The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Atlanta Hawks tonight without leading scorer Damian Lillard and his trustworthy sidekick CJ McCollum. Lillard is struggling with plantar fasciitis, McCollum recovering from an ankle turn against the Miami Heat on Sunday morning. Down a pair of 20-point scorers, the Blazers had little chance in this contest, the outcome a foregone conclusion before the ball was tipped. As expected, the Hawks stifled Portland for three quarters, taking a 77-58 lead into the fourth. The Blazers scored 39 in the final period to make the score look respectable, 106-97, but the game was over long before the final buzzer sounded.
The Blazers took the traditional underdog's approach against the Hawks, running their offense late into the clock in order to limit the number of possessions and break the favored team's momentum. The strategy was bolstered by Portland's rebounding prowess. The Blazers gathered in 14 offensive rebounds, creating 40-second stretches where the Hawks never touched the ball. That, combined with reasonable scoring efficiency, might have kept the game close, giving Portland a chance to win it at the end.
Unfortunately the Blazers couldn't put together that efficiency. Their 47% rate from the field looked respectable, but it masked a tortured offense. Without McCollum and Lillard (and with Meyers Leonard gun-shy about releasing three-pointers nowadays), the Blazers fielded zero credible shooting threats. They ended up shooting 5-24 (21%) from beyond the arc. The Hawks defended them easily by following the ball into the lane and surrounding anyone who tried to get up a shot close to the basket. The Blazers scored 50 points in the paint (largely because they couldn't score anywhere else) but most of those points came hard.
Atlanta didn't look pretty on the offensive end. Their focus ebbed and flowed. But they didn't need a sustained effort to best the 19 points per quarter the Blazers put up in the first 3/4 of the game. A few hot streaks put them ahead by double digits and there they remained, hitting the gas whenever the Blazers appeared in the rear-view mirror.
So....enough about the game itself. Let's talk the side stories to this unique outing.
Did the Blazers Find Hidden Scorers?
During pre-game interviews, reporters found Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts sitting behind a desk, stroking a long-haired white cat. When asked about the approach to this game, the opportunities ahead for less-heralded players to fill the void left by McCollum and Lillard, Stotts responded by turning his hand sideways, sticking a crooked pinkie finger in his mouth, and saying, "The new replacement backcourt will attempt one...billion...shots."
The slow-down offense prevented Portland's guards from getting that many up, but Allen Crabbe, Tim Frazier, and Gerald Henderson combined for 44 of Portland's 81 shots tonight. Crabbe fared the best, shooting 8-18 for 19 points, but went 1-5 from the arc and didn't look comfortable creating his own shot. Frazier shot 5-15, 0-4 from distance, Henderson 3-11 and 1-6. That's 36% shooting for the backcourt combined, 13% on three-pointers. Judging from a single game is a fool's errand, but if the door was wide open for a scorer to emerge, Portland's candidates tripped over the threshold tonight.
The frontcourt fared slightly better, saved by Moe Harkless shooting 6-10 for 14 points. Harkless is the only Portland rotation player who can legitimately claim he's been underutilized and he looked like a kid let out of detention tonight, playing free and easy, enjoying his time. Perhaps he'll get more attention because of it.
Mason Plumlee was an island in a sea of defenders, a victim of his limited offensive range. He managed a couple nice looks and 6 assists, plus he accounted for 3 offensive rebounds. Ditto Ed Davis, who notched 4. But neither is a savior. They demonstrated everything they're capable of, which was the same thing we saw yesterday and the same thing we'll see tomorrow.
Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu were the best non-guard candidates to move up the ladder but both played poorly, bordering on abysmal. Aminu's usually-solid defense turned to mush. Leonard was near oatmeal level as well. Worse, neither could convert their open opportunities. Leonard is in his own head nowadays, making clear shots look like calculus. Aminu looked better, but hardly trustworthy, missing 5 of 6 shots outside of a 12-inch radius from the rim.
In short, if the Blazers had a secret weapon eagerly awaiting deployment, he remains secret as of this juncture.
Could the Blazers Define a Playing Style?
The Blazers accentuated their inside power tonight. Their greatest asset was pure, undistilled offensive rebounding. The strength of the supporting cast on the boards cut like a laser through the fog of futility.
Inside scoring also showed through more clearly than it does in the shadow of the Lillard-McCollum Show. Then again, Portland's 50 points in the paint yielded 5 fewer points than the usual attack. Had the Hawks paid more attention in the fourth, it might have been 15 fewer.
Could the Blazers Defend?
In a world where the starting backcourt gets blamed for 75% of Portland's defensive woes, this was a billion dollar question. Making allowances for the unfamiliarity between Allen Crabbe, Tim Frazier, and the starting frontcourt, did the Blazers look better defensively?
Atlanta shot 48% from the field, hovering around the 50% mark the whole game. Their 9-29 clip from distancewasn't great but they attempted 8 more free throws than their average. Portland forced only 10 turnovers and didn't impede dribbles or passes much. All in all, it looked like standard-issue 2016 Trail Blazers defense. If defense is going to remain equal, 45 points from the starting backcourt is a lot better than 30. The Blazers have won 11 games with the former. They'd be in Philly territory with the latter.
Again, drawing hard and fast conclusions from a single game is foolish, but the Blazers looked under-talented and overmatched tonight...second- and third-bananas trying to make up for the lack of ice cream in the split.
Much is made of the growth potential of Portland's roster as a whole. Right now that potential depends on the exact two players who were absent: Lillard and McCollum. Nobody else is ready to step up to their level yet. Either the supporting cast is unable to make their regular contributions without the stars leading the way (Crabbe, perhaps Aminu) or their contributions don't matter enough without huge scorers around them (Plumlee, Davis). If tonight's outing is any indication--and it may or may not be--this team still has a long way to go and probably several roster adjustments ahead before success peeks over the horizon.
Peachtree Hoops covers the Hawks.
The Blazers will try to get their first win in the last game of this five-game, pre-Christmas swing when they face the New Orleans Pelicans at 5:00 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday night.
As we related earlier today, hundreds of tickets at a time are being requested for Blazer's Edge Night, the event where we send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. Those kids will get to go as long as we donate enough tickets to them. It's easy! You can donate through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.