Game 54 Preview: Hawks vs. Blazers

A Look at the Hawks 

Let's get something straight right off the bat.  The Atlanta Hawks are a dangerous team.  The Celtics found that out in last year's first round but the Blazers knew it long before then.  Portland hasn't had an easy time with Atlanta in years no matter what the circumstances or records going into the game.  This year will be no exception, as both teams are on the rise.

The special challenge the Hawks pose for the Blazers is their power and athleticism.  Portland has tall players.  Portland has skilled players.  Portland has talented players.  Portland uses all of the above efficiently (at least on offense).  Portland lacks big-time muscle, punishing play, and old-school grit, all of which the Hawks have.  It's like pitting a snake against a Doberman.  Different strengths, either could win.  It just depends on what the fight looks like.

Despite the differences in raw material, it's scary the ways in which these teams mirror each other.  The records are similar.  Both are good road teams.  Atlanta plays the Western Conference well.  The teams score and allow a similar number of points, putting up and making basically the same number of field goals.  Portland allows their opponents fewer shots than the Hawks do because Portland is a superior rebounding team.  (Tonight with Oden out though...)  The Blazers shoot better but also allow opponent to shoot better.  The Hawks attempt and make more threes and free throws but the points-generated disparity isn't great, especially since Portland shoots better in both categories.  Both teams share the ball.  Neither team turns the ball over.  They aren't far apart in forced turnovers either.  The Hawks generate more steals, the Blazers generate more blocks.     The Blazers are more efficient offensively and the Hawks more efficient defensively but either is within shouting distance of the other.  Statistically speaking the Blazers and Hawks could stand on either side of an empty mirror frame and not see much difference, except the Blazers look much better.  (Wait...Michael Ruffin hasn't reported yet, has he?  No?  Whew!)

The Hawks are led by Joe Johnson, a 6'7" shooting guard who scores 21.4 per game but also handles and passes the ball with ease (6.1 assists, leading the Hawks).  He's a perpetual darkhorse to be mentioned among the best guards in the league but he flies under the radar because of his location.  Atlanta added Mike Bibby to bolster the scoring and he's shooting lights out this season from the field and from the arc. He averages 15.9 points and 5.2 assists.  You cannot sleep on this backcourt at any time.  They are capable of beating you from anywhere.  The only major flaw they have is defensively.  Bibby has always been porous and is more so with age slowing him down.  Johnson is so-so at best.  The Blazers backcourt versus theirs isn't going to be a boxing match with blocked punches and well-timed jabs.  It's going to be a couple of pro wrestlers throwing haymakers in the middle of the ring that nobody dodges.  (Bayless fans...this may be the game to root for your guy to get some minutes, particularly if we're having trouble scoring.)

The Hawks frontcourt reads like a rogue's gallery.  Josh Smith is an athletic, quick forward who never misses shots inside the three-point line and can also rebound the ball.  6'10" center Al Horford is built like a brick, scores efficiently in the low block, and also rebounds.  Marvin Williams is another 6'9" athletic forward who can run, score, and rebound.  These guys are kind of mean.  They'll be mean to you if you let them.  Travis Outlaw kind of seems like a girl scout selling cookies by comparison.

Ding dong!  Would you like to buy some...aaaaah!!!  These pit bulls are gnawing my legs off!

Those aren't pit bulls, man.  Those are the owners.

The Hawks bench is serviceable, though not remarkable.  They'll be hurt by the absence of Flip Murray, who is really their only reliable scorer off the pines among the small positions.  Acie Law can't hit the broad side of a barn with a laser sight and a bazooka.  Maurice Evans isn't that much better.  Then again, they don't play that much.  Zaza Pachulia is probably the biggest threat off of their bench with Murray out.  He's a center with range and enough grit to hit the boards.  It's a motley group, sometimes effective.  The starters are the real threat here though.

Keys to the Game

1.  Oden being out of this game really hurts the Blazers because he's a rebounder who can't get pushed around.  Joel Przybilla will be fine, of course, but the Blazers really need to see some intensity and guts from Lamarcus Aldridge and the rest of the frontcourt (Batum, Outlaw, whoever).  Our main guys have got to rebound hard and stay in the game.  This doesn't feel like a Channing Frye kind of game, if you know what I mean.  I guess Frye could blister the Hawks from the outside, but he'd probably have to score 16+ for it to work.  If Pryzbilla, Aldridge, and the small forwards don't hit the glass hard and keep their guys from scoring in the post this is going to be a hard game to win.  Rebounding is one of the few clear advantages we have over the Hawks.  That's partially lost with Oden.  We can't afford to lose it completely.

2.  On the scoring end, life will be easier if Roy finds a way to match Johnson's production while also keeping others involved.  If Brandon scores 35 and nobody else gets out of the mid-teens that's not good.  But if we can get a solid 24 from Roy while a couple other guys get near 20 we have a pretty good chance.

3.  Paging the second unit...Travis, Rudy, Bayless, even Sergio.  We need scoring.

4.  I'm not entirely sure what kind of pace I'd like to see against this team.  On the one hand a little running like we saw against Memphis the other night would produce points and might diminish some of their knock-you-aroundedness on defense.  On the other hand if we get loosey-goosey with the running and commit turnovers or don't get back their offense will turn into a charging freight train on its way to the hoop.  In that case the cute little "take a charge" defense we play in such situations is going to land somebody in the hospital.  Then again I suspect the Hawks would be happy to grind it out with us as well.  Whatever pace we play at the idea is to get past your man and then make the Hawks make decisions in their team defensive scheme.  That same athleticism that is their calling card can also get them out of position quickly.  My gut feeling is that our guards should be dribble penetrating against theirs and then be ready with the quick dish to a cutter or shooter.  I'm not really fond of trying to jump shoot them into submission in this game.

Final Thoughts

Before this seven-game stretch started I had this game circled as the toughest one.  Maybe the Blazers will prove me wrong about that.  But tough or easy, we need to win this game every bit as much as we needed to win against Memphis.  Let's hope we see a little more focus, energy, and communication tonight.  And lets see the team rally for those rebounds too!

Head on over to PeachTreeHoops for your Hawks fix.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest here. 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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