Second-Half Defense Carries Shorthanded Trail Blazers Past Hawks

by Casey Holdahl
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PORTLAND -- Despite being down one starter in the first half and two in the second, the Portland Trail Blazers managed to stiffen up defensively in the third and fourth quarters to defeat the Atlanta Hawks 112-106 Saturday night at the Moda Center.

“(Atlanta) scored 66 in the first half and they scored 40 in the second, 20 and 20,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Really, to me, the story of the win was Dame taking a charge down the stretch, getting a defensive stop, Gary Trent working on Trae Young, Enes Kanter big rebounds, Derrick Jones Jr. I thought was all over the place defensively in the second half, rebounding, deflections. I thought our team defense in the second half really stood out.”

With the win, their fourth in the last five games, Portland is now 8-5 overall and 4-3 at the Moda Center this season.

Considering the way Saturday's game started, one might be perplexed to find the Trail Blazers touting their defense by the finish. The Hawks shot 71 percent from the field in the first 12 minutes, with Young going for 10 points and Clint Capela taking advantage of Portland playing without their starting center Jusuf Nurkic (broken right wrist) for the first time this season to the tune of 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting.

But as the Trail Blazers settled in, the Hawks percentage would start to fall. Granted, Atlanta started the second on a 14-2 run to take their largest lead of the game at 52-36 while the Trail Blazers scored just five points through the first six minutes of the quarter, but Portland also managed to improve on both ends in the second half of the quarter to go into the half trailing by manageable deficit of 66-59.

And their defense that simply got better in the second quarter got stiff in the third. Portland held Atlanta to 29 percent shooting from the field and 1-of-10 shooting from three and got quality individual defensive efforts from Enes Kanter (two blocks and a steal in the quarter), Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr.

And with Damian Lillard picking up his scoring in the absence of CJ McCollum, who sat out the second half with a left foot sprain, to the tune of 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, the Trail Blazers outscored the Hawks by seven in the third to go into the fourth tied at 86-86.

Typically, the Trail Blazers rely on fourth-quarter fireworks on the offensive end to pull out a close game, but it was their defense that won the day in the final 12 minutes Saturday night. With only Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony shooting accurately in the quarter -- the two went a combined 6-of-13 from the field and 3-of-7 from three in the fourth while the rest of the team went a combined 1-of-11 from the field and 0-of-5 from three -- the rest of the team would have to find some way to contribute.

And that they did. There was Kanter blocking two more shots and Jones Jr. poking away two steals and skying for rebounds to save possessions. Their defense held the Hawks to 0-of-5 shooting from deep in the quarter and just four transition points. And there was Lillard taking a charge on Young with 15.5 seconds to play and the Trail Blazers holding a slim 108-106 lead.

“Big time players make big time plays,” said Trent Jr. “Dame Lillard giving his body up, sacrificing his body, giving us a winning play, giving us the last extra effort that we needed to get the W is who he is.”

He’s also one of the leagues best free throw shooters at 93 percent, so converting the last four points of the game from the free throw line, especially with the Trail Blazer going almost the last four minutes of the game without a field goal, while also stealing the final inbounds pass of the game helped the home team secure the six-point victory.

“I think we should be proud of ourselves and the effort that we had in the second half,” said Lillard. “We know the first half wasn’t good enough and this was a game we had to have. We came out of the half with a lot more pride on the defensive end. I thought our communication was much better, our physical presence was much better. We just had a lot more urgency about us. I think we’ve shown flashes of that over the course of these first 13 games, it’s just a matter of us being able to sustain that level and be consistent at doing it.

“I think we’re happy that we were able to put a half like that together but we’ve got to continue to work on becoming a team that can hang our hat on that. Whether we’re making or missing shots, we can be that type of team consistently because it’s what we’re going to need.”

Lillard led all scorers with 36 points on 10-of-23 shooting from the field and 12-of-12 shooting from the free throw line to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and a steal in 42 minutes.

Trent Jr. shot 50 percent from both the field and three to finish with 18 points off the bench. Kanter put up a double-double in his first start of the season, going for 12 points and 15 rebounds while also blocking fivce shots, handing out three assists and swiping two steals in 28 minutes.

Jones Jr. came a rebound away from a double-double as well with 10 points and nine rebounds to go with two steals in 34 minutes. Carmelo Anthony added 11 points off the bench.

McCollum, who finished the game with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, played the first half but did not return in the second due to a left foot sprain. The injury seemed to occur when Hawks center Capela stepped on McCollum’s foot after a made layup with 7:22 to play in the first quarter. McCollum walked off the injury initially during the ensuing timeout, and would go on to play for the rest of the half, but was replaced by Anfernee Simons in the second half.

McCollum underwent x-rays and an MRI, which confirmed the sprain. His status going forward is not yet known.

Young led the Hawks with 26 points and 11 assists in 38 minutes. Capela also had a double-double with 25 points and 15 rebounds.

Next up, the Trail Blazers have Sunday off before hosting the San Antonio Spurs in an early game on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Tipoff is scheduled for Monday at noon.

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