The Portland Trail Blazers are scrambling for the 8th seed in the West, locked in a game-by-game duel with the rival Denver Nuggets to see who will get a chance at post-season glory and who will be praying for ping-pong bounces. If today’s outing against the Atlanta Hawks was any indication, the Blazers don’t like table tennis. Portland jumped on the Hawks early, with Damian Lillard’s scoring placing them in a hammerlock from which they never escaped. Following through for 48 minutes in professional fashion, the Blazers emerged with a tidy 113-97 victory.
Game Flow and Analysis
There’s no need to separate the Game Flow and Analysis sections today. This was one of the rare outings where progression and effect had a 1:1 correlation. The game stayed on a straight line, deviations few and largely meaningless.
The Trail Blazers came out in the first quarter sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world. Maurice Harkless started out the scoring with a chip shot, then Damian Lillard put on a horned cap and fur vest, took up his mammoth battle axe, and began to carve through the Hawks like they were so many canaries. His opening blast came via a four-point play and it got uglier from there. Layups, three-point shots, jumpers, free throws...the Hawks might as well have asked for autographs; maybe he would have slowed down to sign one or two.
Sensing opportunity, Lillard’s teammates quickly joined the pig pile and the rout was on. Portland hit 16 field goals in the first period, including 4 triples, 4 more right at the cup, and 8 total in the lane. They’d finish the quarter with 40.
Meanwhile Atlanta connected on just 3 shots in the first 12 minutes. They tried to pound it in the paint, a proven strategy against the pre-Jusuf Nurkić Blazers. They found it inadequate in a post-Nurkić world. Without Paul Millsap to spread the floor, the Blazers guarded the rim zealously and feared no-one beyond 10 feet. With the middle secure and no perimeter scoring power for the Hawks, the Blazers were free to take chances on defense. They forced turnovers and ran, using Atlanta’s size and age against them. The first period ended with Portland up 40-18...an avalanche of nastiness.
The Hawks would make isolated runs throughout the game but not a one got them within striking distance. Portland ended up shooting 51% from the field, 44% from the arc. Atlanta would have needed a perfect outing to overcome that kind of accuracy. Instead the Hawks shot 36% overall, 27% from range. It wasn’t even close to enough.
Portland impressed by taking away Atlanta’s strengths. The Blazers outscored them 48-30 in the paint. Offensive rebounds went 13-12 for Portland...not much of an edge but a tie is welcome when Dwight Howard suits up for the other team.
Portland did end up with 22 turnovers, their only concession to being the less experienced, less accomplished team in the matchup. But Atlanta couldn’t score off the miscues and Portland’s 18-10 edge in fast break points helped make up for it.
The Blazers put 6 players in double figures tonight. Of all Portland players who played 8 minutes or more, only Evan Turner failed to shoot 50%.
In short, this was as close to a perfect all-around game as the Blazers have put together all year. They saw the Hawks without their leading scorer, realized how that would funnel scoring attempts to certain areas of the floor, then they shut down those areas and rebounded the misses. Saying this was the ultimate in beautiful basketball may be a stretch; the Blazers have played prettier games against sounder opponents. But this was as good of a winning effort as could be imagined. The rush at the outset was incredible, but no more so than the Blazers refusing to let up until the final horn had sounded.
This is a win they can be proud of.
Damian Lillard has had some great games lately, but he’s held back and gotten others involved first. Not so tonight. As soon as the clock started ticking Lillard had the rim in his sights, leaving Atlanta’s defense scrambling to manage the flow like Lucy and Ethel in a chocolate factory. They were about as successful as well. Damian finished 9-17 with 27 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 turnovers, but don’t let that average-looking (for Dame) stat line fool you. This was the superstar, “I just rang your bell so everybody else can get the killing blows while you’re stunned” kind of 27 points. Aggressive early Lillard may be good for this team.
CJ McCollum shot 10-19 for 22 points, wreaking havoc from the mid-range. His shot chart looks like chicken pox. There’s no way the Hawks could cover enough territory to defend him tonight. They just followed him and hoped he missed. He didn’t.
Even when they knew opponents were coming for the lane, the Blazers couldn’t stop them until Jusuf Nurkić showed up. The Bosnian Beast tallied 5 blocks and 9 rebounds in 32 minutes. Shooting 6-11 for 12 points was almost decoration. He matched Lillard with 4 turnovers and added 4 fouls.
This was Mo Harkless’ kind of game. The Hawks were watching everyone else, giving Mo the opportunity to stab them repeatedly. 4 of is 5 made field goals came in the heart of the lane. He shot 5-7 overall for 12 points plus 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. Every royal flush needs the Jack (of all trades) and Mo completed that straight tonight.
That leaves Noah Vonleh as the 10. That’s how many points he had, shooting 4-7, mostly from straight on. He added 3 offensive rebounds and 11 overall. He also wore the turnover crown with 5.
If the Hawks had any hope of a comeback, Allen Crabbe shut the door on them then rolled a towel under it so they wouldn’t get a whiff. He shot 4-8 from beyond the arc, part of a 5-10, 16-point performance. He didn’t need a spot, either. He was launching from all points along Pat Lafferty’s Rainbow Ridge. As with McCollum’s scoring, the Hawks just didn’t know what to expect next.
Al-Farouq Aminu added 2 offensive rebounds, 7 overall in 27 minutes. The Hawks were like a “Play Defense Free” card for him and he certainly looked comfortable and aggressive. He also scored 8.
Evan Turner returned to the lineup tonight, shooting 1-9 for 2 points in 19 minutes. He didn’t look comfortable on offense—no surprise there, given the injury—but he made up for the bad shooting with 8 rebounds and 3 assists. Give him another week to fit in again.
Links and Such
You will want to see some of the highlights from this one.
Peachtree Hoops got theirs shaken today.
No rest for the Blazers, who face the Miami Heat tomorrow at 3:00 Pacific.