The 2-3 Atlanta Hawks come to town tonight to face the 2-4 Portland Trail Blazers in a matchup of teams that used to be something and are struggling to find their way forward. The game will be televised on CSNNW and begins at 7:00 p.m.
Each of these teams has a core of competent starters. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Damian Lillard comprise Portland's core. Atlanta fields Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Jeff Teague. Missing from each group is a prominent name from years past: Brandon Roy for the Blazers and Joe Johnson for the Hawks. Thus the "used to be" and "struggling forward" designations.
The difference between the approaches of the two franchises shows clearly in the supporting casts. Portland has J.J. Hickson and...uhhhh...and... OK, Portland has J.J. Hickson. Meyers Leonard might give you a good night sometimes. The Hawks field Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, Louis Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, and our old friend Devin "I've Fallen (into obscurity) and I Can't Get Up" Harris. Any one of those guys would be a godsend to Portland's lineup. Depth will be an issue for the Blazers tonight. Then again, when isn't it?
Also a potential issue: that Hawks front line is big. Pachulia is a real center. Horford used to be a center and now he's a power forward, while Smith used to be a power forward and now he's a small forward. The Blazers will have to deal with bulk and physicality all night. Smith is the most intriguing matchup. He's given the Blazers and Aldridge fits before. What'll happen against Batum? Or, heaven forbid, what if Batum gets called to emergency duty guarding a smaller player? Which backcourt guy is going to switch on one of these forwards? Yes, the Blazers can outrun these guys (a key part of their strategy tonight if they're smart) but the Hawks could also end up making Blazer pancakes all over the paint.
On the other hand, these guys haven't played together much in the post-Johnson world. They're prone to turnovers, bad shots, stalling. Not a single Atlanta player is excelling in the scoring department. They end up shooting a lot of threes, shots which only a few of them can make. They don't draw fouls. They only fast break when you play poorly. They're not going to score extra points. They want to keep the score low, possessions slow, and disrupt your flow, staying close enough to beat you with key possessions at the end.
They can do it if you let them. The challenge for the Blazers will be imposing their style on this game. If Portland plays Atlanta's game, they're probably going to get killed. If Atlanta plays Portland's game the reverse will probably hold true. It's a serious stylistic clash, a test of who's going to take the bad shots: Portland early or Atlanta late? The Blazers need to take care of the ball, keep the Hawks from scoring cheap off the offensive glass, keep the ball moving and the tempo reasonably brisk. Provided they can protect on rebounds, whoever is away from the carom should begin streaking down the court immediately, catching those plodding forwards, well...plodding.
For the first time in a while the Blazers could have a clear advantage at point guard tonight. Damian Lillard needs to attack incessantly, forcing Teague and Harris to react instead of get comfortable. Coins always having two sides, Lillard can't make things too easy on either of those guards on the other end. Both of them are capable of big scoring nights. This is a game where you control the head and the rest of the body will follow. Take those point guards out of rhythm, make them defend instead of attack, and Atlanta will fall.
I'm not sure Portland has yet played a game where they're clearly favored but this is certainly the most winnable game on the schedule so far. If game plan, execution, and willpower line up, the Blazers will chalk up a "W" tonight. Fail in any of those three areas, though, and Atlanta is more than capable of walking out with their third victory.
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