USA TODAY Sports
The Blazers played a gutsy first half but looked poised for a fatigue-laden collapse in the third quarter. Hot shooting from Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard sparked an improbable comeback run as the hunters became the hunted and the Blazers beat the Hawks at their own game.
Do not adjust your screens. The Portland Trail Blazers just defeated the Atlanta Hawks 104-93 in Atlanta on the second night of a back-to-back. Wow.
Making the win even more amazing: this wasn't one of those lightning in a bottle nights. PLENTY of things went wrong. But the combination of guts, defensive smarts, and some flagrant stupidity from the Hawks saw the Blazers through a intense, tough evening.
The Blazers announced that this wouldn't be your typical back-to-back outing in the first period. 12 of their first 14 points came within 10 feet of the bucket, several on the break, fed by forced turnovers or rebound run-outs. The Hawks inverted that pattern. Getting the ball in the paint was only a prelude to passing out for a three. The triple is a main focus of Atlanta's attack but this bordered on the ridiculous. The Blazers are bad interior defenders. Portland's rotations were slow and late for most of the game. Portland's bigs were fatigued and drew frequent fouls. If the Hawks had used the inside game to draw extra defenders then kicked for open threes they might have broken open the game early. Instead they let Portland's defense off the hook. The threes still earned the Hawks a 24-21 lead after one, but the Blazers were alive.
The Hawks found some success in the second by shutting down the rim entirely, forcing Portland into jumpers. LaMarcus Aldridge's shot must have gotten lost in transit from Chicago. His face-up J was in and out all night, never falling into place. Damian Lillard was short on his jumpers. Nicolas Batum just opted not to shoot, period. J.J. Hickson picked up his 3rd foul with 10:04 left in the second period. That left Wesley Matthews to carry the offensive load. Fortunately for the Blazers, Matthews went on one of his can't-miss streaks, pouring in 10 for the period. Portland also benefited from a couple offensive rebounds and some surprisingly competent and foul-free defense from Hickson's back-up, Meyers Leonard. The Blazers made up the 3 point deficit from the first and went into the half tied at 45. This wasn't bad considering the circumstances (and considering their superstar was shooting like a cross-eyed fruit bat) but you worried about fatigue ruining the second half.
That's exactly what happened in the third period. The Hawks swooped down upon the Blazers, forcing turnovers, running for multiple break opportunities, hammering apart any pretense at lane defense. When the Blazers weren't turning over the ball they were launching painfully short jumpers. Just jumping looked like an effort for Lillard and Aldridge, let alone achieving decent form and follow-through. The bricks were as bad as the TO's. The Hawks grabbed the miss, flew down the court, and converted. The Blazers might as well have been helpless bunnies, feeling the talons of the bird of prey sink in.
Sadly for the Hawks, this was no ordinary rabbit! It was the most foul, cruel, bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on. It had a vicious streak a mile-wide. It was a killer. Just when the Hawks thought they had the enemy vanquished Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard flew out of nowhere and began decapitating them with three-pointers. Matthews hit 3 triples and Lillard 2 in the final 4:30 of the third. The Hawks lost their poise and tried to answer with the same jump shots they started the game with instead of the defense-inspired paint points that had gotten them the lead. Atlanta still led by 3 going into the fourth. But the vorpal bunny was about to get really nasty.
The Blazers stunned the Hawks early in the fourth with three-pointers and forced turnovers, doing all the things that Atlanta prides itself on. They beat the Hawks at their own game. Aldridge and Batum, absent from the offense the whole game, finally came alive and poured some points on top of the growing fire. When Eric Maynor broke down the defense with Lillard on the bench, it was just too much. The Hawks' idea of a holy hand grenade for the miracle finish was Josh Smith firing one...two...threes. This ain't the movies so it didn't work. Keeping Atlanta away from the rim and off the boards let the Blazers cruise to the come-back win, 104-93.
This game was not a masterpiece but man was it impressive. The Hawks scored 23 on the break. That was the chink in the armor for Portland. The rest of the suit held, though. Despite a flurry of mistakes in the third the Blazers committed only 9 turnovers for the game, forcing 11 from the Hawks. Atlanta scored 42 in the paint but the Blazers scored 48. The Hawks went 7-24 from the arc (29%) while the Blazers shot 10-18 (56%). Atlanta got 6 offensive rebounds, the Blazers 10. The Hawks shot 45%, the Blazer 47%. When Portland wasn't giving up fast break points Atlanta just didn't have enough daylight to move forward. And this all happened on the second night of a back-to-back in a game in which the Blazers had dead legs and faced a double-digit deficit in the second half. That's pretty amazing.
The other impressive part about this victory? LaMarcus Aldridge shot only 8-20 and looked as discombobulated as we've seen all season. It's like his brain and his hands were speaking different languages every time he put up a jumper. He scored 20 the hard way. Far more impressive were his 13 rebounds. He picked up his teammates on the boards and they picked him up on offense.
The main picker-upper was Wesley Matthews, the only Blazer carrying a torch through the whole game. When everybody else was stumbling in darkness he calmly lit up the net with 5-8 three-point shooting, 10-17 overall for a game-high 28 points. His offense kept this team together until they could mount a comeback.
Despite foul trouble J.J. Hickson added 15 and 10 and looked to be the only Blazer starter outside of Matthews with any energy. He and Wesley looked like Speedy Gonzalez next to the slow-pokes around them.
Damian Lillard started the game slowly under considerable pressure from Atlanta's guards, including Jeff Teague. The Hawks took a page out of Milwaukee's book, denying Lillard and getting up in his dribble. Matthews' torrential streak put an end to that and, free from constant haranguing, Lillard canned some threes and registered a great second half. He finished the game 8-16 with 22 points.
Nicolas Batum went failed slot machine tonight: 7 (rebounds), 7 (assists)...5 (points). If that point total seems low, figure it's only for a half of play. In the first half Batum's main accomplishments were not shooting and turning up tardy on defensive rotations. He rectified the defensive part in the second half and finished the game with 4 steals. He shot 2-5 tonight.
Meyers Leonard came into this game to stares worthy of a guy serving the first day of his penitentiary sentence. The Hawks might as well have been chanting, "Fresh meat!" as he walked onto the court. Ivan Johnson looked like he wanted to take Leonard's head off and use it for croquet. Al Horford actually tried to remove said head with his elbows a couple times. They put the rookie through the wringer. Nor could Leonard run, as Hickson's foul trouble mandated that Meyers remain on the court. To his immense credit--in what was maybe THE game of his season--Leonard not only stayed out there, he defended, rebounded, and stayed out of foul trouble in the process. He didn't get into the mental games, didn't flinch when flying forearms found their marks. He just did his job. Horford scored on Leonard. Horford rebounded against him. Johnson did too a little bit. But neither one defeated him and the Blazers were not hurt by Leonard's presence on the floor. 4 points, 9 rebounds, and only 2 fouls in 29 minutes. Yes.
Eric Maynor didn't take the same abuse that Leonard did. In fact he looked like he was having fun, taking advantage of the confusion that the Blazers' second-half comeback run was causing for the Hawks. He shot 10 times in 22 minutes, making only 4 of those for 8 points. But that was enough to keep momentum going until the full starting corps returned. Plus Maynor dished 5 assists. Another good night from a bench player.
Will Barton hit a shot in 4 minutes of time.
Had anyone told us the Blazers would be 2-2 on this road trip after starting it 0-2 we would have put down money against them. Bad bet. Every time you think this team is gone, be it in a game or for the season, they somehow rise up again. It's improbable...in some ways incredible, but on nights like this it's sure fun to watch.
PeachTreeHoops will be having Zombie nightmares about this game. "Wait! They were dead! We saw them die! No, Josh Smith! Don't go out there! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!"