Blazers/Hawks Pre-Thoughts

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After a short trip to the Southwest, the Blazers return to the cozy confines of the Rose Garden to begin a three-game homestand. At 2-2, these three home games are key not so much because of the .500 start but because of what lurks behind it: a good old fashioned, nasty, 5-game-in-less-than-a-week road trip. As stated earlier it begins tonight with a visit from the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks are a very interesting team, in that they’re very talented yet it feels like there is something holding them back. They’re the most dangerous beatable team in the NBA. For the past couple years I’ve always felt a link between the Hawks and Blazers. Maybe it’s because of the comparisons between Joe Johnson and Brandon Roy might be. The combination of youth and athleticism. The stories of teams brushing off past failures to return to prominence. Either way, tonight is going to be interesting when Atlanta comes into the Rose Garden. The Hawks come into tonight’s game at 2-1 and on fire offensively. They’re averaging 110 points a game. I know, you’re going to tell me that two of those games came against Indiana and Washington. But, the Hawks did post a 110-point piece on the Lakers in the Staples Center on Sunday night. And they’re defense is certainly at a higher level right now than the Blazers. I’m a little concerned when you combine a team with so many offensive weapons against a developing defense, so that will be something to watch.

Sticking with the offense, one of Atlanta’s main strengths is their balance, something Portland fans would love to see the Blazers consistently provide. It’s only through three games, but the Hawks have six players averaging double figure points a game. Led by the always dangerous Joe Johnson (23.0 PPG, 43.4% from the field)…and I do mean always dangerous. He’s the type of guy who could drop a smooth 40 with ease. I mean did you see the 18 he dropped on the Lakers in the first quarter? That’s what I like to call video game talent. And the thing is though, you know that he’s going to get his shots so you just have to do your best against his talent. Josh Smith is averaging 15, Al Horford averaging 13 and 12 boards, Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams both putting up 10 a piece. Throw it Jamal Crawford averaging 12 off the bench and I’m hoping you can see the challenge the Blazers could face defensively tonight. This is the first time I think the Blazers are going to face a team that is this potently balanced offensively. The Rockets and Thunder both had offensive liabilities. No offense to the Nuggets but you’ll let Anthony Carter, Aaron Afflalo or Graham #4 shoot the ball. You don’t really want any of these Hawks shooting the ball too much.

(Sidenote: Just based on what Bibby has done to the Blazers in a Kings uni and Crawford in a Warriors uni, I’m always scared of them. Always)

Despite their offensive prowess, it’s not all good in the hood for the Hawks. There is one thing that Atlanta has struggled with this year: defense, clap clap. They gave up 109 to Indiana on opening night and 118 to the Lakers on Sunday. As good as they are offensively, they leave a lot to be desired defensively. Which is strange because of how much talent they have. Combine that with struggles they have had in the past, such as taking care of the ball and not looking completely clueless in the half-court and it will be an equal challenge for them in the Rose Garden.

On the other side of the ball is a Blazer team still trying to find itself. Through 4 games, it’s not time to hit the panic button at all but steps have to be made with every game to get better. Portland has yet to put it all together in any of the 4 games yet somehow has still found a way to in all of them to their credit. Tonight may be a bit tougher. As I write this the status of LaMarcus Aldridge is still in the air, but for all intended purposes it looks as if he’s going to be out. That’s going to put a big burden on guys to step up and carry the load offensively. After the Houston game I talked about how Portland needs someone to help Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Well now that becomes even more important. Greg Oden is going to be tested going against a physical front line in Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith. (And PS if it’s ever Juwan Howard vs. Joe Smith out there tonight, my head will explode) I assume with LMA out he’s going to be more involved in the offense as far as looking to post him up. Interesting to see how he responds. At the 4, Travis Outlaw isn’t going to quite have the advantage he usually has possibly going up against Josh Smith. (Although if he settles for a fadeaway against Joe Smith and his 54 year old knees…you guessed it. Head explosion). Martell Webster will have to continue to show off that sweet stroke and renewed aggression offensively. Steve Blake’s going to have to make shots. For some reason though, I feel a breakout game coming from Andre Miller tonight. Don’t ask me why, I gotta feeling. That tonight’s gonna be a good night. Sorry, it’s a bad habit.

A last thought before I get to the keys. This is a game Portland can win just by playing solid defense and executing offensively. Atlanta has traditionally been a joke in the half-court. This has traditionally been an area where Portland has excelled. Where I’m concerned is if our defense isn’t solid and we give up open shots, or the second unit tries to run and we get sloppy and turn the ball over (playing into their hands).

Keys to the Game

  • Battle defensively. Atlanta can score. Atlanta is physical. Portland needs to answer the challenge and take steps defensively tonight.
  • Take care of the ball. This could be a key in every game but tonight it certainly applies. Atlanta is currently forcing  18 turnovers  a game. They feast on being able to get into the open court and get easy buckets. They turn into a completely different monster if they’re alllowed to run. When you consider how awful they can be in the half-court, you don’t want to give them any sort of buckets.
  • Win the battle of the boards. More importantly, don’t give them second shots. They’re averaging 11 offensive rebounds a game. Portland’s got to finish stops with rebounds. Atlanta has the physicality (Horford, Zaza) and length (Smith, Williams, Johnson) to crash the boards hard.
  • Win the three point battle. The Hawks are currently shooting 34.5% from behind the arc and allowing opponents to shoot 43.5% from three. If Portland can shoot those kind of numbers from behind the arc tonight I think we’ll be fine. This might be a game where our help defense can work out. Johnson, Bibby, Crawford and maybe Maurice Evans scare me from deep. Everyone else I’ll gladly allow them to jack up threes.
  • Win the battle of the benches. Atlanta’s depth has improved but I still think our second unit is better. If we can’t outplay Crawford/Zaza/Smith/Teague/Evans than we’ve got some bigger issues.
  • Help Brandon Roy out. Enough said. Offensively we’re much better in the half court than they are, but only if other guys step up. I’d imagine they’ll be concentrating a lot of effort towards stopping #7.

Another night, another game, and another chance to see where the Blazers are at. Improvement is the key early. That and winning is pretty nice.

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Tags: Al Horford Andre Miller Atlanta Hawks Brandon Roy Greg Oden Jamal Crawford Joe Smith Josh Smith Juwan Howard LaMarcus Aldridge Lamarcus Aldridge Injured Lamarcus Aldridge Status Martell Webster Mike Bibby Nate McMillan Portland Trail Blazers Rudy Fernandez Steve Blake Travis Outlaw Zaza Pachulia

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