Damian Lillard remained hot as he led the Portland Trail Blazers to a narrow 129-125 win over the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks on Monday night. The Hawks applied pressure to the Blazers for all 48 minutes of regulation behind 40 points, eight rebounds and seven assists from Dejounte Murray. Six Hawks scored in double figures to compensate for the absence of All-NBA point guard Trae Young, as they were an elusive fly that the Blazers had to expend every ounce of strength to swat.
Despite gaudy efficiency stats, Portland could not pull away from Atlanta until the fat lady sang. Portland shot 54.4 percent from the floor, 47.5 percent from three-point range, and 88.9 percent from the free throw line. A team can’t ask for much better than that. All three of their stars did their job to perfection. Lillard ended with 42 points on a perfect 17-17 from the free throw line. Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons both scored over 20 points.
Portland dominated in the fast break and were able to reach as much as a 10 point lead. So why was it so arduous for the Blazers to secure the victory against the stubborn Hawks?
Let’s break it down. But first, read our instant recap from Marlow Ferguson Jr. for precise play-by-play analysis of tonight’s game.
Point Guard Play
The story of the game was Lillard pitted against Murray. Lillard — the reigning NBA Western Conference Player of the Week — looked like a legitimate MVP candidate for the night. He shot with confidence from three-point land. He was able to get the step going baseline. He found success drawing fouls. Lillard was the engine behind the Blazers’ offense, and despite a somewhat quiet third quarter, came through in the clutch.
Murray put the Hawks on his back. He capitalized off of open three-pointers early, which allowed him to get into a rhythm inside and out. He slivered his way into the paint, redirecting his way in traffic to get to the cup. He was spry, aggressive, and employed an assortment of moves to get to his spots.
Both point guards shot 7-12 from the field in the first half. Dame had the upper hand with 22 points to Murray’s 20. Both floor generals were shown two defenders out of many pick-and-rolls. They shook the defense off like sand from a beach towel. While they didn’t guard each other in the first half, the second half told a different story as pride kicked in.
Lillard made two crucial mistakes with two minutes to go, where he fouled Murray on consecutive drives to the basket. This was a major reason why the game wasn’t effectively over with three or four minutes to go, as Atlanta caught major breaks due to overactive hands. Murray waltzed his way to a career-high scoring night at the charity stripe.
Doing Everything Right?
All season, Portland has struggled with turnovers. Tonight, they committed eight total giveaways. That is the second-fewest they’ve committed in 2022-23. As previously mentioned, they were as efficient as ever on every area of the floor. It was their seventh-highest field goal percentage, third-highest three-point percentage and sixth-highest free throw percentage on the season.
The problem was, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups did not show Murray enough looks on defense. This was a game we should have probably seen more of GPII in. He only played 14 minutes and his impact was not felt. Portland found major success against the Dallas Mavericks a few games back by trapping Luka Doncic and bringing Josh Hart to pressure the ball. With no Trae Young, eliminating Murray from making plays would have forced the rest of the Hawks to win the game.
The difference between Atlanta and Dallas is, Atlanta has more players who can create their own shot consistently and not fall in love with the three, a la Bogdanovic and Collins. Either way, allowing Murray to run rampant was deleterious to the Blazers’ success, and no zone, different defenders or pressure was heaped on him to switch things up. Easier said than done though.
Atlanta had their way tonight anywhere inside of the three-point line. De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic feasted on two and three dribble pull-up jumpers from 12-17 feet out. Onyeka Okongwu and Capela were the recipients of many alley-oop dishes.
The Hawks posted up frequently to begin the game. Once their success in that department was neutralized, all of their wing players, both starters and reserves found success driving and shooting off of the dribble. There were a plethora of wide open shots in the midrange.
For a team that could not muster up a fast break opportunity to save their lives, it was impressively shocking to see how effective they were at breaking down the Blazers’ half court defense, especially without Young to draw the defense out past 28 feet in the high screen-and-roll.
John Collins to Portland?
We recently polled Blazers faithful on which player they’d like to see management make a move for. John Collins only received a meager 13 percent of the vote. All night, Collins showed dexterity and pace to his play. He put fans in the Moda Center on to his post fadeaway off the back shoulder. He showed fans watching at home his floater — nimble for a man his size. Facing up from 15 feet — check. Absorbing contact for tough finishes — check. Outside of a needed win, seeing Collins put on an exhibition offensively from the standpoint of showcasing his range should catch the attention of Blazers management this week.
A Last Cry for Help
Clint Capela had 10 offensive rebounds tonight. Josh Hart led the Blazers with a megalithic 12 rebounds. Yet no other Blazer, including Nurkic and Eubanks, had over five. If this was not a blast of a trumpet, or a cry from the watchtower to the Blazers front office to bring in a host front court reinforcements before the February 9th trade deadline, who knows what would be.
A few little mistakes could be swept under the rug, but won’t be. Most notably, several missed layup and dunk attempts — from Payton II, Nurkic, Lillard and Sharpe — peppered throughout regulation were eyesores to behold. If the Blazers want to be the playoffs team we all know they can be, they need to iron out million dollar moves and ten cent finishes.
The Trail Blazers are now winners of three of their last four games. The storm has died down as they look to continue their winning ways against a formidable Memphis Grizzlies team Wednesday afternoon. That games starts at 4:00 PM, Pacific.