All season long we've been asking how much an opposing team would need to put the Portland Trail Blazers down by in order to pin a loss on them at home. Time after time the Blazers have managed Harry Houdini escapes from big-time deficits, chained up and all but drowning on the scoreboard only to come back at the last second for the victory. Tonight the Atlanta Hawks defense slapped on a lock the Blazers couldn't pick their way out of. The answer to our "how much" question turned out to be 20 points in the late third period as the Blazers succumbed to Atlanta 115-107.
The one glance at that final score will tell you that defense was an issue for the Blazers in this game. The Hawks average 102 a night. They've exceeded their 115-point total only once in regulation this year. They had their way with Portland, pure and simple.
How bad was it? You can stare all day at their 41-point-per game-scoring average in the paint but you better have a Vulcan's second eyelid if you want to look at their production tonight. The Hawks posted 64 in the key plus another 23 from the foul line. That's 87 points on short shots and freebies in a game where Portland scored 107 total.
If you're guessing big-man dominance led to the Hawks' success, you're partially right. Paul Millsap shot 11-17 for 27 points, Al Horford 6-12 for 13. But Atlanta's wings scored just as prolifically. Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, and Thabo Sefolosha hit a single three-pointer between them, yet combined for 46 points. They made hash of Portland's defense, scoring on drives and free throws.
The root cause of Portland's inability to contain penetration was over-reliance on switches. Their approach made sense on paper. Atlanta excels beyond the arc, not so much in the key. Until the lid came off this game and the Blazers were forced to sag in on penetration, they did a good job covering Hawks shooters. Credit switching for that. But switches also left Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright on Millsap, Joel Freeland on Teague, Steve Blake on...anybody. The Hawks played smart, taking what the defense gave them.
And the Blazers gave like Coach Mike Budenholzer was standing courtside with a bell and a red bucket.
Atlanta's defense was not so charitable. They harried the Blazers at every turn, at times looking like they knew where Portland would try to score before the Blazers themselves did. Portland committed 7 turnovers in the first quarter, 18 for the game. Open looks came intermittently, usually as part of huge runs. Otherwise the Blazers depended on hitting threes and praying. Plenty of those prayers got answered. The Blazers made a dizzying array of improbable triples in the first half to stay afloat. But you didn't have to see too many banked 23-footers and step-backs over fingertips to know that it was sweet sauce covering rancid meat. Even with Portland firing at an impressive 39% pace there weren't enough threes on the planet to keep up with the Hawks' layup parade.
To their credit and the delight of the Moda Center crowd, the Blazers did manage their standard fiery comeback after getting down by 20 with 3:00 to go in the third. Damian Lillard scored 8 as the quarter closed, including this buzzer-beater:
That stunner left the score 83-75 entering the fourth.
Having watched 20 points turned to single digits in a flash, all of Blazer Nation was prepared for an another amazing finish. But no matter how many three-pointers they hit, offensive rebounds they converted, or turnovers they forced, the Blazers still couldn't keep the Hawks out of the lane or off the line. LaMarcus Aldridge put Portland within 5, 106-101, on a rebound stick-back with 1:57 remaining. The next three Hawks possessions read: Teague layup, Carroll free throws, Teague 7-foot floater. The forward progress the Blazers generated was negated quickly.
As a result of their patented come-from-behind tidal wave Portland scored 32 in the final period...plenty enough for a comeback except the Hawks also scored 32. They did it slower, with less fanfare, but all those points still counted.
That was the story of the evening. Atlanta defended big, attacked Portland's small lineup with gusto, absorbed everything the Blazers could dish out, and still came out ahead. The moral of the story: you've gotta defend. If you don't, you can't expect to win all your contested games against good opponents.
Just 90% of them or so (so far, anyway).
Fun With Numbers
--Worth saying again: Atlanta wins the paint battle 64-38 (and at one point the margin hovered around 52-18).
--Atlanta 31-12 on free throw attempts, 23-10 on free throws made.
--Portland 18 turnovers for 23 Hawks points
--Atlanta 51% shooting, Portland 45%...though the Blazers did put up 93 shots to 84 for the Hawks. Portland likes that kind of margin regardless of relative percentages.
--The Blazers continued their assault on the arc, attempting 33 three-pointers, hitting 13.
Joel Freeland was injured in the fourth quarter trying to block a Paul Millsap dunk. [Watch here.] According to Trail Blazers PR an MRI revealed a strained shoulder and his condition will be re-evaluated in 2 weeks.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 30 points on 14-25 shooting but the Hawks made him work on every possession from the catch through the shot and beyond. When they didn't double-team him Al Horford bodied him out and gave him a hard time. 12 rebounds and 2 blocks spoke well of LaMarcus' night. He just didn't get enough help.
Damian Lillard alternated between looking like the brilliant All-Star during Portland's big runs and looking like he was playing defense in the actual All-Star Game during the down moments. He scored 16 with 8 rebounds and 7 assists but he never got a handle on Teague and couldn't be disguised against anyone else.
Wesley Matthews started the game stroking deep but cooled off severely and ended up shooting 4-11 from range and 5-15 overall en route to 19 points. Both he and Nicolas Batum (16 points, 2 steals, 3 turnovers) alternated between inspired, opportunistic defense and completely losing track of who they were guarding...if not physically at least intellectually. Even when switching wasn't an issue, both got caught on the wrong side of screens or with their heads turned the wrong way.
Chris Kaman played 15 minutes with 7 rebounds but once again failed to plug the hole in the middle of the defense. The Hawks swarmed him when he caught the ball inside and he could barely get a shot up. He attempted 4 shots overall compared to 3 turnovers.
If Kaman's game was underwhelming, Steve Blake's was brutal. The Hawks didn't respect him on either end of the court and he couldn't make them pay. Point guards went right at him. Defenders forced him into awkward dribbling and unproductive passing. It was a tough night for a usually-solid guy.
Dorell Wright canned 3-4 three-pointers for 10 points, leading the bench scoring by a mile. But he got smashed trying to guard power forwards, couldn't stay in front of perimeter players, and committed 4 fouls in 10 minutes of play.
Coach Terry Stotts emergency-plugged the already-huge Freeland hole with Thomas Robinson when Joel went down. T-Rob responded with 5 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and a bowl of mush otherwise in 10 minutes of play.
CJ McCollum hit a couple shots in 8 minutes, Allen Crabbe did not.
The Blazers will be angry just in time for the Los Angeles Lakers to come to town on Monday night. That is a good thing. The Blazers will be the power blender, Kobe Bryant and company the fresh liver. Bring crackers for the pâté.
Our Instant Recap covers game flow, reaction to the Freeland injury, and more.
If you thought the Toronto guys had reason to be proud the other night, check out Peachtree Hoops tonight. Their boys played one heck of a game.
Stay tuned for a sure-to-be-interesting In-Arena Report with a brand new correspondent later tonight!
You can phone in your questions to our upcoming podcast with Phil Naessens at 234-738-3394.