Game 66 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks

Limiting Josh Smith's effectiveness will be crucial in the Blazers' gameplan tonight. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian.

Blazers: 37-28

Hawks: 37-28

Game Details: Phillips Arena, Atlanta, GA. 4:00 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM).

Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6’3″, Utah), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6’8″, France), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11″, UMass)

Projected Atlanta Starting Lineup: PG Kirk Hinrich (#6, 6’4″, Kansas), SG Joe Johnson (#2, 6’7″, Arkansas), SF Jeff Teague (#0, 6’2″, Wake Forest), PF Josh Smith (#5, 6’9″, Oak Hill Academy), C Zaza Pachulia (#27, 6’11″, Russia)

What sunk the Blazers last night in Charlotte was their inability to capitalize on a six-minute scoreless stretch for the Bobcats in the third quarter. That period ended with Portland clinging to a six-point lead, when it should have been closer to 20, and Stephen Jackson made them pay in the fourth quarter. That’s what made yesterday’s loss particularly painful, because if they had pulled that game out, they would go into Phillips Arena today looking to sweep the most significant road trip remaining this season. It would have been almost the inverse of that awful four-game trip in November and December that most of us would rather forget ever happened. The worst that can happen at this point is a split of the road trip, but I think I speak for all Blazers fans when I say it would be nice to prove that their stellar play against Miami wasn’t a fluke.

The Hawks effectively blew the Blazers out two weeks ago when they played. The final score doesn’t reflect this, but that’s only because Portland made a spirited comeback attempt in the final minutes and cut the margin to seven. Make no mistake, though, Atlanta flat outplayed Portland that night. However, circumstances were different then. That game was Gerald Wallace’s first in a Blazers uniform, and only Brandon Roy’s third back from injury. Fast-forward two weeks, and both Roy and Wallace have more or less bought into their roles as anchors of Portland’s second unit.

Atlanta is a lot like Portland: they’re a team that can look like a contender or a lottery team, depending on the night. Lately, they’ve been leaning strongly in the latter direction, playing mostly top-level opponents. Last night, they were blown out by Chicago. It’s not nearly as high-profile, but they’re going through the same kind of late-season struggle that Miami was when they faced the Blazers. Both teams are on the second night of a back-to-back, but Atlanta should be fresher because Portland was fighting to the end last night.

While Atlanta’s four-game losing streak makes them seem highly beatable right now, they can still be a dangerous team when they want to be. However, center Al Horford, who proved so effective at limiting LaMarcus Aldridge last time out, is out of the lineup tonight due to injury. Zaza Pachulia is starting in his place. Horford’s absence should give Portland a significant defensive advantage, but they cannot view it as an excuse to relax as they did last night.

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