Blazers get back on track against struggling Hawks

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer

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PORTLAND — Meyers Leonard was right.

The Blazers big man said in the locker room prior to Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks that Kyle Korver’s record streak of 127 consecutive games with a made 3-pointer would end Wednesday.

But it was Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews who made it happen.

Korver went 0 for 5 from 3-point range Wednesday as the Blazers breezed to a 102-78 win at the Moda Center.

“Me and Wes, we said, ‘tonight we are going to end it,'” Batum said.

However, Batum and the rest of the Blazers gave most of the credit to Matthews, who always takes pride in a defensive challenge.

“It’s a team thing, but Wes took a lot of pride in that challenge. It was fun to watch, especially that third quarter,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “They were going head-to-head and Wes took the challenge.”

The game was slipping away from the Hawks after halftime and they kept running sets for Korver to get open looks.

“I knew what kind of player he was, he was going to get a lot of movement, a lot of screens,” said Matthews. “They were going to run a lot of stuff for him, and I just did my best to take them out of that.”

The Blazers allow by far the fewest 3s per game in the NBA, and mixing that with Atlanta’s abysmal play as of late proved to be a perfect storm.

The Blazers won the first quarter by 10, holding the Hawks to just 19 points and Atlanta’s offensive struggles continued for most of the night.

The Blazers set season lows for opponents points and field goal percentage as the Hawks, scoring around the league average, shot a measly 32 percent.

“The priorities going into the game-three-point shot, penetration, rim, transition. We took care of all of those in the first half, and I thought that continued into the second half,” said Stotts said.

One night after surrendering 32 fast break points, the Blazers gave up only 13 to the Hawks.

There was some question heading into the night whether Damian Lillard would be ready to play after missing Tuesday’s practice with a stomach virus. Lillard started the game and finished with 12 points and six assists in 25 minutes.

Thanks to their hot start and Atlanta not being able to hit anything from the field, the Blazers were able to rest their starters most of the final period.

Batum notched his second career-high in rebounds in three games, finishing with 18 rebounds to go along with 14 points

LaMarcus Aldridge played in the final period but did not have a very good night from the field, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds on 1-of-13 shooting.

Portland’s All-Star forward says that his timing still isn’t back. Stotts said that Aldridge is still on a minutes restriction, placed by Portland’s training staff, keeping him at 30 minutes until further notice.

Mo Williams provided 15 points off the bench.

The Blazers will likely be thankful for their rest as they head into a five-game road trip against all three Texas teams, Memphis and New Orleans beginning on Friday against the Dallas Mavericks.

“It’s a tough trip. We made a similar trip earlier in the season but you can’t look too far ahead. Dallas is the first stop,” Stotts said.

Blazers notes

Batum a sure bet close to rim

Nicolas Batum has been a fill-in-the-blanks type of player for the Blazers so far this season.

When they need rebounds, he rebounds. When they need playmaking, he will set his teammates up.

Something else that the Blazers have needed and something he’s been much better at this season is his finishing around the basket.

So far this season, Batum is shooting 74 percent from within five feet from the basket — an area where the league average is 58.5 percent.

Batum hasn’t shot that well close to the basket in his entire career and when he was asked if he had done anything in particular to improve his finishing, he didn’t even know how well he was doing.

“I mean the closer you get to the basket, the easier it is to score. So, if I have a good percentage, I guess I have to do that more,” he said.

Hot starts crucial

The Trail Blazers gave up 33 points to the Lakers in the first quarter of Monday night’s loss. The opponent they faced on Wednesday night is much like Lakers team they faced on Monday.

The Atlanta Hawks came into Portland both depleted by injury but playing a wide open style with an emphasis on three-point shooting.

“They’re a dangerous team. They shoot the ball well, they pass well. They’ve had some injuries,” said Blazers coach Stotts. “After the last game, a good start would be nice.”

The Blazers listened, it seems, jumping out to a 29-19 lead against Atlanta.

The slow start against the Lakers, however, was the exception and not the norm for the Blazers recently according to Stotts.

“We’ve done a good job with that since the All-Star break other than Minnesota and the Lakers,” he said.

The Hawks With a Wounded Wing

The Hawks have been marred by injuries, especially to their front court players Al Horford and Paul Millsap, but even though they are thin in the front court Stotts wants his team to play their game.

The injuries have helped to send the Hawks on a major tailspin after starting off the season with a record above .500 which was good for third place in the East.

Coming into Portland, the Hawks were losers of 12 of their last 13 games with their only win coming against the recently laughable New York Knicks.

They’ve struggled but they remain in the playoff picture in the East, holding on to 8th place, 3.5 games ahead of ninth place Detroit.

However, despite the injuries and and the losing, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer says that his team remains confident in his team’s competitive spirit.

“The spirit and the fight is pretty good,” said Budenholzer. “We’ve had a couple of good days of practice. We’ve got a good locker room. I think it just speaks to the character of our team and the character of our players. They don’t like losing but I think we know that there’s lots of areas we know we need to improve.”