Game 59 Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time:  7:30 p.m.  TV:  CSNNW and ESPN

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Update (10:45 AM): The Blazers report that center Marcus Camby will start tonight. Forward Gerald Wallace will also be available to play and will come off the bench.

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The second game of the post-Marksian era is on tap tonight.  Of all the games for Gerald Wallace to make his debut, this is among the most intriguing.  Consider:  The Hawks (35-23) are a bruising, physical team with a dominating defensive center, an athletic power forward, and a volume-scoring shooting guard.  If healthy the Blazers (with Wallace) would be a bruising, physical team with a dominating defensive center, an athletic power forward, and a volume-scoring shooting guard.  We all know that Portland isn't quite there yet but Wallace gets them a step closer.  He allows Portland to trade on defense, just as the Hawks try to do.  He brings that pounding presence that Atlanta has wielded for so long.  He takes the Blazers from a weakened, short-handed squad to a bolt of thunder hitting you upside the head.  Of course he'll need some time to settle in but even in his early stages, this kind of contest should show his value.

To this point the Hawks have had a decent, but not spectacular, defensive presence.  Al Horford and Josh Smith make as intimidating of a center-power forward combination as you'll find in the league on defense.  Both are big.  Smith can move.  Either can block shots.  Both rebound.  The problem for Atlanta is that the smalls have exposed them too much.  Marvin Williams is athletic but only a passable defender.  Joe Johnson may be a smidge below that.  Mike Bibby was awful.  But Bibby has been traded to Washington for Kirk Hinrich, a fine defender.  Hopefully that will shore up the gaping hole in the Hawks' perimeter defense and allow Horford and Smith more targeted opportunities instead of having to bail out the team.  Bibby-for-Hinrich has the potential to take a slice-above-mediocre defense to flat-out excellent.  If they can make you miss the Hawks can rebound the ball, so a boost to their defense could transform their entire game.

On offense the Hawks like to break if they can.  They don't force turnovers but they do scoop the ball off the glass and run.  The halfcourt provides them real problems though.  Horford scores 16 per game on the block but he's not what you'd call a game-changer on offense.  Smith can score from anywhere but he's registering only 17 per night.  Joe Johnson remains the guy but at 19 per game he's well off of his pace of a few years ago, playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots.  Jamaal Crawford is next at 12 per game and after that the offense falls off the table.  The Hawks hope for somebody to get hot on a given night, which Johnson, Smith, or Crawford can certainly do.  But most nights they kinda don't and Atlanta's stuck with 96 points per game.  They're definitely more likely to win by making the other team score 79 than by scoring 105 themselves.

As we said, the Hawks can score on the run.  Their production in the paint is no good though.  It's Horford or a jumper if they get stuck in the halfcourt.  They're so-so with the three point shot.  Hinrich and Crawford are the best bets there.  They're good at hitting foul shots but lousy at drawing them.  They don't force turnovers but they don't commit them either.

Portland's biggest issue tonight may be dealing with Horford and/or Smith.  LaMarcus Aldridge can only guard one of them and even that one will be a handful, let alone the guy who's being watched by not-Aldridge.  (Marcus Camby?  Hello?  Come back to us and draw Horford out of the middle?)  Even more than stopping Atlanta's bigs from scoring, the Blazers have to be careful not to get obliterated on the boards.  Portland beat Denver in part by rebounding strong which kept the tempo and energy of the game in Portland's hands.  The Hawks have the potential to wipe the floor with the Blazers in the rebounding department.  When Portland doesn't control the ball, Portland doesn't control the game.  If the Blazers can move the ball on offense and hit a couple of deep shots Atlanta will be forced to move their feet.  Get those bigs moving on defense and you can draw fouls and get them out of position, making the game infinitely easier.  The Blazers will have to play a little outside-in tonight I suspect, but if the outside part works the inside part should be gravy as Portland's players will be faster and Atlanta's unable to block their rim attempts.  The nightmare for Portland would be bricking a ton of jumpers leading to easy Atlanta rebounds and an offense even more pathetic than the Hawks'.  Allow Atlanta to stand still and pack in the defense and they will kill you.  Back to Portland's own defense:  you have to understand what each Atlanta player can and can't do.  You don't need to watch Williams at the three-point arc or Horford beyond 10 feet.  Smith you may have to help on, especially when he puts the ball on the floor, but Johnson can be coerced into jumpers by a single committed defender.  These are two-dimensional offensive players for the most part.  Don't let them play to their strengths and you won't have trouble.

Once again it'll be interesting to see how Crash Wallace affects this game.  Rebounds and aggressiveness would be a great start.

See the Atlanta perspective at Peachtree Hoops.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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