The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Atlanta Hawks tonight, 95-87. Portland got destroyed in the first half but came back gamely in the second to get close and then pull ahead before the law of averages caught up to them and they finished on the wrong end of the score. For Timmay's instant recap, highlighting the events of each quarter, click here.
Observations and Analysis from the evening:
1. The Blazers appeared to fall prey to a young team bugaboo that they never seemed to get over in the Roy years and which could continue in this new generation. They narrowly lost an emotional game to a great team on Saturday in which they played inspired basketball. Logic says they'd be able to come out and blitz a somewhat lesser team. Just keep the buzz going. Instead they came out flat, almost as if they assumed they'd still be on a roll. The Hawks jumped to a 20-9 lead for many of the reasons outlined below. Suffice it to say that the worst of Blazers basketball was on display early.
2. Turnovers killed this team in the first half and never quite went away. The Blazers committed 20 for the game, many from players trying to operate outside of their comfort zone. LaMarcus Aldridge trying to drive from the top of the key, Wesley Matthews trying to catch and convert on the run in traffic, Damian Lillard seeing no options and trying to take over the offense himself...all of these led to ugly miscues. Credit Atlanta and their pressure too. They knew when to apply and ease off, mixing it up to keep the Blazers off balance.
3. In an inexcusable turn of events the Hawks beat the Blazers down the court repeatedly in that fateful first half. Atlanta played last night and traveled. Portland rested. Atlanta fields a large frontcourt plus Kyle Korver as a shooting guard. The Blazers are fleet of foot. But if the Blazers weren't losing transition points due to turnovers they were getting beaten by unofficial 3-on-2 breaks for the Hawks. Atlanta scored 26 in transition. It wouldn't have been surprising to have them score 1/3 of that under normal circumstances. This is hands down the most puzzling and unforgivable development of the evening, presumably one of the reasons that Terry Stotts was pacing the sidelines in the first half looking like he was sucking a lemon coated in alum powder.
4. While a couple second unit players had decent games tonight as a whole Portland's bench couldn't score (as usual) and added poor defense on screens to their list of sins. When that second unit comes in Portland's offense goes outside almost immediately (and misses shots) and Portland's defense gets permissive.
5. Speaking of, Coach Stotts has got to be yelling, "My kingdom for a decent screen!" when the Blazers are on offense.
6. Portland shot only 26% from the three-point arc as a team. That's a result of many attempts coming from situations outside of the open catch-and-shoot. I guess there are bad threes in the Stotts offense after all.
7. The Blazers did shift gears at halftime, the second time we've specifically noted such a change this season. Whatever Stotts does in there when the team plays a poor first half appears to work. The defense got tighter in the second half, the offense farther inside and more reliable.
8. The Blazers continued their season-long tradition of making spirited runs when behind. The heart loves the "never say die" attitude. It doesn't seem like any game is totally out of reach. The head, on the other hand, says this team isn't talented enough to play 1.75 good quarters in a game and expect to win. If you're going to bring it, bring it the whole game so you don't have to make up 15 points before you start thinking about winning.
J.J. Hickson was the star of this game for Portland. It's sad that his teammates couldn't back him up enough to reward his efforts with a win. The guy was a MONSTER on the offensive boards against that big, talented Atlanta front line. Without his rebounding generating extra possessions and points--plus keeping the Hawks from running out more than they already were--the Blazers go down 25 in that first half. Hickson got overwhelmed at times defensively but in general kept his counterparts under control. The Blazers actually started the evening going to him a couple times, leading to a bad turnover and a missed jumper. After that they let him fend for himself and the hungry dog went to town. He finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds.
LaMarcus Aldridge started the evening outside on offense again and looked bad. The Blazers couldn't score around him either. The clearest first-half run for Portland's offense came when Aldridge went low (or as low as he gets, anyway) and either shot or set up his teammates for clean looks. His offense included a steady diet of back-to-the-basket in the second half, including during the crucial back-and-forth stretch near the end of the game. He had 8 assists on the night, clearly his most impressive stat. He scored 14. He held Josh Smith accountable for his shots, generally performing well on defense. Smith did have 11 boards to Aldridge's 6 but Smith also shot 9-22 on the night. 5 turnovers for Aldridge marred the night somewhat but, as mentioned above, most of those came when forcing things outside of his comfort zone.
Nicolas Batum was one of the biggest reasons for the shift in performance between the first half and the second. He wasn't much help early but his third quarter was amazing. He shot, he dove to the hoop, he defended like a Tasmanian Devil, he rebounded. He spurred the comeback and energized the whole building. He finished 8-17, 3-7 from distance, with 19 points and 7 rebounds. His turnovers were high with 4, a team-wide affliction.
Damian Lillard alternated between looking great and looking desperate. When his jumper fell and his teammates backed him up he drew gasps of amazement. During Atlanta runs, though, he'd come down the floor, see no options, and just try to force something himself. That was unsuccessful. He's not that guy. Russell Westbrook is a big, old tuba capable of blat-blat-blatting out enough notes to fill the concert hall himself if the other sections don't come through. Lillard is the concertmaster violinist. He's the principal representative of the orchestra, getting them in tune, connecting them to the conductor, and occasionally soloing himself. Lillard's defense was passable, though he and his big defenders blew coverage on Atlanta screens multiple times. He drew a silly foul early in the first quarter but managed not to foul again until the second half, which is to his credit. Lillard finished with 12 points on 5-18 shooting, 2-7 from the arc. That's probably too many shots for him at this point and certainly too many from distance. He had but 2 assists to 4 turnovers.
Wesley Matthews drove like a teenager with the keys to his daddy's Trans Am tonight. In addition to Batum's high-wire act, Portland's second-half run was bolstered by Matthews' steady diet of free throws. He finished the night 10-10 from the line. He also had 3 steals, though his overall defensive performance ended up just average. He had but 1 turnover against his name, making him a standout among the starters, none of whom committed fewer than 3. Unfortunately he shot but 3-9 from the field, 1-6 from distance. He finished with 17 points.
Ronnie Price got 18 minutes in this game, some in place of Lillard and some alongside. He provided a spark, a rare contribution from him so far this year. His defense was sporadic but not worse than his teammates. It was marred by 4 personal fouls. More importantly he got the team into their offensive sets. He had 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal.
Meyers Leonard was the only big man working hard on screen defense consistently. He wasn't always in the right spot but he was always trying to get there, helping his guards. Applause for that. He also blocked 2 shots tonight, rewards for his willingness to stay in motion. He shot 1-4, grabbed 2 rebounds, and added a steal to his 4 points in 15 minutes.
Joel Freeland played 12 minutes, missed all 5 of his shots, and caused me to write "Freeland getting killed" in my second-quarter game notes. He got to play for 12 minutes though.
Sasha Pavlovic played 6 minutes, didn't attempt a shot, had a rebound, a steal, and a block, but also missed defensive assignments.
Will Barton had a rebound and a turnover in 3 minutes.
Hopefully the Blazers will learn their lessons from the night, take Sacramento seriously enough to play all four quarters of tomorrow night's contest, and notch another win. With all the starters playing heavy minutes tonight you worry about fatigue, but come on...even Portland's bench can do something against the Kings, right?
Boxscore for this game.
Peachtree Hoops will describe this win for you.
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