Update (Thursday): LaMarcus Aldridge will return to the court against the Hawks after missing time with a back injury. Details here.
The Blazers -- possibly with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge back in the lineup -- hope to snap a three-game losing skid tonight when they face the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.
The Hawks have lost four straight games, including a 24-point drubbing at the hands of the Timberwolves last night in which they committed a disastrous 25 turnovers to go with 37.8 percent field-goal shooting, 25 percent three-point shooting and 28 total points in the paint. Over the last five games, Atlanta has been in the bottom third of the NBA in points scored, overall shooting percentage and outside shooting percentage per game.
Clinging to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks are two games up on the Knicks for the final playoff spot and three games behind the No. 7 Bobcats.
For the most part, Atlanta's team defense has been average to below average in most areas the last several games. The Hawks don't force a lot of turnovers and allow 45.6 percent shooting from the field and 36.4 percent shooting from deep -- both pedestrian numbers. They're decent at preventing easy ball movement and fast breaks. Atlanta has mostly struggled the second half of the season, going below .500 in a February 12 loss to the Raptors amid a 1-14 stretch. The team's been unable to gain much momentum since, save for a mid-March five-game winning streak that was immediately followed by the current four-game slide.
Hawks forward Paul Millsap has led his squad with almost 15 shots a game in his last five, though he's averaged 17.4 points in that span while shooting 43.2 percent from the floor. He also has taken three outside shots a night, converting only a third of them. Millsap also peppers in some mid-range shots, though it's not a reliable shot for him. His best scoring comes in the paint, where he takes most of his shots and finishes strong.
Point guard Jeff Teague has been trying to bail Atlanta out lately, increasing his numbers from the field, beyond the arc and at the free-throw line his last five outings, good for percentages of 45.2, 42.9 and 91.2, respectively. Teague has also drawn a lot of fouls -- taking almost seven free-throws a night -- but his assist totals are slightly down the last handful of games. Teague does almost all of his scoring off the dribble, including half his threes. He's capable of taking it all the way to the hoop, but is about an average finisher. Teague relies on his jumper less often, as it's also pretty average.
Forward DeMarre Carroll essentially shoots from outside or takes it inside. Normally a good three-point shooter, he's gone pretty cold the last several games, making about a quarter of his long-range tries. Carroll is a much more efficient scorer inside, converting on about two-thirds of his close shots.
The scoring for the rest of Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer's rotation is pretty inconsistent past Carroll. Big man Mike Scott plays about 20 minutes a night, averaging 9.6 points a game his last five on 45.5 percent shooting. He led the Hawks in scoring last night in the loss to Minnesota, putting in 15 points on 6-11 shooting. About half of Scotts' shots come around the perimeter, the other half under the basket.
Guard Shelvin Mack is good for about 9 points a night, taking most of his shots from deep where he's made about a third of them the last couple weeks. Center Pero Antic usually shoots about six shots a game, almost five of them coming from long-range. He went 1-4 from outside against the 'Wolves last night and is about an 18 percent three-point shooter since mid-March. Wings Louis Williams and Cartier Martin are inconsistent at best, both about 40 percent field-goal shooters. Guard Dennis Schroder, forward Elton Brand and center Mike Muscala round out Budenholzer's 11-man rotation. Brand has been the only reliable option at the end of the bench the last handful of games, making almost 60 percent of the four shots a game he takes.
Portland's offense has been ugly the last five contests, scoring 101.2 points per game (5.7 points below season average), shooting 41.9 percent from the field (2.8 percentage points below season average) and 31.9 percent on three-pointers (5.2 percentage points below season average). Assists and field-goal attempts are down, while three-point attempts per game have soared to 33.2 the last five outings.
In that span, point guard Damian Lillard has made just a third of his 18 shot attempts a night and 21.6 percent of the 7.4 threes he's taken. He's been getting to the line often and hitting about 89 percent of his free-throws, dishing out over five assists and keeping his turnovers low, so things aren't all bad for Lillard. Still, his outside shot if way off right now and he can't hit much else, relying largely on free-throws for his offense.
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews has led the Blazers in scoring the last five games, making 46.5 percent of his shots, 42.5 percent of his threes and averaging 20.4 points. Forward Nicolas Batum has been similarly consistent, although far more passive, scoring about half what Matthews has recently. Sixth-man Mo Williams is right near his season averages the last couple weeks, but he was 1-6 from the floor and 1-4 from deep in Tuesday night's loss to the Magic, tough numbers to overcome for Portland coach Terry Stotts' No. 1 scoring option off the bench.
Forward Dorell Wright has gone back into slump mode the last several games after a solid run of nights where he excelled in the stretch-four position. He's regressed to 34.7 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent shooting from outside the last couple weeks, a particularly difficult conversion rate to swallow as Wright takes about six three-pointers a night, many of them good, open looks.
Center Robin Lopez has been an occasional bright spot in Stotts' offense with Aldridge ailing, connecting on over 63 percent of his shots and 90 percent of his free-throws the last five games, capped off by a 9-13 , 20-point performance against the Magic.
The Blazers' reserves have not been particularly good lately. Since last Tuesday's overtime win against the Bucks, forward Victor Claver and guard C.J. McCollum have each shot 33.3 percent from the floor and center Meyers Leonard has shot 20 percent. Wing Will Barton has chipped in a reasonable 43.8 percent shooting on his field-goals and forward Thomas Robinson a respectable 46.4 percent, though neither is consistent from game to game.
If Aldridge does make his return tonight, Wright can slip back into a scoring role off the bench and the minutes given to the end of the rotation will likely taper off quite a bit. Also receiving a shot of energy -- given Aldridge is at or near 100 percent if he plays -- will be Portland's defense. Lopez hasn't lacked effort but has shown some limitations without his All-Star frontcourt mate in the lineup, mostly related to a relative lack of mobility. Aldridge can be relied upon in one-on-one defensive situations, provides more reliable help defense than any other healthy big outside of Lopez and helps allow the 7-footer to hang back and protect the rim without having to chase opposing players throughout the painted area constantly. If Aldridge can't give it a go tonight, expect more struggles from Portland defensively as the team tries to slow down Millsap -- an All-Star power forward -- and Teague, a quick, penetrating point guard who's played well lately.
Atlanta does not have a go-to rebounder on the offensive end. On the other side, Antic, Muscala and Millsap are decent but the Hawks don't rebound well as a team, losing fairly convincingly on the glass all season. The Blazers should have a solid advantage on the boards tonight with or without Aldridge, behind the strong recent efforts of Batum, Lopez and Robinson. Even with some good individual rebounders, though, keep in mind Portland has been out-rebounded handily the last five games by an average 48.8 to 44.
That leaves us here now, with a late March matchup featuring two teams that started the season in the top half of their respective conferences, only to be hit with injuries to key players. Now heading into the home stretch, the Hawks and Blazers are both trying to stop the bleeding, secure playoff positioning and gain some traction heading into the postseason. True, these teams are where many predicted they'd be before the season started, but Portland's early offensive success and Atlanta's decent talent-base in a terrible conference adjusted the expectations of many fans and pundits.
A loss tonight would be tough for Portland, as this is a winnable game against a reeling team. It's also a chance to pick up the first win of this five-game road trip before it wraps up tomorrow night in a back-to-back game with the Bulls.
All things considered, though, there is some good news, at least for one of these struggling squads: There has to be a winner tonight, and that team -- whether it's the Hawks or Blazers -- will snap a losing streak and gain a notch in the "W" column, creating a little more breathing room between them and the teams closely behind in the standings.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter