For the first time in a (very) long while, the Atlanta Hawks sit atop the Eastern Conference standings in January. The nature of a win over Utah on Friday night coupled with a Toronto loss makes that sentence possible, but the scheduling gods have not made things easy on Mike Budenholzer and his club. The Hawks travel to Portland for the second night of a back-to-back set on Saturday evening, as the face a well-oiled machine in the Trail Blazers.
There is justified buzz surrounding the Hawks right now, but they are running into a buzzsaw here. Portland sits in second place in the West at 26-7 on the year (a mark better than Atlanta's), and the Blazers have been resting since an overtime win on Tuesday. That combination should frighten you (it does for me), but even on equal rest, it is probably fair to say that the Blazers are a better team when evaluating the metrics.
The two headline match-ups here come up front with LaMarcus Aldridge, and at the point guard spot with Damian Lillard facing off against Jeff Teague. Teague was the best player on the court on Friday night, and he routinely lifts his play against the best point guards in the league, so that should take a bit of the edge off in the backcourt. However, Aldridge is a unique animal. He is so long that he would be an impossible match-up for Paul Millsap, but Portland still deploys a center next to him, even in the absence of Robin Lopez, causing some size issues for the smaller Hawks.
Portland enters Saturday night as the third-ranked team in the NBA in both net rating (+7.4 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (98.6 points allowed per 100), and they are very, very good. This season has been a small departure from the free-wheeling offensive style that saw their initial breakout last season, but the Blazers are still capable of firepower on both ends. In short, this is an extremely tall task for Budenholzer and his club with little time to recover after Friday's win, and expectations should be tempered a bit here.
This year's edition of the Atlanta Hawks have been impressive in countless ways, though, and it would be mistake to count them out in full.
Game Date/Time: Saturday, January 3, 10 p.m. ET
Location: Moda Center, Portland, Oregon
Radio: 92.9 "The Game" FM