It's one of the biggest fairy tales in sports. A star player comes back to play amid difficult physical circumstances and finds the mental strength to perform like a champion.
It's one of the biggest story lines in sports. A player is disrespected by someone or something and is on mission to prove everyone wrong.
Tonight, the fairy tale came through but the story line fell flat as the Hawks' balanced attack stretched their winning streak to 18.
The Blazers started the game absolutely scorching, stealing some of Kyrie's heat from last game. The Blazer wings were looking for cuts to the middle more and it was opening up easier shots all over the floor. LaMarcus Aldridge refused to miss to the point you wonder if he'd shoot better with more torn ligaments (knock on wood or whatever anti-jinxing protocol is appropriate for that kind of statement). The L-Train swished a three only to be answered by a Millsap three on the other end. At that point you knew it was going to be a dog fight. Portland was only up two points after shooting 71% during the period and the quarter left Blazer fans like Robin Lopez leaves mascots - smiling with laughter but also mildly terrified.
Dorrell Wright and Mike Scott both started the second, one of the defining match ups of the game, and the first shift of the bench showdown didn't go too poorly for the Blazers. Steve Blake was able to get in the lane and find shooters open on the weakside. Meyers Leonard continued to be in the right place on the floor and the teams kept pace. Lillard checked back in with 7:36 to play and the team still up one. The bench had held serve.
Mr. #morewood had made some ridiculously tough shots in the first quarter and it felt like he was about to catch fire. Too bad the Hawks swarmed and smothered Lillard everywhere he went, ratcheting up the help defense. The same cross court passes Blake had threaded wound up in the arms of Hawk defenders as Dame coughed up four turnovers. The Blazers were playing solid defense, taking the Hawks out of their motion offense and forcing the Hawks into mid-range jumpers, but those turnovers led to run outs and the Hawks found points before the Blazers could get set. Aldridge was still king of the jungle hitting an absurd turn around, fade away three with the shot clock winding down to cap off a brilliant quarter. His ten points kept the Blazers up one despite their 13 costly turnovers.
With that, the question of the game emerged: Would the Hawks active defense continue to create turnovers and easy points, or would the Blazers take care of the ball letting their stellar half court defense shine? In the third, the balance of that equation tipped towards Portland. You can't do much better than giving up only two turnovers and 19 points to the fourth best defense and fifth best offense in the league. The only reason Portland didn't pull away was their continued struggle from behind the arc. Dame and Wesley Matthews combined to shoot 0/7 in the period, and the good guys only took a five point lead into the final frame.
And then the Hawks got hot. Part of this was them just being really good at basketball, but the rest was because the Blazers' decided to go small, matching Dorell Wright against Mike Scott. Emoji Man not only put up eight himself, but the lane opened up for the Hawks, providing them layups and good three-point looks for the first time all night. When Wright checked out with 3:33 left in the game, that five point lead had morphed into a six point deficit.
That left the following set-up: There's three minutes left in a close game. Damian, Wesley, and Batum all get a wide open look from three. Who wins the game?
If I ask you that question in 2014, your answer is probably "At least two of those go down and the Blazers steal another one". If I asked you that question in the past two weeks, you might start whimpering uncontrollably and mumbling about wrist injuries. Each shot clanged violently off the rim and the funk continued. Another brilliant night by LaMarcus Aldridge was wasted as the rest of the Blazers left him out to dry once again.
Notes and Observations
It's always fascinating to consider how playing styles match up with personnel. The Hawks sport the most mobile front court in the league with Al Horford and Paul Millsap able to rotate across the entire court and contain guards along the perimeter. They use those skills to play a pressure defense just a notch below what Miami used to do.
The Blazers are the tallest team in the world. When they're healthy, they play two seven footers at all times and their presence really mucks up the spacing for the other team. They use that size to stay at home knowing they can protect the rim, stick with shooters, and still do a decent job contesting mid-range shots. The Hawks struggled early when Horford wasn't his mobile, active self. The Blazers are struggling now anytime they don't have all their size.
Speaking of size, give Kaman a lot of credit for his post defense tonight. Last time we played the Hawks, Horford destroyed Freeland one on one but the Caveman really brought the clubs. He refused to give up good position and kept his ground on all of Horford's aggressive rip through moves. Horford got free for a bunch of times out of the pick and roll but he didn't hurt us in isolation tonight. That was important piece of the defense maintaining its integrity for most of the night.
It's amazing how important balance is to NBA offenses these days. In the second quarter, Korver completely left Batum to help in the paint. Batum made the open shot and Korver just shrugged at his bench like it was complete surprise. He would do the same thing anytime Batum was on the floor. Seeing that much disrespect for Batum's shot was startling. It's about time the trio of Lillard, Matthews, and Batum find their groove again. Aldridge is on more of an island offensively now than at anytime during the past two years.
Compare that to the play of Kent Bazemore. The dude played 40 minutes, shot 5 of 6, and was the most active man on the floor. On multiple occasions he go the ball on a swing and was able to attack the rim through the gaps in the rotating defense. The Blazers are still creating seams and forcing the defense to rotate like they used to, but they're desperate for people to burst through those seams and score the ball. You've gotta wonder what some of the young legs could do with extended minutes, but it's tough to gamble on someone right now.
37 points, 11 rebounds, and the only positive plus/minus in the starting unit. If any play signified how ridiculous LaMarcus Aldridge is right now its when he caught the ball on semi-transition, faced up, dribbled behind his back with a head fake, and pulled up in Horford's face. That's a Stephen Curry move coming from your 6'11" power forward. Seriously, this guy needs a good nickname. L-Train is terrible, we all know it, and he deserves better. Who's got ideas?
Of all the people to talk about next, I think Meyers Leonard deserves the nod. I legitimately wonder if this game would have been different if he had gotten more fourth quarter minutes. There's no way Mike Scott could post him up and the Blazers really could have used his big body. He was in all the right places when he was out there and did better than I expected containing Jeff Teague. Don't let his pedestrian line (3 points, 8 rebounds) fool you. This was one of Meyers' best games.
Batum, Matthews, and Lillard. I'm just going to rant about these guys all at once. They shot a combined 13 for 42 and that's with all the attention Aldridge was getting. The Hawks doubled Lillard hard, but he's got to be more precise in the lane. Teams that aggressively trap the pick and roll, like the Hawks and Clippers, still bother him and that could be a match up problem in the playoffs. His wings could help him out by burning teams after simple swing passes but these slumps are starting to look contagious. The good news is there's no way they all struggle like this for long and the Blazers were this close to beating the hottest team in the league when they shot a combined 31%. There are no moral victories but if there were, that'd be it
Chris Kaman had 8 and 8 and looked less "in over his head" than the past couple of games. He's getting stripped so easily in the lane you have to wonder if that hand injury is affecting his grip on the ball.
Steve Blake had a really good night as well (8 points, 7 rebounds). The Hawks collapse in the paint and he had a nice, controlled pace that allowed him to pass out of it for clean looks along the perimeter. His defense was also solid against Schroeder and Teague, two of the quicker guys in the league.
Will Barton got ignored all night. The Hawks' game planning was superb and it included "go double the ball anytime you're guarding The Thrill". We've seen this movie watching the Grizzlies struggle in the playoffs, and the Blazers don't want their bench unit to be the sequel.
That makes you wonder what's up with Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum. McCollum's gotten some run and hasn't done much with it, but Crabbe's been out for awhile without much of a reason. Let's hope his knee is feeling better because, as ridiculous as this sounds, the Blazers could really use another shooter.
That leaves Dorell Wright. Not a terrible game individually (5 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 turnovers in 15 minutes) but I just didn't like how the game changed when he was out there. I already talked about it so let's just say his plus/minus tonight was -14 and his counterpart Mike Scott had a +17.
Instant Recap with Post-Game reaction.
See how long Hawks fans think the streak will last over at Peachtree Hoops.
Speaking of streaks, help Blazersede keeps it streak alive by sending over 1,000 underprivileged kids to Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns for Blazersedge night? It's easy to contribute tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. You can find all the details here.