Game 32 Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW and NBA TV

Update: The Portland Trail Blazers have announced that forward LaMarcus Aldridge is a game-time decision. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports that there will be no changes to the starting lineup. -- Ben

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The 19-11 Atlanta Hawks cruise into town tonight, the second in a whole batch of good teams the Portland Trail Blazers have to play during the All-Star straddle. The Blazers lost to the Hawks 92-89 in Atlanta one month ago today behind a late-game fusillade from shooting guard Joe Johnson. They've gone only 8-7 since, victims of their own struggles against a tough schedule. For the most part only good teams have beaten them. They've just played a ton of good teams in the last month.

When you think recent-vintage Hawks your mind jumps automatically to athleticism and toughness. They've still got that in spades at the forward positions. Josh Smith needs no introduction to Blazers fans. He's the 6'9" power forward who's quiet...quiet...quiet...OOOOPP! THERE'S YOUR 20 POINTS IN FIVE MINUTES! YOU LOSE! He's also been tearing up the court on defense lately. Blocks, steals, rebounds, you name it. Smith versus LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the great forward battles in the league. Let's hope we get to see it tonight. We know we'll see Gerald Wallace bumping up against Marvin Williams, a titanic physical battle, though not as much a contest of skill as Smith-Aldridge.

Of greater concern to the Blazers lately has been Atlanta's backcourt. Johnson is big and knows how to score. The Blazers have prospered when he's drifted through games, lofting easy jumpers instead of focusing and working for points. When he bends his will towards the hoop, however, Portland has a hard time matching up physically. If the Blazers commit help and a strong defender like Nicolas Batum to Johnson they leave point guard Jeff Teague with an easier night. Whatever the league things of Teague, he's had prodigious nights against Portland. The effect of this backcourt has been like a right-left combo on Portland's chin. Block the one hand, the other decks you.

A saving grace for all Atlanta's opponents this year has been the absence of center Al Horford. He completes the physical triangle up front and makes the Hawks' rebounding potential almost unfair. Zaza Pachulia has performed intermittently in his place. Pachulia has had good games against the Blazers too but he's not the game-changing threat that Horford would have been.

Off the bench the Hawks bring the newly-returned Kirk Hinrich at point, veteran scorer Tracy McGrady at forward, and a bunch of capable retreads in Vladimir Radmanovic, Willie Green, occasionally Erick Dampier, Janero Pargo...you get the idea. Most of these guys have bounced around before finding a home here playing small minutes for a big team. The problem is, you can never blink or one of these guys will discover his old form for a quarter or so and you'll take the knife in the back instead of the knockout punch to your face.

Befitting their size, prowess, and style the Hawks are great defensive rebounders, get back on the break, and score on the break themselves. Missing from their attack is the strong interior presence Horford would have provided. They don't block shots that well and they allow plenty of points in the paint. They allow few free throw attempts and shoot a bunch themselves...again, athleticism. They also possess a shiny three-point percentage, courtesy of almost every guard and small forward who plays for them. If they had a reliable post attack--Smith being up and down in his desire to bang down there--their offense would be potent indeed.

The best way to describe the Hawks is "very good, but also limited". If they can't get the stroke going from the perimeter they're capable of abysmal offensive nights. If they don't commit all that athleticism to crisp defensive execution they get scored on easily. Without Horford they have plenty of holes. They start each game slipping down through them and have to fight each night to overcome. It's to their credit (and a testament to their talent) that they manage it most nights.

The Blazers are in a similar situation. They're going to have to work even if LaMarcus Aldridge returns from his ankle injury. If he's out they'll have to work four times as hard. They'll need to match effort with effort, refuse to get bullied (particularly on the boards), and find some way to keep up with the Hawks' backcourt scoring. If both teams run well or both teams go bad this is an even contest. If either team takes the floor unprepared to play their guts out, though, the other team will filet them. Portland gave great effort on Wednesday and Thursday nights after a horrible showing Tuesday. They'll need to bridge the gap over their day of rest and bring the same fire they showed against the Clippers to this new game. Portland is more than capable of winning here but they'll need a complete, coordinated effort to do so.

Read about the Hawks at Peachtree Hoops.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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