Yes that is Tracy McGrady. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Game 32 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Atlanta Hawks

Blazers: 16-15 (4th Northwest Division)

Hawks: 19-11 (3rd Southeast Division)

Game Details: Rose Garden Arena Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: 750 AM (KXTG)

Projected Blazers Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1’’, North Carolina), SG Nicolas Batum (#88, 6’8’’, MSB Le Mans, France), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7’’, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11”, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11’’, Massachusetts)

Projected Hawks 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) C Zaza Pachulia (#27, 6’11”, Ulkerspor, Georgia)

We’re on the cusp here of some pretty dark times. The Blazers have lost four in a row, they’ve run their home losing streak also to an even four, the rest of the month doesn’t get any easier, and the Atlanta Hawks–perennial Eastern Conference middle-weights–have more than handled the Blazers in the recent past.

This game is a must win, no doubt about that, but I for one can’t say that that means Portland is going to be able to make good. Atlanta is a strong team, seemingly getting stronger without their best player Al Horford, and should be able to to do the Blazers what the Clippers did in the second half of Portland’s most recent home loss. Play hard defense.

The tape is no doubt out on what the Blazers can do in their limited capacity. Or should I say, the tape is out on what the Blazers can’t do. That’s get the ball inside and score. It’s hard to say if that means Portland should stop trying to get inside, or if they should say history be damned, and redouble their efforts in the paint. Personally, I think the Blazers need to keep trying to get inside–off the dribble or with a back-down–because they need to get some of Atlanta’s bigs in foul trouble, they need to get some easy buckets, and they need to get to the line. Also, Portland hasn’t proven they can beat anybody with their jump shots alone.

There’s a good chance coach Nate McMillan has been in the ear to his players about what’s left in the month of February, and how hard it might be to dig out from an 11th or 12th place hole should it get there leading up to and following the All-Star break. Winning on Saturday night won’t put Portland back into the top half of the conference, depending on the outcome of the Memphis/Golden State match-up and Sunday’s full slate of games it might not even put them back in the Playoff picture, but what it will give this team a much needed shot of confidence.

It can also push that creeping blackness a little further into the distance. Climbing back into this season, and getting something meaningful out of its second half, is no easy task. The Blazers are going to get back into this thing one game at a time. If they lose this one, that’s just one more game they’ll have to win at some later date. Sometime after that big trade that brings in the one guy that can make all the troubles melt away.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

  • Gerald Wallace: A lot of people are talking about Nicolas Batum being the recipient of good fortune with regards to the LA injury. Not that anybody wanted LaMarcus to go down, but the silver lining is that Nic has been re-inserted into the starting lineup, and he’s thrived. Nicolas has done well, but I don’t think it should be on him to be the leader on the floor. I think that job belongs to Gerald Wallace. Crash can do a couple of things Nic can’t, namely back guys down. Saturday night, I think Portland needs to make a concentrated effort to have Gerald Wallace as the centerpiece of the offense. Getting him inside, putting him in places to have an impact with the ball, those are going to be key elements if the Blazers want to win.
  • Can Portland hit a jump shot: Jamal Crawford is playing against his old team, Raymond Felton has reached the point where he’ll be blamed for a loss even if he’s not on the floor, Wesley Matthews is second by only the thinnest margin for least liked Blazer of the moment. All of those guys need to keep shooting–except maybe not Raymond–but what I’m interested in is whether or not they can start taking smarter shots, and hitting those shots.
  • LaMarcus is back: According to some late breaking news LaMarcus Aldridge will be back in the lineup. We’ll see how that goes. Portland needs a win tonight, but probably not at the expense of another injury to its best player.

Email me: [email protected]

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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