Game 14 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Atlanta Hawks

Game Time: 5:00 p.m. Pacific TV: CSNNW

With preemptive apologies to the great Sherman Alexie, the opening portion of this preview is brought to you by guest analysts Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. If you have not read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven or at least seen Smoke Signals, what the heck is the matter with you? Get...watch...read. Watching Smoke Signals is the minimum you should do.

Thomas: Hey...Victor! The Blazers play the Hawks tonight!

Victor: Yeah. That won't be much of a game.

Thomas: I remember once, the Blazers had the ball against the mighty Hawks with only three seconds left. Dikembe Mutumbo was waving his arms like huge wings, ready to block a shot. Dominique Wilkins was scowling, knowing that he had just scored the game-winner. Bob Pettit was roaming the weak side, looking to steal a pass and end the game. But then the Blazers drove right past Dominique Wilkins, faked a pass around Bob Pettit, and rose up high above Dikembe Mutmbo's outstretched hands to dunk the ball and win the game. That's how they won the championship of the whole world.

Victor: That never happened, Thomas. Those players never played together. And the Hawks always beat up on the Blazers. Their best point guard is out tonight and they'll still beat up on the Blazers with his replacement playing.

Thomas: I remember the time Jeff Teague took me to Dennys...

Victor: More like took Portland to the woodshed.

Thomas: He gave them the Grand Slam Breakfast. Two three-pointers, two layups, two free throws, two jumpers.

Victor: And that was all in the first half!

Thomas: But Victor, the Blazers have a new point guard to play against Jeff Teague now!

Victor: But the Hawks have pretty good inside defenders and Raymond Felton is only shooting 14% on his three pointers. It was a big mistake getting him. They should have gotten an Indian point guard instead.

Thomas: An Indian point guard?

Victor: Yeah. They need somebody who can use some fancy footwork and make it rain.

Thomas: But the Blazers also have Atlanta's very own best bench player Jamal Crawford!

Victor: Yup. Just when Portland's offense is going well Jamal Crawford comes along like General George Armstrong Custer and misses thirty-two shots.

Thomas: Some days, it's a good day to die. And some days, it's a good day to ruin your career shooting percentage.

Victor: You said it. Now let's go to Team Doctor Lester Fallasapart for the injury report.

Lester Fallsapart: Marcus Camby's ankle's broken again.

Victor: That figures.

Thomas: I think the Blazers will rise like salmon from the river and win this game anyway!

Victor: Thomas, you don't know what you're talking about.

Thomas: Sure I do! Watch Nate McMillan. He has the warrior look! He's always scowling, like you.

Victor: Then why have the Blazers lost three of their last four games, Thomas?

Thomas: Geez, Victor...I guess the warrior look doesn't work every time.

Victor: The Golden State Warriors are only 4-8.

Thomas: I guess the warrior look only works one time in three then. We need a new game plan, Victor.

Victor: And so do the Blazers.

Thomas: I guess they're like Lucy and Velma's car. They look fine as long as they're parked at home but every time they start driving down the road they just go backwards. Not the Hawks, though. I remember the time Jeff Teague took me to Dennys...

Victor: You already said that, Thomas.

Alright, guys, thanks so much!

Even if you take Thomas Builds-the-Fire's positive approach, this is likely to be a tough game for the Blazers. Granted, Al Horford is out. That's a big relief for Portland's thin and weary big-man corps. But Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins aren't totally inept replacements. Their defense isn't nearly as potent as Horford's but they'll hold the fort. The bigger concern for the Blazers is how Josh Smith, his athleticism, and his offensive versatility. Last year was a down year, as he scored slightly below his average in his games against Portland. But he's had impressive outings in the past and always rebounds well. His aggressiveness is hard for Portland bigs to deal with.

Besides the aforementioned Teague (who posted 20 and 10 on the Timberwolves the other night), Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams complete Atlanta's starting lineup. They'll be familiar to anyone who's seen the Hawks in recent years. More to the point, these guys are familiar with each other. Even without Horford and formerly-slated starting guard Kirk Hinrich they're playing with a cohesiveness that Portland matches on its best days.

Tracy McGrady is a new wrinkle off the bench. He's shooting 50% from the field so far in the season and still creates a matchup headache for the opposition. After that the bench gets softer, Vladimir Radmanovic and Willie Green being the big contributors. Atlanta's reserves won't set the world on fire but they're veterans who know what they're doing and know how to stay out of everybody's way.

The Hawks run an efficient offense featuring points in the paint, fastbreaks, free throw attempts, and a great three-point shooting percentage when they need it. Their order of preference is run, go inside, take the three to keep defenses honest. They shoot jumpers to clear the middle for their athletes, not vice-versa. Most nights they're quite good. Things can fall apart (on the few nights they've been beaten it's been because they couldn't get to 90) but that's rare. They distribute the ball well and commit few mistakes.

Atlanta also runs a good, all-around defense. They're in the top half of the league in every significant statistical category except three-point percentage allowed. They're more stealers than shot-blockers...no surprise there.

The rebounding story is about the same: good offensive rebounders, good defensive rebounders, keep the opponents from running away in either category.

Injuries aside, it's hard to find a major flaw in this team. They're not among the upper-crust elite statistically or in star power but they're pretty darn good at everything that matters. In this chaotic early-season start that's been good enough to earn them a 10-4 record, 6-1 at home, only percentage points behind the Magic for their division lead.

One wonders how the Blazers are going to crack a team with few holes in it, especially one with a stock of athletic forwards and a hot point guard. If Portland can't muster more energy and focus than we've seen so far on this trip it won't happen. The first order of business will be dealing with Teague and Johnson. If they go off the whole game may collapse around Portland's heads. Then they have to keep Smith from hammering dunks and offensive rebound putbacks over them while simultaneously watching three point shooters like Williams, Radmanovic, Green, and even McGrady.

One ray of hope may be Johnson's propensity for the outside shot. If that's off the Hawks lose a plank of their attack. Aldridge will be tasked with stopping Smith. Then you hope to pressure Teague into mistakes or, even better, tire him or get him into foul trouble. Once the bench is in you have your exploitable moment. But that's a ton of things going right for the Blazers all at once when the limit on this road trip has seemed to be one thing going right every five minutes or so.

The best hope for Portland may be an uncanny explosion from one of LaMarcus Aldridge's sidekicks. I'm looking straight at Jamal Crawford here but Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews, or even Nicolas Batum would also do. Portland needs a boost somewhere...a wave to knock the Hawks off their feet. It feels like a game where Portland's individual heroics will have to overcome Atlanta's team play. Obviously the Blazers should try to put pressure on the middle of the Hawks defense as well. Aldridge is going to have a hard time getting inside. A few well-placed 15-footers early might clear out the lane enough that Portland's guards could drive and (hopefully) finish over the Horford-less interior.

Despite all that, there's a pretty good chance that this is an ugly game for the Blazers...that they can't force turnovers, can't run out, can't rebound, and are forced into an ugly halfcourt game which allows Atlanta to feast on long rebounds and run. If that does happen, remember Toronto and Detroit are just on the horizon. Relief is on the way.

Check out the Hawks point of view at Peachtree Hoops.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest Form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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