The Portland Trail Blazers walked into State Farm Arena on Monday evening to face an Atlanta Hawks team that had won 13 of their last 15, including five in a row at home. For the Blazers, victories have been... somewhat more rare. Even with Atlanta center John Collins and forward Danilo Gallinari out, Portland was out-sized and overmatched. That didn’t matter much to the young Blazers. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Portland’s way was scrambling defense inside the three-point arc, stout rebounding, and a quick-strike running attack. It served them well for just over two periods. Then the Hawks slowed down the game, miring the Blazers in a halfcourt scoring contest with superstar Trae Young. It was a hard-fought battle they ultimately could not win.
The Hawks took the game, 122-113. Young scored 46 in the process. Josh Hart led the Blazers with 31 points. Trendon Watford added 22, Brandon Williams 20.
The Blazers outshot Atlanta 50.6% to 36.7%, but the Hawks got up 109 field goal attempts to Portland’s 88, courtesy of 20 turnovers from the Blazers.
The Blazers started off the game on a run offensively, picking up where they left off on Saturday night against the Washington Wizards. Quick looks supplied them points before the Hawks’ defense caught up. But an old bugaboo kept them from capitalizing: inability to guard three-pointers. Kevin Huerter, Trae Young, and DeAndre Hunter all hit from deep in the opening minutes. Portland stretched out to close the gap, but Atlanta countered with passes and drives to the hoop. Young and Clint Capela made easy layups. The floodgates had opened.
To their credit, the Blazers swam hard against the tide. They forced turnovers, passed the ball, and got buckets from their Big Three of Josh Hart, Brandon Williams, and Trendon Watford. Dunks and layups made Portland look not just competent, but talented. But even though they got back in transition on defense, they still couldn’t stop those pesky threes.
Hart turned up the volume as the quarter progressed. That made a huge difference. Trae Young had a huge, 15-point first period. Hart had 14. Portland also juiced up the defense in the final minutes of the period, blocking shots, forcing misses, and running back hard. That burst of energy broke an otherwise-even frame. The Blazers led 34-29 after one.
Elijah Hughes came out firing in the second period, utterly unselfconscious about putting up his shot despite being completely unknown until...well...today. The Blazers also slammed the offensive glass, spamming the Hawks with extra shots. Portland built up a 9-point lead on a couple of occasions.
Portland’s energy remained high through the period. They bested Atlanta by beating them to the spot. Hart came on for his end-of-the-half shift and immediately started canning shots, turning Portland’s momentum into an avalanche.
The Hawks finally caught up to the action in the final four minutes of the quarter. Their feet picked up. They forced turnovers from the Blazers. Capela started blocking shots. To their credit, the Blazers didn’t crumble. They continued playing hard themselves, tipping away passes from the Hawks, rebounding with purpose. Atlanta stopped the momentum, but couldn’t close the lead much. The Blazers still couldn’t stop threes, but they did a credible job on defense inside the arc.
Portland led at the half, 67-58.
The Blazers came out in the third on FIRE. They didn’t hit magical shots. They defended well, got the ball out on the run, then spaced and shared to get the open look for somebody. Atlanta meant to take over the game after the half. Instead, in less than two minutes the Blazers were up 15, sending Head Coach Nate McMillan into the antacid timeout.
That’s when Trae Young engaged full-force. He converted inside first, then hit a three. Eight quick points made Portland’s lead look comparatively paltry, sending Head Coach Chauncey Billups into his own, “Wait a Minute” timeout call.
It didn’t help. Bereft of turnovers and run-outs, Portland buckets came slow and difficult out of a shaky halfcourt offense. The Blazers started standing, watching dribblers try to make iso moves. Under those conditions, Atlanta’s talent and experience provided a huge edge. Young can score all night like that. Nobody in Portland’s uniform could, Before the 6:00 mark, the lead was down to just 1.
Portland spent the rest of the period turning over the ball and wondering what was going wrong. Atlanta continued to struggle when anyone else but Young scored, but a tray of Tray treys were enough to push them ahead comfortably at the end of three, 89-84 Young had 21 in the period.
Atlanta kept the pace slow at the top of the fourth. Normally, this would be playing with fire. Their lead wasn’t big enough to go into protection mode. If the Blazers could string together a few shots, they could have turned the game around. But the halfcourt offense was Atlanta’s salvation and, darn it, they were staying at the altar. It worked, too. They pushed the lead towards double-digits behind three-point shooting and chip shots from their bigs.
The shadow side of Atlanta’s approach came clear mid-frame, as the Blazers strung together three straight made shots. That was enough to close the Hawks’ lead to a single point with 5:15 remaining. Perhaps they could make it a dogfight down the stretch after all.
Brandon Williams did his best to help the Blazers, scoring repeatedly with quick feet and good instincts. The Blazers matched the Hawks nearly shot for shot, with the margin shifting between 2 and 4 points in the closing minutes. But DeAndre Hunter hit a three with 1:30 remaining to push it to 5. Portland’s next possession took all 24 seconds due to blocked shots and stiff defense from the Hawks. Drew Eubanks scored on a layup, but review showed it came after the shot clock expired. Portland was still down 5 with 30 seconds remaining, but they couldn’t hit on a three or on the multiple tip-ins that followed. That pretty much encapsulated the evening. It was a mighty effort, but still a loss for Portland.
Stay tuned for extended analysis, coming soon!
The Blazers draw the New York Knicks on Wednesday, with a 4:30. Pacific start.