Atlanta Hawks (31-23) at Portland Trail Blazers (23-31)
Feb. 13, 2017, 7:30 PST
Watch: TNT; Listen: Rip City Radio 620 AM
Blazers injuries: Evan Turner (out), Festus Ezeli (out), Jusuf Nurkic (questionable)
Hawks injuries: Tiago Splitter (out), Thabo Sefolosha (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Peachtree Hoops
Four days after losing a big first-half lead to the Boston Celtics in a nationally televised game, the Portland Trail Blazers once again appear on TNT to take on the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks, after winning 11 of 13 games, have fallen slightly back to earth, going 5-5 in their last 10 games.
Atlanta is led by their front court duo of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. Millsap, headed to the NBA All Star game for the fourth consecutive year, continues to quietly be one of the best forwards in the game - putting up a career-high 18 points along with eight rebounds a night. Millsap can stretch the floor, though he isn’t a “stretch-four” by any leap of the imagination, with the ability to beat you inside or out.
Howard, after burning bridges in Orlando, Los Angeles, and Houston, has seen somewhat of a resurgence in his hometown of Atlanta. Averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds a night, Howard has managed to avoid any major drama while only missing five games so far this season. He’s not the hands-down DPOY candidate he once was, but Howard is still a very good defender, altering shots and hedging on the pick-and-roll.
At small forward, the Hawks pencil in Kent Bazemore, who has regressed slightly after signing a four-year, $70-million extension this offseason. Bazemore averages 11 points and three rebounds while shooting 40 percent from the floor. While his offensive numbers are down, Bazemore has continued to be active on the defensive end, racking up more than a steal a night while blocking nearly a shot per game.
With Thabo Sefolosha nursing a groin injury, the Hawks have turned to Tim Hardaway Jr., who has stepped up in a big way. Over the last nine games, Hardaway is averaging 18.7 points and shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc, on over six attempts a night. At 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, Hardaway is big enough to play physically with opposing shooting guards, though he only does so on occasion.
After trading point guard Jeff Teague away to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks made the decision to turn the keys over to youngster Dennis Schroder. While many around the league were skeptical of the move, Schroder has been up to the task, averaging more than 17 points and six assists a night. Most importantly, Schroder has greatly improved his shot selection over his previous three seasons, now shooting a career-best 46 percent from the floor.
For Portland, the biggest challenge is going to be in the middle. It’s unknown as of this writing whether newly acquired center Jusuf Nurkic is going to be available to play in tonight’s game and, if he is, if he will start. Should he not, then the assignment will likely go to Ed Davis or Meyers Leonard, with Leonard likely having the nod due to being a more traditionally sized center to go up against Howard.
That’s not to undersell the difficulty in matching up with Millsap. Noah Vonleh is going to have his hands full, and will need to be extra cautious about avoiding foul trouble, lest Millsap be able to work inside against Al-Farouq Aminu. With Evan Turner being out of action with a broken hand, expect Harkless to get the start in his place, in order to keep Allen Crabbe’s jump shooting with the reserve unit.
With former starting center Mason Plumlee’s departure, this is going to be a unique game to watch. A large part of the Blazers’ scheme came from Plumlee making passes out on the elbow. It will be interesting to see what changes come to the offense in terms of who the third facilitator will be. Under normal circumstances, Turner would likely be put in a position to make some more decisions with the ball, but since he will be out of commission for another four or five weeks, coach Terry Stotts may need to get creative going tonight, as well as in the near future.