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Game 5 Preview: Hawks vs. Blazers

Game Time:  7:00 p.m. Pacific   TV:  Comcast SportsNorthWest

In the recap of Sunday's win against the Thunder I said that humidity was thickening around this team right now.  You get the same feeling as when you step outside before an impending thunderstorm.  Lightning is in the air somewhere.  You just don't know when or where it's going to strike.  This is not to say that the Blazers themselves are tense...though if things don't change that's coming.  Rather you can start to read from defense-less losses to Houston and relieved wins against Oklahoma City that some kind of strike is impending.  The question is, will it be a strike against an opponent that all of a sudden clears the air and puts this team on a strong, confident path or will it be an internal strike resulting from a prolonged struggle?  One way or another we're going to see something at least semi-dramatic happen and I'd be surprised if we got out of November before it did.

I bring this up because I have a weird feeling that tonight's game could be polarizing one way or the other.  The Atlanta Hawks are in town.  They're different than most anybody else in the league.  The battles between them and the Blazers, aided by both teams ascending around the same time, have always been spicy and entertaining.

A Look at the Hawks

To my mind the Hawks' main distinguishing feature is their tough, athletic, young front line.  They run three 6'9"-6'10" guys out there in Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams.  Horford is a great rebounder and shot-blocker who also hits the post attempts he gets.  Smith is an all-around forward who can leg it up and down the court with the best of them.  He's averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.5 steals, and 2 blocks per game on the season.  Williams has had a poor start to the season but he's a runner/leaper who can explode on you as much as Smith if the stars are aligned right.  Between them it's going to be a rough night for anyone the Hawks come across.  They can get nasty and they've punished the Blazers before, winning games that Atlanta should have lost.

To balance the brawling frontcourt the Hawks field martial artists in the guard slots.  All-Star Joe Johnson is averaging 23, 5, and 5 on the year.  He does everything well on the offensive end and is just as capable of going off for 40 as Brandon Roy is.  Veteran Mike Bibby has seen better (and quicker) days but he makes a living off of the Blazers.  He shot 57% and averaged 21 against the Blazers last year.

Beyond that the Hawks bring Jamaal Crawford off the bench along with Maurice Evans, who has taken some of Marvin Williams' minutes and has been shooting the lights out so far this year.  Joe Smith and Zaza Pachulia provide big man support but you don't see them much as the Hawks tend to play their starters huge minutes.

The combination of hyper-athletic frontcourt, multi-talented backcourt, and a little bit of bench relief is a combustible mixture.  The Hawks can explode on anyone at any time and they're getting better at delivering consistently.  They're 2-1 on the season, are averaging 110 points per game so far, and have not finished below 100 yet.  The Blazers, by contrast, have topped 100 only once and needed 42 points from Brandon Roy to do it.  Atlanta likes to create extra points by dominating the offensive glass and turning you over.  They also generate and hit plenty of foul shots.  If held to a halfcourt game it's inside-out with Horford and Johnson with Smith as a fine second option with Bibby or Evans as safety-valve shooters.

Despite the offense generated the Hawks have been having trouble defending this year.  Opponents are shooting 50% from the field, 43.5% from the three-point arc.  It's a mark of how well the team plays the extra facets of the game that even with that defense they've won twice and brought a good fight to the L*kers in their one loss.  The opponent putting the ball in the hoop has made it harder on the Hawks to play easy, but even when plodding they've seen results.  The Blazers should take note that just scoring won't be enough to take this game.  They're going to have to fight otherwise the Hawks will just roll right back over them every time they score.

Pivotal Points to the Game

1.  Keeping the Hawks off of the offensive boards will be important for the Blazers.  I have two visions about this game.  In one the Hawks start forcing and missing shots and the Blazer bigs vacuum them up, frustrating Atlanta and making them look impotent.  In the other the Hawks start missing shots but then they sky past Blazers who aren't paying attention and ram the offensive rebound back home, swinging on the rim for good measure.  Guess which scenario leads to a Portland win?

2.  Brandon Roy-Joe Johnson is always a great time.  They're both well-rounded, great just dream of this kind of thing.  Roy has to at least equal him to make the game easy on the Blazers.  Joe Smith-LaMarcus Aldridge could also be a pivotal matchup presuming LMA is cleared to play.  Such symmetry.

3.  OK...look.  This isn't rocket surgery.  Nor is it brain science.  If you're going to let Mike Bibby get open looks and filet you then you're giving the already-potent Atlanta offense a big knife and turning your back to them.  Please make at least one point guard in the league look worse than he is instead of way better.  And by the way, the guy can't defend either.  How about some offensive magic from our point guards...or people we play at the point guard position even if they're not point guards.

4.  This would be a night to hit your three-pointers, as that's one area of the court the Hawks don't cover that well.

5.  Defend the Hawks but don't put them on the line.  Ideally you'd want non-Joe-Johnson people shooting jumpers.  If you can't get that you'd want Joe-Johnson people shooting jumpers.  The worst-case scenario is seeing them bull inside and foul out your entire big man corps in the first 16 minutes.  Not only would you be at a disadvantage but they'll hit all of those free throws.  Stay in front of your man but keep your hands off of him.

Final Thoughts

If the Blazers get pushed in this game and respond back with a stellar, intense, smack-filled effort it would probably shake the rust off and set the tone for the next few weeks which are full of winnable games.  On the other hand should the Blazers continue to struggle some of those winnable games, particularly on the road, start looking tough.

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--Dave (