Feb 18, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Raymond Felton (5) drives past Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia (27) in the first quarter at the Rose Garden. Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-US PRESSWIRE

Game 32 Recap: Blazers 97, Hawks 77

Well what’d you know, these Blazers might not be dead just yet. Why was Portland the hottest team pre-Linsanity? Mostly because they can play like they did Saturday night, and at the beginning of the season they played the good way a lot more than they played the bad way.

They good way? Hustling on both ends of the floor, attacking the offensive and defensive glass, making shots, getting turnovers, not letting the other team hit the big buckets. It wasn’t the prettiest game of the season by any means, but it was the kind of game that the Blazers controlled from the tip, and never let go of.

Thursday night, you could see the Clippers comeback building in the middle of the third quarter, so by the time they took the lead in the fourth everybody was prepared for it. Saturday was basically the opposite. Portland entered the second half leading by 15 on Saturday night, and by the middle of the game’s final quarter, the portion of the game Thursday night that saw LA complete their comeback, the Blazers lead had ballooned to 22.

In the final two and half minutes of the game, the Rose Garden crowd had returned to that old familiar place, holding their breath as Luke Babbitt launched threes and the Blazers just couldn’t get to the century mark and the free Chalupa promised land. It’s been awhile since we’ve been there. It was nice to be back.

A lot of people deserve some measure of credit for getting a really big win–a win that ended at least three losing streaks–but nobody is going to get more positive ink than Raymond Felton. And by all accounts he deserves it. Felton has not been good in quite some time. He needed a good game at the very least to prove to himself that it could be done. Raymond didn’t have a blow-the-roof off kind of night, but in comparison to how he’s played the last few times out, it was easily the best he’s been in a month.

Felton’s stat line looks pretty nice (6-of-11 from the field, 2-of-5 from deep, 14 points, eight assists, three rebounds, and only two turnovers) but the way he carried himself on the court is what everybody will be talking about. It’s not uncommon to see guys at the NBA level respond to criticism in the papers et al. by playing angry; playing like they have to prove to all the doubters that they can still compete and contribute.  It was only a matter of time before Raymond got it in his head that he needed to show that he’s still in the NBA for a reason.

The key now for Felton is to follow up his performance Saturday with more games like it. He also needs to limit his 0-fer games to basically none. Ben Golliver from Blazersedge made a pretty astute observation post-game, when he pointed out that 14, 8, and 3 (points, assists, rebounds in case you were wondering) has been standard for Ray’s career. That’s good and bad. Good, because it means that we should be able to expect this kind of play from Felton. Bad, because it illustrates just how ineffective he’s been up to this point.

Raymond Felton wasn’t the only guy that stepped up Saturday, though. LaMarcus Aldridge made his triumphant return–a bit earlier than expected but just in time in my opinion–and had a nice night. He came out pretty strong, hitting four of his first seven field goal attempts. In the second half his legs seemed to go away just a little, drawing a lot of front iron on his jumper, but he didn’t show any lingering effects of the sprained ankle that kept him out of the last two games.

Nobody that watches this team at all can deny what LA brings to the table. But like Felton’s game, LaMarcus’s impact on Saturday had less to do with how he played and more to do with the simple fact that he played at all.

Post game, Nicolas Batum was asked what it meant to have LA back on the floor. He was reluctant to say that LaMarcus changed everything, but he did say that he changed most things. Portland played with a confidence and a flow that they didn’t have during the games they’ve been without their All-Star. That’s what happens when you re-insert your most important offensive weapon.

Speaking of Nicolas Batum and important offensive weapons, Nic stayed in the starting line-up Saturday, moving Wesley Matthews to the bench. From now until the end of time that’s the way it should stay. Nicolas led all scorers with 22 points, hitting 9-of-15 from the field and 3-of-6 from deep. Batum added eight boards, a steal, and a block, and threw in a baseline-drive dunk for good measure.

I still think that Nic is at his best when catching and shooting, but his back-down game improves every night, as does his ability to do things with the ball in his hands. Saturday he even stepped in and knocked down a couple of nice mid-range jumpers.

The mid-range game isn’t something that is emphasized in the NBA for small forwards and shooting guards. One step in from the three-point line is widely regarded as the worst shot that can be taken. It’s only a foot closer to the basket, but worth two points and not three. The risk reward ratio says that shot isn’t worth taking.

However, adding the ability to hit the mid-range J can take a shooter’s game to the next level. Nicolas has the potential to grow into an all-around talent. Getting consistent from mid-range might just be the next step in the evolution of his game.

The Blazers have one final road game and one home game before the All-Star break. These are both big, and winnable, games. The Lakers aren’t as unbeatable as they once were. San Antonio is killing it right now, but Portland should be able to give them a game on their home court. The Blazers had a chance to capitalize on winning in Oakland, but blew it Thursday against the Clips. They now have another chance to build on one win by getting a couple more.

If Portland can hit the All-Star break on a three-game winning streak they’ll be setting themselves up pretty nicely for the second half of the season.

Just a few things:

  • Portland absolutely dominated on the glass all night. The Blazers out-rebounded the Hawks 50-to-27. Most impressively, Portland nabbed 15 offensive boards while limiting Atlanta to four. That’s right, four. The Blazers need to hit the glass like this every night. Atlanta is a good rebounding team. Portland should be able to beat bad rebounding teams to the glass if they can beat a good rebounding team like the Hawks.
  • Minutes Watch: Here’s two. 15:15 for Nolan Smith. 13:05 for Jamal Crawford. Not a great night for Jamal. Coach Nate McMillan said that Jamal’s minutes were limited only because the starters were playing well, and left it at that. Crawford took one shot, and missed it. On the other end, 15 productive minutes for Nolan. The rook hit a three, made a couple free throws, got three rebounds, two assists, and steal. He also had the opportunity to go mono-a-mono with fellow Oak Hill Academy alum Josh Smith in a jump ball situation. That didn’t turn out so well.
  • Standings Watch: Portland comes in Saturday in 10th, wins and now they’re in 9th. Crawling back. If this team continues to play like they did Saturday, they’ll be back in it in no time.

Box Score

Standings

Soaring Down South

Email me: [email protected]

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

Nolan Smith had a nice game getting extended minutes for the first time in awhile. Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-US PRESSWIRE

Tags: Blazers Hawks LaMarcus Aldridge Nicolas Batum Nolan Smith Raymond Felton

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