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The Center Cannot Hold: Five Takeaways From Hawks-Blazers

Just because it came down to the wire in overtime doesn’t mean it was a well-played game

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Blazers missed Mason Plumlee on Monday. With the newly acquired Jusuf Nurkic watching in street clothes and not set to join the team until Wednesday, the Blazers were dangerously thin in the middle in the first game without their former starting center. However, even without either big man, the way the Blazers lost to the Hawks showed why their front office felt it had to make a trade. It’s not easy to lose a game when you grab 22 offensive rebounds, hold the other team to 38.6 percent shooting, and limit its bench to 14 points, but Portland found a way, losing 109–104 in overtime to Atlanta.

Like the Blazers, the Hawks are still trying to figure out their identity after they traded away one of their key pieces, Kyle Korver, a little over a month ago. The team that won 60 games and sent four players to the All-Star Game in 2015 is almost completely gone, with Paul Millsap the only member of the starting five left standing — and he has been heavily involved in trade rumors for months. Though he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, the Hawks are now firmly denying they will move Millsap at next week’s trade deadline. In holding on, they run the risk of losing him for nothing just as they lost Al Horford.

With the win, the Hawks moved into a tie with the reeling Raptors for the no. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they still have a negative point differential on the season. The Blazers, meanwhile, are now two games out of the no. 8 seed out West. Missing the playoffs would be a humbling fall for a franchise that made the second round last season and thought it was on the verge of becoming a perennial contender. The next few months will be crucial for both teams, and there were plenty of clues Monday for how things might go. Here are five takeaways from a game that wasn’t lacking for drama, even if it wasn’t particularly well played.

1. Managing Dwight Howard’s Decline

Howard has been a good soldier in his first season in Atlanta, even though he has almost exactly the same usage rate (18.8) as he did in his final season in Houston (18.4), where he repeatedly clashed with James Harden about his role in the offense. At 31 years old, in his 13th season in the NBA, Howard is no longer the physical marvel he once was, and he seems to be coming to terms with that decline. The Hawks don’t feature him much in the post, nor should they, when he’s in only the 23rd percentile of post scorers in the league, averaging 0.8 points per possession with his back to the basket:

You can see the decline in his physical ability on the defensive end of the floor, as well. Howard is still a good athlete, but the days of him getting down into a defensive stance and flying around the floor like a much smaller player are over. The Hawks have to be much more conservative in how they use him in pick-and-roll defense than the Magic did when he was winning Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watch how easily Damian Lillard blows by Howard when he gets switched onto him coming off a screen. Catch Howard on the wrong night and he looks like an old man trying to take it easy on his back as he struggles through a round of golf:

However, for as bad as Howard looks at times, he’s still remarkably productive. He had 19 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks on 5-of-7 shooting going up against a depleted Blazers front line, and the Hawks were almost helpless on the boards when he wasn’t in. Howard has become the player the Rockets always wanted him to be, an über role player who sets screens, rolls to the rim, crashes the boards, and patrols the paint. He’s no longer the dominant player he was in his prime, but he’s declining from such a peak that he can still be a really good NBA center for a while longer.

2. The Hawks Went Super Small Late

Howard was very effective against the Blazers, but the Hawks won the game by taking him out. Atlanta players other than Tim Hardaway Jr. shot 4-of-19 from 3 on Monday, so the only way Mike Budenholzer could create any floor spacing was by sliding Millsap to the 5 and playing four perimeter players around him. That was the key to the Hawks’ comeback in the final two minutes of overtime, when they played Millsap with Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Hardaway, and rookie Taurean Prince. With five Blazers defenders forced to spread out on the perimeter, there was no second line of defense when Schroder got to the rim:

Atlanta has the 25th-rated offense in the NBA this season, scoring 103.3 per 100 possessions, but according to NBA Wowy, that number shoots up to 113.2 (which would put it behind only the Warriors over the course of the season) when Millsap plays at the 5. However, the edge the lineup creates on offense is equalized by the compromises it creates defensively: With Millsap at center, the Hawks’ defensive rating plummets from 103.3 (fifth in the league) to 113.5 (which would be dead last over the entire season). Millsap is a good defensive player, but he’s not as good a rim protector or perimeter defender as Draymond Green, making the Hawks’ Lineup of Death as dangerous to themselves as it is to other teams.

Budenholzer made a specific adjustment Monday, using Prince at the 4 with Millsap at the 5, a lineup which had played only 14 minutes together all season prior. Prince, the no. 12 pick in this year’s draft, is still adjusting to the NBA game, but his length and athleticism at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds should allow him to develop into a good defensive player. He has the speed to contest shots on the perimeter and then get back to protect the rim and the size to fight on the defensive board; his activity on that end of the floor was crucial to the Hawks getting stops late. Prince’s offense is still a work in progress, and his development will be important for the Hawks over the second half of the season.

3. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu Were Awesome

Lillard and C.J. McCollum get all of the press in Portland, but just as important to the team’s success is the duo of Harkless and Aminu, who were dominant Monday. Harkless finished the game with 17 points, nine rebounds, two assists, one steal, and two blocks on 7-of-15 shooting, while Aminu chipped in with 14 points, 15 rebounds, two assists, and one steal on 5-of-14 shooting off the bench. The Hawks just had no answer for their length, athleticism and activity on the glass, as the two combined for nine offensive rebounds, including a couple of huge boards late in regulation and in overtime that kept Portland in it:

With Atlanta trapping Lillard and McCollum to get the ball out of their hands in the pick-and-roll, Aminu and Harkless were the only two members of the Blazers’ supporting cast who could punish the Hawks for their aggressive defense. They combined to shoot 7-of-13 from behind the arc; the other Portland role players went 3-for-12. Just as impressive was their ability to put the ball on the floor, draw the defense, and make the correct pass, as each showed flashes of passing ability that put the scrambling Hawks defenders in an almost-impossible position:

Aminu is the key to the Blazers defense, as they have a defensive rating of 105.9 with him on the floor and 110.9 with him off, the worst mark on the team. He has missed a lot of time with injuries and been in a prolonged shooting slump, but he’s still showing signs of an improving all-around game, with a career-best assist-to-turnover ratio. Harkless, meanwhile, is posting the best offensive season of his career, and his play on both sides of the ball has been one of the rare bright spots for the Blazers. If they are going to turn their season around, their two versatile forwards will have to be in the middle of it.

4. The Blazers Made Life Too Easy for Schroder

The only reason the Hawks were able to stay in the game late was Schroder’s ability to play one-on-one and create shots for himself despite his team’s offensive ineptitude Monday night. He finished with 22 points on 9-of-22 shooting, with almost all of his damage coming right at the rim. The scouting report on Schroder, a career 33.1 percent shooter from 3, is to make him beat you from the outside, but it doesn’t matter how streaky he is as a shooter if you can’t stay in front of him. Schroder took 12 shots in the paint, thanks in large part to Lillard and McCollum graciously getting out of his way:

My colleague Kevin O’Connor talked about the defensive shortcomings of the Blazers’ starting backcourt in his article about the Plumlee trade, and they were very apparent in this game:

Nurkic is going to have his work cut out for him because Portland gives up as much dribble penetration as any team in the league.

5. Help Wanted Up Front in Portland

With Plumlee gone and Nurkic not playing, this game was essentially a one-night audition for Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh to demand more playing time. Neither did much with the opportunity. In 38 minutes of action, they combined for three points and 11 personal fouls. Leonard went 0-of-6 from beyond the arc, while Vonleh was a nonfactor on offense whom the Hawks rarely bothered to guard.

Leonard and Vonleh were both lottery picks, and neither has developed as much as the Blazers had hoped. Leonard is a 7-foot spot-up shooter who doesn’t offer much value on either end of the floor when he’s not knocking down shots, while Vonleh still hasn’t found one thing he does well enough to consistently earn playing time. They were both drafted high due to the combination of size, shooting potential, and athleticism they displayed in college, but they have not been able to translate those physical tools into consistent production at the NBA level. Leonard was at least able to parlay his 2014–15 season in the 50–40–90 club into a four-year, $41 million contract with the Blazers over the summer; Vonleh is going to have to fight to stay in the league once his rookie contract is up.

In other words, there’s plenty of opportunity for Nurkic to prove his worth in Portland. He chafed with the lack of playing time behind Nikola Jokic in Denver, but there’s no such impediment on his new team. Integrating his bruising, low-post style is going to be a huge transition for the Blazers, and he doesn’t solve their glaring need for rim protection at center, but they don’t have much reason not to throw him out there to see what they have in him.