The Atlanta Hawks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 95-87, on Monday night at the Rose Garden, dropping Portland's record to 2-5.
Frustration in all Portland quarters after this one. Coach Terry Stotts rejected back-to-back questions with one-word answers; forward LaMarcus Aldridge was down on himself after a series of unfortunate late-game circumstances; guard Damian Lillard couldn't understand why the Blazers start so slowly; and forward Nicolas Batum couldn't remember finding himself in this position.
"We didn't get beat, we beat ourselves," he said. "We have to move on. Three [losses] at home in a row. Four in a row total. I've never done that before [in Portland]."
Batum is correct. The Blazers have not lost three consecutive games during a single homestand at any point during his tenure, which dates to 2008-09. That it's only Nov. 12 and this fact is being mentioned is a bit foreboding. Focusing on the here and now, though, there was a lot not to like in this one, and it began early. The Blazers missed three jumpers and committed three turnovers in the first 2:38, allowing Atlanta to begin the game on a 9-0 run.
"We put ourselves in a hole," Lillard told Blazersedge. "We're not the Miami Heat. We can't put ourselves in that position. We have to come out with energy, we have to play hard to give us a better chance to win."
Portland battled back in the fourth quarter, pulling ahead after trailing by as many as 15 points, but the mental tenor was set by the start. The Blazers were playing from behind, a place the young team isn't always comfortable being. That lack of comfort revealed itself in Portland's shooting confidence, which ebbed far more than it flowed as the Blazers shot just 36.1 percent from the field on the night. Getting down early simply has a carryover mental impact, and it's more pronounced on a team stacked with younger players that have been through similar situations recently without positive results.
"It's not [about] closing games, it's putting ourselves in position to win down the stretch," Lillard said. "Once we put ourselves in that hole, it was us coming back at the end of the game instead of closing it."
Lillard scored 12 points and shot just 5-for-18, including 2-for-7 from deep. He committed four turnovers against just two assists and he struggled to stay with Hawks guard Jeff Teague off the dribble. Teague, who finished with 13 points and eight assists, wasn't having a great night shooting or finishing either, but his regular presence in the paint caused problems for Portland's team defense, which tends to be at its worst when scrambling. The Blazers all agreed that they didn't have a quick fix solution to their slow-starting woes; Lillard admitted that this is new territory for him because his team at Weber State had no choice but to show up immediately on a night-to-night basis.
"In college, we were a lot less talented than an NBA team," he told Blazersedge. "[Starting well] was an absolute must for us. The level I played at, that's what it was really, really all about. I think we have that here but we've got to start putting it on the floor."
The slow starts, especially at home, especially against teams on the second night of a back-to-back, especially with a front-loaded lineup, are confounding. Stotts, for the sake of his own sanity, chose to focus on the flip side: the fact that the Blazers held the Hawks to just 39 points in the second half and had plenty of chances to win down the stretch, only to see one after another blown in frustrating fashion.
"The positives are that we buckled down defensively, we had a good defensive half," he said. "We held them under 45 percent shooting. Our defense put ourselves in a position to win a game, which we hadn't, up to this point, really done. It was a disappointing loss."
"Disappointing" was the word Aldridge used as well, to no one's surprise. His fourth quarter was equal parts terrifying and mystifying, forced and unfortunate. With Portland leading by one and Aldridge working in the paint, he awkwardly absorbed contact from DeShawn Stevenson behind; the call wound up going against Nicolas Batum for shoving Stevenson into Aldridge's back. Aldridge lay on the ground as the Rose Garden held its breath, but he got up eventually and played on. Long-term disaster averted, although short-term trouble was just around the corner. After initially responding with an and-one that gave Portland and 87-85 lead, Aldridge was hit with a charge on a drive to the hoop. On the ensuing possession, with a chance to tie at the 1 minute mark, he forced a tough turnaround under blanket coverage. On the next possession, now down four with 36 seconds left, he missed two free throws, nailing his team shut inside its own coffin.
"I'm disappointed in myself that I didn't come through and make my free throws and help us win the game," he said afterwards.
Add all of that up and the Hawks finished on an 8-0 run in the final 2:48, making for a dominant bookend performance. 17-0 total in roughly the first three minutes and last three minutes. Batum called this the low point of the season, not surprising considering the context he referenced above.
"We had a good comeback, we had the lead, we should get this one," he said. "Every time we've lost a game, especially the last three, we should win."
They should win, but don't, in part because the continuity under pressure just isn't there. On Saturday, Batum was encouraged to freelance a bit and was then called out for going too far. On Monday, Aldridge tried to assert himself and wound up driving a shoulder into the chest of his defender, literally and metaphorically. Lillard's overall poise has been better than expected, but there are moments, including key moments, where that has wavered. He was 0-for-6 in the fourth quarter and he seemed unusually hesitant to stroke jumpers when given the opportunity.
"I didn't play like I wanted to," he said. "Probably took some shots that I got too deep driving to the rim. I'm going to continue being aggressive, play how I play, be myself. Hopefully we get a win tomorrow."
That's a solid self-diagnosis. Lillard was 2-for-8 in the paint on the evening and didn't shoot a single foul shot. Chalk it up to an adjustment process with bigger, longer, faster and more disciplined defenders perhaps, but the forays need to be more carefully chosen or result more regularly in drawn contact. There was a Baylessian desperation in this one that is, by definition, counterproductive.
Stotts, as he should, stood by his rookie. "Damian made some aggressive drives to the basket that he missed," the coach said. "He had some looks. The ball's not going to go in every night. I'm not going to say it was particularly their defense other than not being able to finish on some of his drives. That happens."
The Hawks were far from flawless, exercising bad shot selection and getting careless in the second half, but they played to their strengths enough to escape. Atlanta scored 26 fast break points in a relatively low-scoring game and center Al Horford was there to deliver late, with six fourth-quarter points.
The biggest -- perhaps only -- bright spot from Portland's perspective was the play of J.J. Hickson, eternally spotty, certainly
boosted his trade stock earned his keep with 19 points, 18 rebounds two steals and a block. The performance came less than 24 hours after he delivered a Feltonian address on Twitter.
"If you don't like how I'm about to start operating, then [expletive] ya," he wrote. "Straight up. I'm on one... I see that being the nice JJ gets me no where..."
Hickson made it clear during the preseason that he was coming to accept his role, which he said didn't include getting plays called for him. That he pointed out that no plays were being called for him was mildly interesting at the time, and his comments on Twitter made some wonder if his comments were directed towards (invisible) haters or whether, in a worst case scenario, he was making subliminal statements towards his coaching staff and/or teammates.
"It wasn't to nobody specifically," Hickson told Blazersedge. "It was just me venting out loud. That's what Twitter can be used for, venting. Letting people know the type of mindset I have. It wasn't towards a specific person or problem. It was just how I was feeling at the time. I came out and I backed my words up."
Backing his words up, in his eyes, meant being more active and talkative. "I was playing too laid back in recent games," he said. "I wasn't really vocal. I wanted to take the extra step to play harder and be more vocal on this team. I think it showed tonight we just have to get Ws."
Stotts credited Hickson's energy as the key to Portland's night, something Hickson said was probably a first this season. "We wouldn't have been in the game without him," Stotts said. "With a line like that, 19 and 18, his energy, particularly in the second half, he coupled his rebounding and scoring with some defensive plays. We need all of that from him."
Hickson said his line "means nothing" in a loss and he's correct. He gives up an inordinate number of points defensively, in part because he would be better served playing alongside a full-sized five at all times, so there's always a level of discounting to be taken off of his box score stats. In this one, Hickson's standout play was actually his block, a high-flier helper, the type of play Stotts would like to see on a consistent basis from his big men.
Asked whether his block was indicative of progress, or if it perhaps it was something Stotts might stress for him to build off of, Hickson offered a nice thought about the importance of play-to-play defensive accountability from all five players on the court.
"We have to do a better job controlling penetration," he said. "From the one position all the way down to the five position. I think my presence in the paint could be felt [tonight]. Me and L.A. down there, Meyers [Leonard], Joel [Freeland]. Guys like that who can come over [and contest]. It's not even about blocking the shot, it's about changing the shot or making the guard make the extra pass. We all have to be on one string out there."
It was enough to make a reporter want to yell, "Tweet stuff like that."
Random Game Notes
- As noted earlier, the Blazers officially called an end to the Rose Garden's sellout streak on Monday. They did so on Day One of Chris McGowan's tenure as president and CEO. I read this as a preemptive move against the talk about the streak's end that has been going on since March and also as an accountability message to both team employees and the public. There's definitely an element of, "Get this over with early and move on with the next steps."
- Here's what the Rose Garden looked like at tip off. There were plenty of empty seats but it wasn't anything drastically different from 10+ other games over the last year. There were large sections in the 300 level totally empty.
- The official announced attendance was 19,095.
- The 195-game sellout streak began during the middle of Portland's unforgettable 13-game winning streak in 2007-08. Random fact that no one probably cares about: the first game we covered here in person at Blazersedge (December 17 against the New Orleans Hornets) was two games before the sellout streak's start (December 21 against the Denver Nuggets).
- Dwight Jaynes is on vacation this week and CSNNW asked if I would help fill in for him. I agreed and immediately decided that I would go all-in on the assignment, attempting to write in his voice and style during the substitution. On Monday, I blamed superstars for getting a coach fired. On Tuesday, I will mock McGowan a little bit for his uninspiring press conference last month. I'm happy to say that this journey to an alternate universe -- Dwight's brain -- has been an invigorating writing test. On Wednesday, assuming that I haven't been barred from the site yet, I will state David Kahn's case to become President of the United States in 2016. On Thursday, I will deify Rick Adelman by buying a goldfish and naming it Rick Adelfish and uploading video of it swimming laps to YouTube.
- Aldridge: 4-for-13 for 14 points. The shot distribution (analysis from earlier Monday here) is definitely on the list of major items to watch. He hasn't hit more than 50 percent of his shots yet in a game. Last season, he was above 50 percent shooting in 35 of the 55 games he played. The previous season, he shot over 50 percent in 40 out of 81 games. Together, he shot 50 percent or better in 55.1 percent of games over the last two seasons. This year, he's 0-for-7 in hitting the 50 percent mark. It's not panic time yet but a quick swing back to the drawing board just might be in order if Aldridge doesn't get going against the Sacramento Kings, who will be without DeMarcus Cousins.
- Lillard preached optimism and improvement after this one: "We are getting better. A lot of people probably don't see it. Every game we get a little closer. Once we get to a point where we don't put ourselves in a hole to start with, then that's when we'll start winning games... I think we're getting better defensively. Tonight we didn't let them shoot 50 percent, I don't think they shot 45 percent. A lot of times we wait until we start making some shots to let that give us some energy. I feel like we're getting better at that. Really communicate more, put together some stops."
- The Blazers honored military members on Veteran's Day, including Meyers Leonard's brother, Bailey, a member of the Marines made famous in a surprise video that went viral during the preseason. Leonard addressed veterans on a jumbotron message: "I just want to take the time to thank all the people who served our country." Luke Babbitt and Wesley Matthews also expressed their gratitude.
- I know nicknaming Damian Lillard is a hot topic. Not sure what's wrong with Lillian Willard but I digress. The jumbotron showed one sign with an option that I've seen floated before: "Lillard the Lizard."
- How about that great bounce back performance from the bench, which nearly doubled its four points against the Spurs by scoring six against the Hawks.
- Leonard remains oh-for-the-season from outside the paint and he double-clutched on open looks multiples times. Stotts gave him some encouragement below.
- There was a "LaMarcus Aldridge Rule" video review of a late goaltending call during the fourth quarter, after J.J. Hickson swatted a shot on its way down. The review confirmed the call on the court.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Press Conference
It was a little similar to last game. We get ourselves in a hole, compete, play our butts off and come up short. The negatives that we didn't come out of the game very well. Took all game to get there. The positives are that we buckled down defensively, we had a good defensive half. We held them under 45 percent shooting. Our defense put ourselves in a position to win a game, which we hadn't, up to this point, really done. It was a disappointing loss. We have to learn from it and get better.
Know why such a slow start?
Go to LaMarcus Aldridge down the stretch by design?
I thought he got fouls, thought he was aggressive, missed a couple of shots. After we took the lead up by two, I don't know if we scored after that. He was aggressive, we got good post position. He made some shots, got some fouls, missed some shots.
Liked his shots?
Yes.Getting LaMarcus the ball is a priority. He's in a position to make hte plays the defense gives him. He got into the paint sometimes, he shot his turnaround sometimes. You try to take whatever the defense is giving him.
Like about defense?
I thought we protected the rim a lot better. I thought Meyers, J.J. and LaMarcus were a lot better at being a deterrent at the basket. I thought we helped each other a little more. We played with more urgency, which teams tend to do when they are done. Those were positives. I thought Ronnie Price did an excellent job when he was in there defensively, disrupting things. There were two or three possessions where we disrupted, the balls bounce around, we didn't come up with it, we were still pretty active. We got some blocks. There were a lot of positive defensive plays.
They were huge. We had 18 going into the fourth quarter. I thought if we only had two or three turnovers in the fourth quarter we would win the game. What was disappointing in the first half, our turnovers led to their transition. Some of the turnovers were careless. Lazy passes, not meeting the ball, they fed off of that. Their runs, our turnovers had a lot to do with their runs.
Young team heading for rut?
I don't know if we're in a familiar rut because we are competing. The one thing, every game we're in a position to win in the fourth quarter. One thing I've learned about this team so far is that they compete and they have a will to win. I don't think that goes away. I don't think that will be a rut. They played with a lot of pride. Sometimes you'd like to win them. You'd like to win them all but I don't anticipate them [going into a rut]. They have a lot of character.
Running plays for Meyers Leonard?
Thoughts on Meyers Leonard's offense
I thought he turned down a couple shots that he can make. He hasn't shown it yet. He hasn't shown it yet in games but he's a mid-range shooter. I'd like for him to look to shoot those without hesitation. I think he can screen a little bit better and create more of a problem in pick-and-rolls. He plays with activity and is unselfish. When he was in, we felt his presence on the court.
We wouldn't have been in the game without him. With a line like that, 19 and 18, his energy, particularly in the second half, he coupled his rebounding and scoring with some defensive plays. We need all of that from him. Rebounding is a talent, he's got it. He's got timing, the will to go after the ball, he keeps doing it every night.
Shooting 36 percent offsets the better defensive effort?
It would seem so.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard off nights
Damian made some aggressive drives to the basket that he missed. He had some looks. The ball's not going to go in every night. I'm not going to say it was particularly their defense other than not being able to finish on some of his drives. That happens. I don't necessarily think it was their defense, it was just one of those nights.
Turnovers forced by Hawks?
That's one of their defensive strengths, creating turnovers. We fed into that. That was obviously a problem.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter