Easily the best picture of Joe Johnson I could find in 30 seconds of searching. Photo courtesy of The Program 101.

Game 14 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks

Blazers: 8-5 (3rd Northwest Division)

Hawks: 10-4 (2nd Southeast Division)

Game Details: Phillips Arena, Atlanta, GA. 5:00 PM. TV: CSNW, ESPN Radio: 750 AM (KXTG)

Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1”, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7″, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas), C Kurt Thomas (#40, 6’9″, Texas Christian)

Projected Atlanta Starting Lineup: PG Jeff Teague (#0, 6’2”, Wake Forest), SG Joe Johnson (#2, 6’7”, Arkansas), SF Marvin Williams (#24, 6’9”, North Carolina), PF Josh Smith (#5, 6’9”, Oak Hill Academy, Mouth of Wilson, VA), C Jason Collins (#34, 7′, Stanford)

We’ve passed the halfway point in this first extended road trip (just a note, between the seventh and the 18 of March, Portland is on the road for seven games–six tough ones and one in Washington–but after that their longest road trip is only three games, and consists of the final three games of the season); 1-2 isn’t a great record, but it still leaves Portland with a chance to finish the trip with a winning record.

To finish 4-2 the Blazers have to win out. Following Wednesday’s match-up with Atlanta, Portland plays a back-to-back in Toronto and Detroit. The Raptors and the Pistons have a combined seven wins. I’m not in the business of penciling in wins with the way this team has played on the road, but we are all allowed to panic should the Blazers lose to either of those teams. Which means, should Portland want to finish at least 3-3, they need to beat the Hawks.

It won’t be easy. Atlanta has won three in a row (albeit against three sub .500 teams), and has already posted wins in 2011-12 against Chicago and Miami; not to mention, Portland hasn’t beaten the Hawks since early 2009. There are some definite weaknesses with this Atlanta team, though, and luckily they just happen to play mostly to Portland’s strength.

First, Al Horford is out with a torn pectoral muscle. He recently had surgery, but he’s expected to miss three to four months. Horford is probably Atlanta’s most complete player. He’s a strong rebounder, a consistent scorer, and a better than average man-to-man defender. Losing Horford means that Atlanta has to rely more heavily on Marvin Williams and Josh Smith to play interior defense. Smith likes to defend from the weak-side so he can get highlight, Nicolas Batum-esque, blocks; nobody has ever accused Marvin Williams of playing defense. Also, Atlanta has to play more minutes with Jason Collins in the lineup. Collins is basically a non-factor. In his one start this season he played 13 minutes and missed his only attempted shot.

Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Jason Collins should have their hands full with LaMarcus Aldridge. After that Atlanta has Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson to throw at him. I don’t know much about Johnson, beyond that he looks a little bit like Mr. T and spent some time at the University of Oregon, but Pachulia is known to be a thorn in LA’s side. LaMarcus has to learn to play against big guys that body him up. Going from Samuel Dalembert in Houston, to Emeka Okafor in New Orleans should prepare him for whatever ATL can bring. If LaMarcus has a big game, the Blazers should have a shot.

Another weakness of Atlanta’s that can be exploited by Portland is their tendency to play a lot of isolation. Joe Johnson is a classic iso player, Josh Smith wants to be Joe Johnson and isn’t, and Jeff Teague is steadily developing into a scoring point guard. The Blazers have been very effective in man-up coverage so far this season, and equally as ineffective in defensive rotations.

Two games as examples: Against Orlando, Portland was slow to close out on shooters, had poor help-side rotations, and generally let the Magic get open looks when the ball switched sides of the key. The result was an outstanding shooting night and a Blazer loss. Against Sacramento, a “team” made up of guys that think they’re playing one-on-one, Portland tightened up their man defense in the second half, limited Sac’s shooters to long contested jump shots, and held the ice cold Kings to 33 points in the final 24 minutes.

Atlanta is much better than Sacramento, but they don’t have a player like Dwight Howard, a guy that requires help from the wings every time he touches the ball. Joe Johnson can knock down shots, Jeff Teague can score, Willie Green off the bench has his moments. But they shouldn’t be getting as many open looks as Portland gave up to the Magic.

Finally, Atlanta isn’t as deep as Portland. Although depth has yet to be a major boon for the Blazers, there is still something to be said for being able to go nine deep, especially at the front court positions. With Horford out, Portland can attack the basket inside all night long. Craig Smith is starting to find an offensive groove, Kurt Thomas is a reliable scorer, these guys should be able to take advantage of the fact that the Hawks’ third forward off the bench is Tracy McGrady.

The Hawks are also without Kirk Hinrich, meaning Teague is carrying a lot of weight with running the offense. If Raymond Felton can get his offensive game going, making Teague use some energy on defense or better yet get into foul trouble, Portland’s guards should have a big advantage.

All told, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Blazers should be able to beat Atlanta in Atlanta, something they did for the last time in 2008. But I can also come up with one big reason why another road loss won’t come as a surprise. Portland hasn’t been able to get it together on the road. They haven’t been able to establish their game, they’ve struggled to limit their mistakes, and they’ve been basically unable to make their opponents pay for their mistakes. At this point I feel like to win on the road, the Blazers have to string together an almost perfect 48 minutes. They have yet to do that this season, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Here’s a few things to pay attention to:

  • Jamal Crawford: This will be Jamal’s first trip back to Atlanta, where he spent the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons and won the Sixth Man of the Year Award for 09-10. Jamal has played for five teams in 11 seasons, so it’s not as if this is going to be his first homecoming. I do think, though, he’ll have an extra incentive to go big against his old teammates. Also, Crawford had some pretty great games against the Blazers while in a Hawks jersey. In four games Jamal averaged 19 points, putting up 27 in Atlanta’s 97-91 win back on November 3rd 2009. So even if Crawford doesn’t have a big game, one of Atlanta’s strongest offensive weapons is now playing for their opponent.
  • Will Portland play to the level of their competition: I mentioned in my New Orleans recap that Portland has been labeled as a team that plays differently depending on their opponent. Atlanta is a good team, a bona fide Playoff team in either conference. If the Blazers play the same way they did against the Hornets, they’re in trouble. If they play up to Atlanta’s level, they can definitely come away with this win. Playing up to an opponent’s level isn’t good, it’s better than playing down of course, but it’s still better for Portland to try a figure out a way to play their game, regardless of who their opponent may be. But if playing up means a win, I’ll take it.
  • What the guys on ESPN have to say: I’ll be watching ESPN’s feed of this game, mostly because I can handle the “sky is falling” attitude of Mike and Mike when this start go wrong for the Blazers. One thing everybody who chooses ESPN should pay attention to is what the national game callers have to say about the Blazers. Two weeks in, Portland was the popular favorite to take the Western Conference. They’ve fallen to earth a bit, and at this point, top four seems like the high end of the realistic expectations spectrum. My guess is, if we get a guy like Hubie Brown, there won’t be too much talk about the Blazers being the best team in west–Oklahoma City is right now 12-2 and are playing like they could finish the season without another loss–and hopefully there also won’t be too many accusations of Portland being unable to live up to the early hype.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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Tags: Al Horford Blazers Craig Smith Hawks Jamal Crawford Jeff Teague Joe Johnson Josh Smith Kurt Thomas LaMarcus Aldridge Marvin Williams Nicolas Batum Raymond Felton

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