USA TODAY Sports
The Blazers may have won in Chicago last night but the Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of one of their best stretches of the season. Can Portland muster enough energy to stop Atlanta from running and shooting threes with impunity?
Fresh off a win in Chicago in which their starters played substantial, but not excessive, minutes the 32-36 Portland Trail Blazers travel to Atlanta to face the 38-30 Atlanta Hawks. Local television coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. Pacific on CSNNW.
The Hawks are the binge eaters of the NBA offensive set. They'll score 90, 92, 85 then 107!!! 105!!! 113!!! A couple weeks later it's back to normal. Their big winning streaks tend to correspond to these offensive outbursts. Unfortunately for the Blazers the Hawks must have split up with their BFF last week because they've been on the couch with the Haagen-Dazs again. Atlanta hasn't been below 96 in their last 5 games. They've won 4 of those 5.
Three Hawks have been instrumental in boosting their squad into triple-digit territory. Center Al Horford is having one of his best stretches of the season, averaging 19 and 12 over the last 5. Power forward Josh Smith has returned from injury to post a couple nice games and point guard Jeff Teague has gone from DNP-CD's to joining Devin Harris in the starting lineup and scoring 20. The up-and-down Harris has moved to shooting guard, perhaps temporarily en route to the bench. Distance impresario Kyle Korver rounds out the starting lineup at small forward. Between Horford's bulk and defense, Smith's athleticism, Korver's experience and range, plus occasional scoring spikes from Teague and Harris this can be a potent starting lineup. Atlanta has the second highest assist-per-possession rate in the league and the 6th highest field goal percentage. When they break down, they break down hard though. Sets tend to devolve into a series of mistrust-laden isos which nobody is talented enough to execute for the win. Turnovers rise, percentages go down.
The Hawks love to score on the break, do fairly well in the paint, and are deadly from the arc. Everybody at the smaller positions outside of Harris is a good-to-great three-point shooter and even Harris is average. They attempt the same number of threes per game as the Blazers, which is plenty.
The Hawks are poor offensive rebounders and poor at drawing and shooting foul shots. That weakness may seem slight but it costs them 4-5 points per game compared to the production of the league's better teams. Then again, their M.O. is to get free and easy shots on the break or via the high-low yo-yo in the halfcourt. If nobody's near you, nobody fouls you.
The most impressive part of Atlanta's defense may be their low numbers allowed in transition. You have to love a team that ranks 3rd in fast break points scored, 5th in fast break points allowed, for a difference of +5.5. That's commitment. That commitment does not extend to covering the perimeter in the halfcourt, though. The Hawks are one of the league's worst teams in defending the three, less because their guards are poor defenders and more because they have to use the guards to cover for their forwards in the halfcourt. To their credit they give up as few foul shots as they draw, avoiding a potentially crippling disparity. They're not shot-blockers nor do they depend on turnovers. It's your basic, percentage defense bolstered by a good center and a couple of athletes. If the offense were a shade more consistent Atlanta's defense would be enough to make them remarkable. As it is, they have to settle for being tough.
The bench is Atlanta's glaring weakness. Zaza Pachulia and Lou Williams are out, ripping a huge hole in the reserve ranks. Their most recognizable name (healthy) is DeShawn Stevenson. His history of inconsistency is well-chronicled and he's probably the most consistent guy left off the bench for them. Anthony Tolliver, Ivan Johnson, Dahntay Jones, Shelvin Mack, John Jenkins...you're not going to go out of your way to avoid these guys. The Hawks tend to play their starters long minutes and shuffle in reserves based on matchups and hot hands. Most of them shoot well with limited minutes and attempts. A couple can rebound. That's about all to recommend them at this point.
The math here is pretty simple. You have two teams playing competent starting lineups for long minutes. One likes to run the break, can score inside, shoots the three, tries to make you chase the ball wherever needed. They rested last night and are playing at home. The other team also moves the ball and shoots plenty of threes but does so less efficiently. They can't score on the break nor do they pound inside. That team played last night and traveled to get here. This is not a good situation for the second team.
The two main hopes to tip the scales are turnovers and rebounding. Portland doesn't force turnovers as much as Atlanta commits them. If the Blazers can limit their own miscues and Atlanta has an off night Portland might be able to rectify any transition imbalance. Controlling the boards would also help, not just in limiting transition opportunities for the Hawks but in providing second-chance (possibly paint) points for the Blazers. That's predicated on Portland getting back in transition and rotating out to those Atlanta shooters, though. If Portland's smaller players aren't energetic and alert defensively the Blazers might as well not take the court. Atlanta will blow them out so quickly the boom will be heard back in the Pacific Northwest.
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