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Portland Trailblazers vs. Atlanta Hawks Preview

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The Blazers return home, looking to tame a strong Eastern Conference foe who has yet to take wing.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (19-25) vs Atlanta Hawks (25-17)
Wednesday, January 20
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGW, ESPN; 620 AM
Portland Injury Report
None | Atlanta Injury Report: None
SBN Affiliate: Peachtree Hoops | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

After a nice bounce-back win in Washington, the Blazers return home after a 2-1 East Coast swing to face the Hawks for the second and final time this year in a rare national TV appearance. Both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were unavailable for the first meeting in Atlanta, and despite 19 points from Allen Crabbe and nearly 48 full minutes from Tim Frazier, the Hawks rolled to a relatively easy 106-97 victory.

This time, both squads are at full strength and trying to find their groove. Atlanta started out the season looking very much like last year’s 60-victory unit, as they won seven of their first eight. It’s been up-and-down for them since then, as they won half of their next 30 games. They have won their last two games, but one was against a poor Brooklyn team while the other was Exhibit A as to why adding a European Division to the NBA should remain a pipedream, as a flat (and likely jetlagged) Orlando was blown out in a noncompetitive affair upon returning from London.

When the Hawks are on, they are still a sight to behold. Mike Budenholzer’s Spurs-ian motion offense is a seamless symphony of flow and adjustments which sets the standard for spacing and ball movement—well, in the East, anyway. They are second in the NBA in assists and assist ratio (behind Golden State), fourth in eFG percentage, and second in two-point FG percentage—but have struggled to get to No. 19 in 3-point FG percentage (34 percent) after being second in the league last year. A big reason has been Kyle Korver (aka "Threezus") having his worst-ever year shooting from range (36 percent) following two offseason surgeries. Opponents have responded by cheating away from the perimeter more and slogging up passing lanes.

So while Korver is feeling a bit weak, it would be a good time for hecklers to pile on and remind him that he used to rock the Ashton Kutcher cut, and that all involved (the hairdo, Korver, Kutcher, Bruce Willis, and Demi Moore) are now irrelevant.

(Ping me if you can come up with a coherent chant to address this.)

Atlanta plays at a pretty fast pace, so you gotta get those barbs about Bruce Willis being Korver’s granddad going quickly — their pace is actually faster than last year according to the numbers. The Hawks excel in transition, sporting a number of athletic finishers. Those finishers get plenty of opportunities as Atlanta is tied for first in turnovers caused (16.9 per game), second in points off turnovers (20.1 per), and second in points in the paint (45.3 per).

The Hawks defense, much like their offense, is a ‘team’ thing. They’re second in the league in steals per game, and everyone chips in a little: their leading thief is PF Paul Millsap at 1.8 a game. On a unit that is so team-oriented, the 30-year-old Millsap is the closest thing to a star. A matchup nightmare for anyone at 6-8, 245, he is having his finest season as a pro, with career highs in points (18.4), assists (3.5), blocks (1.3) and steals, while being one-tenth of a point off his rebounding high (8.7 currently). He balances his post-work with a face-up game, handles the ball smoothly, and has an impressive array of hooks, floaters, and other finishing moves…with his LEFT hand alone (he’s right-handed).

Millsap is heavily used in pick-and-rolls / pops along with Al Horford (15.4 PPG, 7.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.5 BLK), who is a long, versatile and quick 6-10 small-ball center. PG Jeff Teague’s numbers have taken a bit of a dip across the board so far (41.9 percent FG, 14.8 PPG, 5.5 AST), but he has been knocking in threes at a career-best rate (40.7 percent) and he still has all of his speed and tenacity in driving the lane.

Teague’s understudy Dennis Schroder may recently have made North American pro sports history by dying his uniform number into the back of his head, baseball batting-helmet style.

(This pic doesn’t actually do the 'do justice; it looks pretty fresh on the court).

This concludes the hairstyle analysis portion of the preview. To be fair, Shroder’s play deserves notice as well (10.6 PPG and 4.8 AST in 21.4 MPG), as the 22-year-old German import will be hard to stay in front of tonight, as he was in the last meeting with Portland when he scored a team-high 18 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Forwards Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott are both well equipped to cure a Southern hangover, as they bring energy, grit(s), and hops. They are as comfortable above the rim as they are letting fly from deep (41.9 and 40.5 percent, respectively).

Veterans Thabo Sefolosha and Tiago Splitter are no strangers to Blazers fans, and round out the regulars. Long acclaimed as a great "glue-guy," Sefolosha has been putting together one of his finest ever seasons in the consummate team environment. Meanwhile, Splitter has struggled to find consistency in his first year away from the nurturing Popovichian womb, as he has battled injuries and reduced minutes.

On paper, the Hawks look pretty formidable. Yet they have already dropped a dozen games to teams below them in the standings.

What the Blazers Need to Do to Win

Clean the windows, like you supposed to: A chore that is popular to procrastinate on at home is cleaning the windows. Yes, there is a sense of satisfaction when finishing up (especially if you manage to get it streak free. Pro tip: finish the wipedown with newspaper). In the Blazers’ case, their opponent tonight already makes this job easier than usual, and without harsh chemicals. The Hawks’ starters are an undersized lot, and as a team they are dead last in overall rebounding percentage and O-board percentage. In the two teams’ first meeting, the Blazers held Atlanta to a smudge-sized 5 percent O-rebound percentage. If the Blazers allow double or even triple that tonight, you still have to like their odds for a sparkling finish.

Run: The Blazers have the horses to get out on the break, and a way to circumvent a good defense is to never let them set up in the first place. Portland’s combination of height and distance shooting should make them a handful in transition.

Muck up all that pretty movement: Atlanta will run beautiful loops around you all evening if you let them. Teams that have been successful against the Hawks lately have mixed in healthy doses of aggression: showing hard on picks to throw the ball handler off-kilter, springing surprise traps and doubles at various points in the shot clock and jumping passing lanes. The smaller you shrink the passing windows, the better chance you have of taking them out of their team game.

Find a way to slow down Millsap: The Blazers’ roster doesn’t have an obvious choice to mark Millsap. Noah Vonleh and Cliff Alexander have the best fit as far as physique, but their inexperience is likely to result in some painful tutoring lessons. The task will likely fall heavily on Al-Farouq Aminu and / or Ed Davis. Their defensive limits will be tested as Aminu will get pounded on the blocks, while Davis will be susceptible on the perimeter and off the bounce. Perhaps letting him fire away from outside is the lesser of all evils, as Millsap has struggled behind the arc this year (28.9 percent). Balance and quick hands will be key to disrupting Millsap’s game.

Outlook

With the Hawks searching for their best selves, and this game being their first on a West Coast jaunt, this is a real good chance for the Blazers to score a win against a quality opponent. But just to be safe: for every ‘thumbs up’ that Dame’s new vid gets on Youtube, the Blazers will score a point. Forward to all your friends.

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