Portland Trail Blazers (32-14, No. 3 in the West) vs. Atlanta Hawks (38-8, No. 1 in the East)
Friday, January 30
Philips Arena; Atlanta, GA | 4:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Hawks: Shelvin Mack (day-to-day)
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The Blazers are in Atlanta tonight to take on the Hawks, the hottest team in the NBA and winners of 17 straight games.
By now you've probably heard the narrative: Atlanta doesn't have any one superstar greasing the wheels and putting the team on his back on a nightly basis. Instead, the Hawks rely on disciplined ball movement -- often passing up good shots for better ones -- to space the floor and find open looks.
It's no surprise that Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree -- you can see it in how his team plays unselfish ball on both ends of the court. For the season, the Hawks are ranked No. 5 in the league in Offensive Rating and No. 4 in Defensive Rating, according to NBA.com.
Point guard Jeff Teague is the maestro who initiates Atlanta's offense, and his production this season was recognized yesterday when the Eastern Conference coaches voted him onto the All-Star team as a reserve, along with Hawks bigs Al Horford and Paul Millsap.
Teague is not a devastating outside shooter -- he's shooting 17.6 percent from deep the last five games and 33.1 percent on the season -- but he's adept in the pick-and-roll and able to attack the basket with proficiency. He rarely opts for midrange jumpers, instead finding an open teammate or going all the way to the rim where he's a good finisher
Atlanta spreads the floor with forward DeMarre Carroll and guard Kyle Korver on the wings. Because both are great outside shooters, opposing defenders often choose to sag less off the wings to help in pick-and-roll situations, opening up the middle for Teague, Millsap and Horford to operate easier.
Korver hasn't made 51.8 percent of his overall field goals and 53.4 percent of his threes by hanging out around the three-point line, however. Budenzholzer has him running off screens like Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton used to in their playing days.
The results of Budenholzer's offense are staggering, as HoopsHabit.com contributor Aaron Mah wrote on Wednesday:
69.3 percent of [the Hawks'] field goals made are assisted, 55.8 percent of their field goal attempts are created directly from a pass, and 51.1 percent of their shots are taken comfortably where the closest defender is 4+ feet away, per NBA Stats.
Millsap and Horford are both beasting on the team's current win-streak, particularly the last several games. Millsap's added the three-pointer to his offensive arsenal since joining up with Atlanta as a free agent a couple summers ago, and he's made 52.4 percent of the 4.2 threes a game he's taken over the last five. Defenders certainly can't sag on Millsap, but if they overplay him, he can take it to the rim, where he's made three-quarters of his shots in that span.
Horford attempts about half his shots in the lane and the other half from the midrange. Over the last couple weeks, he's sunk 88.2 percent of his tries at the basket and 57.7 percent of his jumpers. Horford's made very few shots lately in iso situations; Over the last five games, 91.7 percent of his made field goals have been assisted.
The Hawks' bench, true to form, doesn't have any standout players. Rather, Budenholzer has a group of reserves that can be plugged in on both sides of the ball fairly seamlessly. Point guard Dennis Schroder attacks the basket hard and is a good distributor, also limiting his turnovers. Though he's generally not a good three-point shooter, Schroder's made 37.5 percent of his outside shots the last five games. Bigs Mike Scott and Pero Antic can help space the floor with range out to the three-point line, though both have struggled recently with their respective jumpers. Wing Kent Bazemore has been in a mini-shooting slump recently but he's generally a good outside shooter and even Thabo Sefolosha has improved his scoring output lately after a slow start out of the gate this year.
Defending Atlanta and its array of well-utilized weapons does not come easy, as the team's 53.4 percent Effective Field Goal percentage and 57.2 percent True Shooting percentage are both good for No. 3 in the NBA this season, trailing only the Warriors and Clippers in those categories. Teams have to pick their poison against the Hawks and, so far, very few have been able to slow them down after their 5-5 start to the season. Since, Atlanta has rattled off a 33-3 record and has lost just twice since Thanksgiving.
The Hawks allow opponents to shoot a ton of threes against them, but they defend the perimeter incredibly well and those shots don't often get released without a hand in the shooter's face. Atlanta's transition defense is fairly average and they can be scored on in the paint -- two areas the Blazers usually don't take advantage of. The last time these two teams met about three weeks ago -- a 115-107 Hawks win -- Portland only produced nine fast break points and 38 points inside. For the season, the Blazer are ranked No. 24 and No. 29 in the NBA in those categories, respectively.
So how does Portland coach Terry Stotts give his team a realistic chance against the hottest team in the league on their home court?
For starters, the Blazers need to keep feeding power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. In the two games since he decided to put off thumb surgery, Aldridge has shot 48.9 percent from the field and gotten to the line 18 times, making each and every one of his free throws. His 38 points two nights ago in the loss to Cleveland were overshadowed by Cavs guard Kyrie Irving's 55 points, but a 13-for-23 performance from the field and a 10-for-10 clip at the free throw line for Aldridge were almost enough to help secure the win.
Guard Wesley Matthews, who went 3-of-8 from deep against the Cavs, will be relied upon heavily tonight to help space the floor against Atlanta. He's made 36.5 percent of his threes the last five games, slightly under his season average of 39.7 percent from deep. Of the Hawks' main rotation players, Korver has the worst individual Defensive Rating according to Basketball-Reference.com, and Matthews seems to get up for his matchups with him, one of the most prolific three-point shooters in NBA history. Heading into an early-March meeting between the two teams last season, Korver had made at least one three-pointer in 127 straight games.
His streak ended that night in the Moda Center, as Matthews helped hold him to 0-for-5 shooting from outside. That kind of effort will need to be replicated tonight by Matthews and his backcourt teammates.
Forward Nicolas Batum is a game-time decision again, and he'll ostensibly be on the day-to-day list for the duration of the season as he's dealing with a sprained shooting wrist. Essentially, if Batum's experiencing limited soreness and pain in his wrist in the shootaround before the game, he's good to go. If not, he sits. He hasn't shot well all season, and aside from a 27-point outburst against the Suns last week, Batum hasn't scored very effectively lately. He did pick up seven assists against Cleveland, and he's been limiting his turnovers better recently, as well. If he can't go tonight, wing Allen Crabbe is the likely fill-in, who's only played seven minutes the last five games and hasn't attempted a shot. For the year, Crabbe's a 39.3 percent outside shooter.
Starting center Chris Kaman hit three of his five field goals against the Cavs, and has generally been less aggressive with the starting unit recently. If you're waiting for him to return to his early-season form when he was hitting elbow jumpers and spin-moving his way to buckets at the hoop with ease, you'll probably have to sit tight until either center Robin Lopez or big man Joel Freeland returns to the lineup, as Kaman's old-school post moves are much more effective against reserves in more limited spurts.
Portland's backups haven't been particularly productive lately, as the Blazers' bench is putting up a combined 25.4 points per game the last five. Center Meyers Leonard has capitalized on his new-found minutes and put his long-range shooting on display, but he doesn't always get the ball in his spots and he has a tendency to commit bad fouls. Guard Steve Blake's production has gone into the tank recently, along with guard CJ McCollum's, who's been passed in Stotts' rotation (for now) by wing Will Barton, a 36.9 percent shooter from the floor his last five games in limited attempts. Forward Dorell Wright found himself at the end of the rotation Wednesday night after a solid week of shooting the ball off the bench and Thomas Robinson's minutes have tapered off a bit, too.
The Western Conference coaches hit the nuclear launch button for the Blazers yesterday when their voting results for the All-Star reserves were revealed and point guard Damian Lillard was left off the team.
According to an article posted two days ago on ForwardCenter.net by team reporter Casey Holdhal, Lillard said he'd be a bit, uh, "ticked" off if he were left off the All-Star team.
Atlanta Hawks, say hello to an angry, motivated Damian Lillard. His "more wood on the fire" mantra regarding snubs during his basketball career -- he wasn't highly recruited out of high school, slid to No. 6 in the 2012 NBA Draft after an illustrious college career at Weber State and was cut by Team USA this past summer -- has served him well. The chip on his shoulder grows bigger and bigger while he's become one of the league's most dangerous scorers, particularly at the end of games.
Sure, Lillard has been in a shooting slump recently, struggling to hit his shots. But he's always bounced back, oftentimes in big ways, and Blazers fans probably aren't expecting his 30.2 percent shooting from the field and 27.5 percent shooting from deep the last five games to continue much longer.
Neither Portland nor the Hawks have been prolific rebounding teams lately. Millsap and Horford are pretty good individual rebounders, but as a whole, Atlanta is not overpowering on the glass. Similarly, Aldridge and Kaman have done a serviceable job on the boards in the absence of Lopez and Freeland, but the Blazers' shortened frontcourt just doesn't have the depth right now to consistently win rebounding battles against stiff competition. Neither team has rebounded its own misses well lately.
So does Portland have a shot tonight at snapping the Hawks' 17-game win streak in Atlanta?
Aldridge put up 26 points against Washington's tough frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene, then dropped 38 points on Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov and the Cavs a few days later. Millsap and Horford are also a formidable duo up front, but Aldridge's length and ability to score from pretty much anywhere within 20 feet of the hoop -- with the occasional three-pointer sprinkled in -- should again be on full display tonight.
And don't forget about the 6-foot-3, third-year guard from Oakland with averages of 21.8 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals a game this season who was left off the All-Star team yesterday, because we all know by now that hell hath no fury like a Lillard scorned.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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