an incident that you weren't even involved in. There's nothing I can do about it now but move forward and learn from it."