NBA on ESPN Picks: Atlanta Hawks at Portland Trail Blazers

Paul Millsap shot 6 of 9 from the field in Atlanta's 17-point win over Orlando on Monday night.
Paul Millsap shot 6 of 9 from the field in Atlanta’s 17-point win over Orlando on Monday night.

Atlanta Hawks at Portland Trail Blazers
Time: 9:30 PM CT (ESPN)
Spread: ATL -1.5
Total: 210

Betting odds c/o 5dimes

The Atlanta Hawks are currently seeded No. 4 in the East with a 25-17 record, but it trails No. 2 Toronto by just 1.5 games.

Tonight’s contest against the Portland Trail Blazers could represent a chance to move up, with the Blazers currently at 19-25. Portland is 10-9 at home and will host the Hawks in a game NBA oddsmakers are favoring the Hawks by 1.5 points.

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Portland has hardly been the pushover most expected it would be this season. A big part of why is Shooting guard C.J. McCollum, who is at this point the leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Lehigh product is averaging 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in 35 minutes a night, serving as a perfect complement to team star Damian Lillard. Lillard for his part has been on fire, too, averaging 24.4 points per game while posting a team-high PER of 21.8.

The Blazers last disposed of the Washington Wizards on Monday night, winning 108-98 behind 25 points from McCollum and 16 from Lillard. Lillard does need to keep the ball in his hands to score, because the Blazers are at their best when he is playing “shoot first” basketball.

McCollum will get his touches. Lillard is averaging 23 points and 6.6 assists in the Blazers’ 22 losses this season. But in wins, he is good for 26.5 points and 7.6 assists. Over his past five games Lillard has averaged 23 points and 7.4 assists per game while shooting 46.5 percent from three-point range on an average of 8.6 attempts per game.

The Blazers average 10.3 made threes per game while shooting 36.2 percent as a team. Lillard and McCollum account for 5.6 of those makes, but Allen Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu are both averaging 1.5 makes per game too. Crabbe is the third-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game while playing 26 minutes per night off the bench.

Aminu is hailed mostly as a defensive player but has shown an increased offensive capability this season in posting 10.6 points per game. Aminu lacks a developed jump shot and hits just 40.6 percent from the floor, but he has helped fill the void left by Nicolas Batum, who is now playing in Charlotte (and doing fantastically for what it is worth).

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The Blazers’ biggest need is frontcourt fortification. As good as Miles Plumlee and Meyers Leonard can be offensively, the pair has had it struggles on the defensive end. Some of that is covered by the strong help-side defense of Ed Davis, but Davis plays just 21 minutes a night. He is averaging 1.28 blocks/steals per game in helping cover some of Plumlee and Leonard’s blunders, but Portland will likely be looking to draft a big man in the 2016 draft. Alternatively, it could turn to free agency to solve its issues in the paint.

The Hawks are coming off back-to-back victories over the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, two teams currently in possession of the longest skids in the East (three games down straight for each team). The Hawks barely prevailed in Orlando in its first matchup against the Magic, needing a three from Kyle Korver to seal it up in regulation. Monday night was not so. The Hawks defeated the Magic by 17 points behind big games from both Paul Millsap and Al Horford.

Millsap and Horford combined to shoot 13 of 19 from the field for 28 combined points and the Hawks shot 51.3 percent as a team. Backup point guard Dennis Schroder impressed with eight assists in 18 minutes off the bench. The Hawks had 31 assists on 41 field goals and improved its mark to 9-1 when the team has 30 assists or more in a game.

The Hawks have defeated Orlando 17 of the last 21 games, but are setting its sights higher than knocking off fringe playoff teams. This is a club that won 60 games last year while only losing one key player (DeMarre Carroll who signed with the Toronto Raptors). There is no reason Mike Budenholtzer’s club cannot make a late season run to position itself solidly for the postseason.

The Hawks will likely snag a homecourt advantage for the first round, but anything beyond that is a shaky proposition. Atlanta is just 1.5 point favorites against a non-playoff team in the West, so oddsmakers are not giving Horford and company too much credit. This is a very deep Atlanta team capable of far more damage than it has inflicted on opposition thus far this season. Both teams are fully healthy so this is a fair assessment of where the Blazers and Hawks stand in relation to one another.

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