Double whammy for Blazers: Hawks win, and Freeland (shoulder) out at least two weeks
The aura of invincibility the Trail Blazers have built through the past few weeks of the season took a hit Saturday night at Moda Center.
Atlanta parlayed a whopping 64-38 advantage in points in the paint to a 115-107 victory over Portland in a battle of NBA heavyweights.
The Blazers (26-8) entered the game with the second-best record in the Western Conference, the Hawks (25-8) the best in the East.
Portland's loss ended a four-game win streak and was only the fourth defeat in the last 18 games for the local quintet, which gave up as many points in a regulation game as it has all season.
The loss wasn't the Blazers' only bad news of the night.
Joel Freeland, who has started at center for Portland the past eight games with Robin Lopez (broken right hand) on the sidelines, left in the third quarter with a right shoulder strain. After Freeland underwent an MRI exam, the Blazers announced he will be re-evaluated in two weeks.
After spotting Portland an early 8-0 lead, Atlanta quickly seized control. Power forward Paul Millsap led seven players scoring in double figures with 27 points as the Hawks rolled to their fourth straight win and 18th in 20 outings.
Atlanta shot .512 from the field and forced 18 Portland turnovers -- 13 in the first half and 12 in the first 18 minutes, helping the visitors score on 11 straight possessions to turn the eight-point deficit into an 11-point lead early in the second quarter.
"Turnovers killed us in the first half," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. The Hawks "made their run with good pressure. They got their hands on a lot of balls. Against a good team, you have to play well at both ends. Turnovers took us out of our rhythm at the offensive end."
Those turnovers turned into 23 Atlanta points, part of the reason for the discrepancy in points in the paint -- but not all. Portland's interior defense was too porous, allowing the Hawks to get far too many easy baskets.
"I've been concerned about points in the paint defensively all season," Stotts said. "The ball was getting to the rim too much tonight. The Hawks had 22 (points in the paint) in the first quarter, and only two came off the fast break. You can't consistently give up that much in the paint."
LaMarcus Aldridge had a big game with 30 points on 14-for-25 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, giving him his 18th double-double, his 15th 20/10 game and his fourth 30/10 outing of the season. Teammate Damian Lillard contributed 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists but made only 7 of 18 shots from the field. He was scoreless until midway through the second quarter, was 1 for 6 shooting in the first half and never really got rolling offensively.
"I tried to," Lillard said. "In the third quarter, I started to get it going a little bit. Through the game, I could hear them saying, 'Deny him.' They were trying to make it hard for me to get the ball. When I did get it, they were surrounding me, sending two guys at me, trying to take my playmaking ability away."
The Hawks owned a big edge at the foul line, sinking 23 of 31 attempts to only 10 of 12 for the Blazers. Atlanta won despite giving up 21 points at the 3-point line, making only 6 of 17 attempts to 13 of 33 for Portland.
"Usually, (3-point baskets) is an indicator of the game's outcome, but not tonight," Portland's Wesley Matthews said with a sigh. "Some nights are like that."
There is no bigger surprise team in the league than Atlanta, which has thrust itself into a prime role to represent the East in the NBA finals. With center Al Horford -- who played only 29 games last year due to a torn pectoral muscle -- healthy, Millsap emerging as an All-Star contender and Jeff Teague (22 points) developing into a premier point guard, the Hawks are much improved under second-year coach Mike Budenholzer.
"They're a good team," said Matthews, who scored 19 points but made only 5 of 15 shots from the field. "They move the ball well. They play hard.
"We had entirely too many turnovers. They sped us up and played fast, and we never calmed down after we got behind. We weren't ourselves, but you still have to credit them."
A year ago, Matthews harassed Kyle Korver into a 1-for-9 shooting night, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range, ending the Atlanta guard's consecutive-game streak of making at least one trey at 127 in a 102-78 Portland win at the Moda Center. With Matthews shadowing him again Saturday night, Korver started slowly with three points on 1-for-6 shooting in the first half.
But Korver -- who entered the night leading the NBA in 3-point percentage (.517) -- heated up in the second half, drilling three from beyond the arc and scoring 11 of his 14 points to go with eight rebounds.
"A big win for us," Korver said. "We got beat here by about 100 last year. They have great fans and they're a great team, but I thought we played a really good game."
The Hawks started the game 0 for 6 from the field but then took charge, using a 13-0 spurt to go in front 24-17 with 3:02 left in the first quarter. They extended the margin to 34-23 early in the second period, led 52-49 at the half and started the third quarter on a 10-2 run to improve heir lead to 62-51. A 3-pointer by Korver and a driving layup by Teague made it 79-59 with 3:46 left in the period.
Portland then went on a 14-2 tear -- capped by a 30-foot bomb at the buzzer by Lillard -- to close the gap to 83-75 entering the fourth quarter. The fans rose and made excessive noise, anticipating Lillard Time was on.
"I thought things were going to change for us -- just because of who we are," said Aldridge, who scored 22 of his points after intermission. "I thought we had gotten over the hump."
So did Lillard.
"I thought it was going to give us momentum," he said, "that we'd be able to take over the game."
Instead, Atlanta scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to go ahead 88-75. The margin was 106-91 with 3:26 to play. Though the Hawks cracked open the door by missing five of six free throws inside the final two minutes, the Blazers never recovered.
"It was a great first few minutes," Aldridge said. "Then (the Hawks) did a really good job of taking us out of our rhythm and making us play too fast. They brought their defense. They made us uncomfortable most of the night."
NOTES: Next up on Portland's seven-game homestand is Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. Atlanta was on the second stop on a three-game trip that concludes Monday against the L.A. Clippers. The last time Atlanta had the best mark in the East this late in the season was during the 1993-94 season. Among Atlanta's other victims during the recent 20-game stretch: Cleveland (twice), Chicago, Houston, Dallas and the Clippers. The Hawks are 11-5 on the road and have won seven in a row against West foes. The last time they had a four-game road win streak was November 1995. Lillard played in his 19th consecutive game, putting him into a second-place tie with Terry Porter for the second-longest streak in franchise history.
Budenholzer said pre-game that he considers the Blazers a championship contender. "You look at where they rank in the league in important categories -- defensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage -- they're at the top," Budenholzer said. "Having (33) games is a pretty good sample to justify that." Former University of Portland player Ben Sullivan, who worked in basketball development and as an assistant video coordinator with San Antonio the past two seasons, is a full-time assistant with the Hawks. "He really learned the trade during his time with the Spurs," Budenholzer said of the Lake Oswego High grad. "He has made a big impact already, working with our younger players. We're lucky to have him." Stotts was Atlanta's head coach for a season and a half in 2004 and '05, going 52-85. Tthe Blazers began the night ranked among the league leaders in free-throw percentage (second, .788), 3-point percentage (fourth, .376), scoring (fourth, 104.0). They were also second in assists and third in blocked shots. Defensively, they ranked first in opponents' 3-point percentage (.291) and second in both scoring defense (96.5), and opponents' field-goal percentage (.428).