A Look at the Hawks
Atlanta is in the midst of a seven-game homestand during which they play every other day like clockwork for the span of two weeks. It's a pretty cushy setup considering the time of year and the Hawks have responded by posting four wins in their first four games of the stretch. Their opponents were Detroit, New Orleans, Utah, and Indiana. No real slouches there. This could be a difficult game for the Blazers.
Portland leaps out of the Devin Harris-Vince Carter frying pan and into the Joe Johnson-Mike Bibby fire. Johnson is having another great year, averaging 21.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. He's like a Brandon Roy who favors the outside shot over driving. Brandon is a more efficient scorer but Johnson is plenty dangerous. Bibby is not the player he used to be in the Sacramento heyday but he's enough of a threat to bother Portland's weak perimeter defense. You may recall he scored 27 when these two teams met in February. He also averages 5 assists.
The difference between the Hawks and Nets is that Atlanta has powerful, athletic, frontcourt players. Josh Smith and Al Horford can pound you and they do a pretty good job of getting up and down the floor as well. They're good rebounders. They're decent defenders. They're a handful.
Fortunately for the Blazers Marvin Williams has a bad back and is out. 6'5" Maurice Evans is taking his place. Evans is a sharpshooter while Williams would have presented another serious athletic challenge. This is good for Nicolas Batum.
Furthermore Josh Smith apparently got in an argument with coach Mike Woodson in the Hawks' last game and got benched for it. One can only hope that his focus is off. (I wouldn't count on it, but you'll take every edge you can get.)
A month ago these two teams had each other going around in circles. The Hawks' guards produced a torrid flow of points. Rudy, Roy, and Steve punished them on the other end. Atlanta locked down defensively, forcing us to go against the clock. We bullied through on the boards. In the end our own forwards--Aldridge and Outlaw with a little hustle from Batum--sliced through them like a dagger and provided the 10-point cushion in a second half that demanded as much energy as any we've played. Had Portland not been at home the story may have been different. And they're not at home today.
The Hawks play around Portland's pace, though they'll gladly run if given the chance. They are less efficient offensively but more efficient defensively. Both teams are good with the ball and both teams share it. The Blazers are the superior rebounding team by a substantial margin, the most glaring difference between the two teams. Basically they're quite similar with Portland possessing a little more skill and Atlanta more raw power.
We didn't have Oden last time we met them but LaMarcus Aldridge filled in nicely on the boards. We did have Rudy and he stuck 19 on the Hawks. He won't play this time and it's a sure bet we're going to need some extra scoring from our backcourt bench.
Keys to the Game
1. The most obvious matchup today is Roy versus Johnson. Whatever Joe does, Roy has to do back. Beyond that, you have to hit this Atlanta team where they're weak and that's the backcourt defense. Portland's guards need to be aggressive and alert. If you give Johnson and Bibby easy outs defensively you're not going to beat this team. Get past them and either hit the shot or see what havoc you can create inside.
2. This game will be a test of toughness for the Blazer frontcourt. You know Joel Przybilla is going to bring it but he's only one man. Atlanta has at least two. The Blazer forwards will need all the chutzpah they can muster today. They cannot get pushed around. They must rebound. They must take the ball to the rim and draw fouls. They have to be enough of a threat to make their defenders stay home instead of racking up Roy every time he drives. Hard-nosed, nasty, and effective are the order of the day. Let's hope they're on the menu.
3. Besides Outlaw, who is going to have his hands full anyway, who is going to be our savior off of the bench? Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, Shavlik Randolph...somebody's going to have to step up and replace the scoring that Rudy or Oden (or for that matter Martell Webster) would have given us. The starters are already halfway strung out physically. This trip is going to require the bench players to show that they deserve not only their current spots, but more.
4. If we don't win the rebounding battle we don't win the game.
5. Watch for free throws and points in the paint. We can't get blown out in either category.
With a 10:00 Pacific start this game could be a real headache. With the exception of a couple obvious games against elite teams the Blazers have played pretty flat lately. Atlanta will jump all over that. The road trip in general and this game in particular...both are serious gut checks for this team.
Check out what it feels like to be a Hawks fan at PeachTreeHoops.
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