Portland Trail Blazers (11-18) vs Atlanta Hawks (17-12)
Monday, December 21
Phillips Arena | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Chris Kaman (out - ankle) | Atlanta injury report: Jeff Teague (Probable - ankle)
SBN Affiliate: Peachtree Hoops | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
Tonight, the Blazers take on the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth game of a five game road trip. After a earning a 60-22 record and a No. 1 seed in the East last season, Atlanta has taken a slight step back this year with a 17-12 record, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks played at a top 10 pace, with a top 10 offense and defense last season. This year, they are middle of the pack in all three, ranking No. 14 in pace and defense, with the No. 12 most efficient offense in the NBA.
Atlanta is still led by its two big men, Al Horford and Paul Millsap. After expanding his range to the 3-point line with the Hawks, and earning a couple of All-Star appearances for his effort, Millsap has stepped up again this year, pushing his scoring average to 18.2 points per game, to go along with 8.9 rebounds. While his 3-point shooting has plunged to 30 percent, Millsap has moved back to taking more shots from the midrange, where he excels, hitting at a 55 percent clip from 10-15 feet out.
After seeing his minutes decrease to 30 per game last year, Horford has played similar minutes this season. Long known as a low post finisher with excellent offensive rebounding skills, Horford has stretched his offensive game this season, picking up the slack that Millsap's 3-point struggles have left. After never averaging more than .5 3-point attempts per game in a season, Horford is jacking up three 3-pointers per game, hitting at a 34 percent rate. Predictably, his field goal percentage has fallen from the mid-50 percent range to 49 percent this season, but he is still contributing 15 points and 7.2 rebounds per game; nearly identical to last year's numbers.
After having a career year last season, point guard Jeff Teague has come back to Earth slightly. Still lightning-quick, and featuring an improved 3-point shot, Teague has struggled finishing around the basket this season, and is shooting 41 percent on the year. Teague can still beat most point guards off the dribble and tends not to make careless mistakes with the ball in his hands.
After not shooting lower than 44 percent from distance since the 2010-11 season, Kyle Korver is struggling from outside. Of course, his version of struggling means he is hitting from beyond the arc at 39 percent, but this is guy who shot 49 percent on six threes per game last year. Korver seldom tries to do anything he isn't capable of, and if he gets hot, he can bury opponents in a hurry.
Replacing DeMarre Carroll in the starting lineup is wing Kent Bazemore. Bazemore is a typical 3-and-D wing, putting up 40 percent shooting from distance. He is capable of getting to the rim, and is a fine finisher, but he tends to spot up and look for his shot.
Atlanta's bench remains largely the same as last year. They did add former Spurs center Tiago Splitter in the offseason, helping plug a hole in the reserve big man spot. Splitter does not play nearly the minutes he did in San Antonio, but does an adequate job in his 15 minutes per game, scoring and rebounding lightly, but shooting over 50 percent and playing solid, if unspectacular defense.
Thabo Sefolosha and Dennis Schroeder are the Hawks' other main reserves. Schroeder averages double figures, but shoots barely 40 percent from the field. Sefolosha is shooting 52 percent from the floor while working his way back from his offseason leg injury.
The Blazers have struggled on their current road trip, coming up winless against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and Miami Heat. Portland's prized backcourt got banged up in yesterday's loss to the Heat, with CJ McCollum tweaking an ankle and Damian Lillard aggravating plantar fasciitis in his foot. Both players will play against Atlanta, but look for the Hawks to take the ball to the rim against Portland's guards.
Atlanta will also look to exploit their big man advantage. Mason Plumlee will have his hands full with Horford on both ends of the court, especially if he draws Plumlee out of the paint, where Mason struggles to defend. Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard will have to contend with Paul Millsap, a crafty veteran who is able to score inside and out and take advantage of what the defense gives him.
Look for Portland to try to get their wings going early. Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, along with McCollum, have a speed advantage over their primary defender. While Aminu has struggled with his shot of late, he may be able to take advantage of the slow-footed Korver, who is otherwise a fine fundamental defender.
Should Aminu or McCollum struggle, expect Allen Crabbe to get a good chunk of minutes tonight. Crabbe continues to do a great job picking his spots, playing within himself, and taking what the defense gives him.
If Portland wants to win this game, they are going to need to do it with perimeter defense. The Hawks have multiple weapons that can hit from outside, and utilize all of them. Defensive communication will be key, as Portland has struggled on the pick-and-roll with a jump shooting big man (see Chris Bosh yesterday), not quite fighting through, and not quite switching.
Both teams are on the second night of a back-to-back, so fatigue may be a factor for either side, though it is more likely for Portland at this juncture of an East Coast road trip on which the Blazers are desperate to get a win.
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