In their second game without Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, the Portland Trail Blazers took care of another tanking Eastern Conference foe: the Atlanta Hawks. Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 36 points, half of which came in the first quarter. Ten other players scored alongside Lillard as the team maintained a comfortable lead for the entirety of the game.
Portland moves to 48-27 on the season and 2-0 on the current four-game road trip. The win returns the third seed to the Blazers, giving them a half-game lead over the fourth place Houston Rockets.
Lillard Found His Shots
Lillard scored 36 points and knocked down four three-pointers on 13-25 shooting. His impressive field goal percentage resulted from quality looks, not simply making contested shots like he so often does. A majority of his 36 points came from his three signature shots: pull-up three-pointers around a screen, fading baseline jumpers, and contested layups.
With Enes Kanter substituting for Nurkic in the starting lineup, Lillard relied more on his own shot to generate points out of the pick and roll. He made several three-pointers around Kanter’s screens because Trae Young tried to go over the pick and the Hawks big man sagged back in preparation for the drive.
When the Blazers elected to run a small lineup with Al-Farouq Aminu at center, Lillard hunted for his other two classic shots. He caught handoffs from Portland’s wings along the baseline and converted the off-balance jumper. The guard also drove using his impressive acceleration into an empty paint - Aminu at center improves floor spacing tremendously.
Al-Farouq Aminu Stepped Up
For the third time in his last four games, Al-Farouq Aminu was a reliable offensive option. Against the Hawks, he tallied 17 points on only nine attempts, grabbing 11 rebounds and committing no turnovers.
Generally, Aminu’s scoring opportunities derive from Portland’s offense; defenders focus on Lillard or McCollum and stray away from Aminu on the perimeter. Although his lone three-pointer tonight came that way, his other baskets did not.
Over a short span in the third quarter, Chief showed remarkable ball control and court awareness. In transition, he caught Justin Anderson with a pump fake and used his pivot foot to generate room for an easy shot under the hoop. Not long later, he backed Vince Carter down in the post and finished a composed hook shot over the legend.
Without the threat of shot creation from McCollum off the dribble and Nurkic in the post, Portland’s starters must be able to score without being spoon-fed by Lillard. In the past few games, Aminu has proven his ability to do so.
Starters Not Making Three-Pointers
Outside of Aminu (1-2) and Lillard (4-10), the starters failed to knock down a three-pointer. Moe Harkless missed all four of his attempts and Jake Layman missed a wide open look from the corner. Although the offense didn’t struggle to produce points against a lousy Hawks defense, the lack of consistent outside shooting poses a serious threat in the remaining games.
As seen in last year’s demoralizing playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans, defenders can trap Lillard and McCollum if their teammates don’t connect on threes. The Blazers signed Seth Curry and Rodney Hood to eliminate this problem, but Terry Stotts is currently starting Jake Layman. This creates a starting lineup with erratic outside shooting. Opponents are free to sacrifice perimeter defense in order to stop Lillard.
Solid Showing from Zach Collins
Portland has taken a “center by committee” approach to compensate for Nurkic’s absence. We know what to expect from Kanter and Meyers Leonard, especially on the offensive end. Zach Collins is the lone center of the group capable of protecting the rim like Nurkic did, so more pressure rests on the sophomore’s shoulders.
In 19 minutes, Collins recorded nine points, nine rebounds, one steal and one three-pointer. The stat line isn’t anything to call home about, but he demonstrated maturity and composure on both ends of the court.
Offensively, Colins continued his improved outside shooting with one triple on two attempts. He employed an assortment of post moves to get shots at the rim over short and tall defenders. He also crashed the offensive glass for second chance points, including a monster put-back dunk off a Hood miss.
On the other end, Zach only picked up one foul despite contesting numerous shots at the hoop. He stopped an alley-oop thrown by Kent Bazemore to John Collins, which kickstarted a fast break that Layman finished. Additionally, Collins boxed out Atlanta’s big men to secure defensive rebounds.
The Blazers take on the Detroit Pistons tomorrow at 4:00 PM, Pacific.