January 27, 2019, 1:05 am
Almost any win earned without Damian Lillard is one of which the Portland Trail Blazers should be proud. Their 120-11 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Moda Center was additionally notable because C.J. McCollum rose to the occasion and picked up the slack of his resting backcourt star, finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists – his first career triple-double. But for a fan base clinging to some hope that the Blazers’ recent run of success could lead to more than another first-round playoff exit come April, Saturday night’s win still had to be somewhat disappointing.
Defense, ironic considering the absence of an offensive maestro like Lillard, was Portland’s chief issue. The Hawks led 64-63 at halftime, courtesy of 53.3 percent shooting, 30 points in the paint, 15 assists, and only four turnovers. Trae Young, who scored 30 points on 15 shots and dished eight assists in arguably the finest performance of his young career, torched Seth Curry from the opening tip, and John Collins had 14 of his 21 total points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting before half. Lloyd Pierce’s team was doing whatever it wanted offensively, and the Blazers, almost to a man, looked helpless to stem the tide.
Jake Layman was somewhat exposed defensively in this game, especially on the few occasions when Young put him in his crosshairs.
To be fair, the Hawks’ five-out attack is threatening to all teams, but especially one with the defensive tendencies of Portland. Terry Stotts slotted Jusuf Nurkic on Collins and Al-Farouq Aminu on Dewayne Dedmon, toggling the froncourt matchups between positions, likely to best account for Dedmon’s mid-career evolution into a legitimate three-point shooter and keep Nurkic as close to the rim as often as possible. One problem: Collins, who’s generated some long-shot All-Star buzz despite not debuting this season until mid-November, is growing increasingly comfortable from beyond the arc, too.
The Blazers could have mitigated the effects of Nurkic’s aversion to the perimeter by switching ball screens between Young and Dedmon, siccing Aminu on the rookie and leaving Seth Curry to deal with a lithe center who possesses little to no primary scoring ability. Portland would much rather Atlanta, thinking size mismatch, toss the ball into Dedmon on the block than let Young attack in pick-and-roll with a perfectly spaced floor. Stotts never went that route, instead opting for his normal, conservative pick-and-roll coverage no matter which players were involved in the action – until the second half that is.
After watching Young and Jeremy Lin roast the Blazers before intermission – with herky-jerky finishes, floaters, pocket passes, kick-outs, dump-offs, alley-oops, and everything else in between – the Blazers finally adjusted, trapping Young when the turned the corner early in the third quarter. That gambit was effective enough to get the Hawks out of rhythm, and Pierce reacted by taking a more egalitarian approach to his team’s ball-handling responsibilities. Portland shortly later reverted back to its usual ball-screen defense, and Young reverted back to exploiting it again and again.
The Hawks came within a point of the Blazers midway through the fourth quarter on this wide-open three by Vince Carter, celebrating his 42nd birthday.
Unfortunately for Carter, his celebration doesn’t include a victory, and Stotts’ decision to switch one-through-four following a timeout taken in response to the possession above is the biggest reason why. Three triples from Seth Curry in Portland’s ensuing 13-0 run were certainly a driving factor, too, but Atlanta’s offensive futility loomed larger. The road team went scoreless for the next five minutes and six seconds of game time, flustered by the Blazers putting more length on Young and switching across four positions.
Portland wasn’t disastrous defensively on the whole, despite some troubling individual efforts and puzzling strategic choices. The Hawks’ offensive rating was 107.8, right in line with the Utah Jazz’s 20th-ranked season-long mark, and it came on a night when Young ran his team like a superstar. Still, it was jarring to watch the Blazers get sliced and diced by an objectively subpar offense before Stotts finally made some adjustments in the third and fourth quarters. Both players and coaches need to be better going forward; this defensive effort wouldn’t be enough against most teams.
Portland deserves credit for its play on the other side of the ball, though. McCollum needed 23 shots to get his 28 points, but aside from a few ugly hero-ball possessions, acquitted himself well while making a more concerted effort to find his teammates open looks. Curry, playing with a new sense of aggression, scored 22 points for the first time in nearly two years. Aminu and Moe Harkless took advantage of Atlanta sagging off them away from the ball, combining for 32 points and 14(!) made free throws. The Blazers shot 50 percent overall, went 11-of-30 from deep and 27-of-30 from the line, and racked up 26 assists against a defense that’s been steadily improving since the season began last fall.
But all wins aren’t made equal in the NBA, and the Hawks exposed some personnel flaws plaguing Portland that additional time and experience playing together won’t fix, let alone any potential trade before the deadline. Lillard is this team’s engine. There are only a few players in the league more singular to their team’s success than he is the Blazers’. Portland should be happy, then, to get him some much-needed rest while also gaining more ground in the Western Conference standings. Any team-wide optimism other than that stemming from the Blazers’ win, though, needs to be put in check.