Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: Comcast
OK, this could get nasty. Remember what I said in the last preview about the Blazers needing to beat conference rivals? Well, 1-point nail-biter or no, they didn't beat New Orleans. It counts as a full-fledged loss. What's worse, tonight we see a division rival who is neck and neck with us in the standings. Plus it's the second game of this brief, two-game homestand before playing 3 of 4 on the road against Houston, Dallas, and the Jazz again. Plus Utah has won 7 of their last 8, defeating the likes of Dallas, Miami, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Phoenix. They're hot. Last week on the radio I said that if the Blazers were going to fall off of the cliff they've been treading the edge of for the last month or so, this end-of-January stretch would be the time they'd do it. This game may spell the difference between hanging on by a branch and plummeting.
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The Jazz have had a simple formula in their torrid streak: score a million points per game. Well, maybe not a million, but they have averaged nearly 112 in their seven wins. Come to think of it, they posted 112 in their only loss as well (to Denver on the road, by the way). That's crazy time. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, C.J. Miles, and Andre Kirilenko have all led the team in scoring during this stretch so it's not like they're simply riding one hot hand (though Boozer has put up some phenomenal numbers both scoring and rebounding). It's like someone popped the cork on the Jazz and everything came tumbling out all at once.
On the year the Jazz are defending pretty well, shooting great, passing the ball around the court quicker than incriminating pictures get...wait. Too soon. They share the ball, OK? Their offense is fairly efficient, their pace is fairly quick, most of the guys on their team can draw a foul. They only have a couple of guys that shoot threes well but those are also the only guys that take threes. Running the court or running plays they know how to identify a good shot and that's how they make their living. About the only thing they don't do at an elite level on offense is offensive rebound, but when you make as many shots as they do who needs to?
The Jazz do have defensive shortcomings in the frontcourt and off the bench but whether the Blazers can exploit those is an open question. They are capable of forcing turnovers but they're not shot blockers. If you can get in the lane against them you have a good chance. But if you don't hit they're very good defensive rebounders.
There's no doubt that Utah is playing better than Portland is right now. There's no doubt that the Jazz are healthier, and thus more talented, than the Blazers right now. Portland will have to exploit every small advantage they have and steadfastly refuse to fall into Utah's game. Otherwise it's going to be lights out and a restless crowd leaving the Rose Garden.
Keys to the Game
- 1. Right away I can tell you that LaMarcus Aldridge and Jerryd Bayless need to be huge. They're the only two guys who can be volume scorers who are also going up against defenders they can certainly score against. The Blazers need points tonight. These two have got to lead the way so whatever contributions the other guys make can tell.
- 2. You have to find a way to limit Utah's scoring as well. Denver beat them by putting up 119 but does anyone think the Blazers are capable of that, or even 110, right now? So here's the deal. You give up zero easy baskets. You do not turn the ball over in ways that lead to transition. You get back in transition. If Utah lets you have advantage break opportunities you sure take them but otherwise you're deliberate on offense to limit possessions. You pack the middle on defense and dare their distance shooters to beat you. They can, but you play those percentages anyway. No layups, just jumpers...even if those jumpers aren't covered the best.
- 3. The Blazers have to at least keep pace with the Jazz on the boards. Offensive rebounds particularly would help for Portland. The Blazers will have a hard time winning if they're one-and-done.
- 4. Every loose ball better be Portland's.
If all of this stuff happens then the Blazers have a shot. Basically they need to make the game ugly as heck and hope that they get the last punch in. I said at the outset of the preview that this could get nasty. The better way to put it is that this better be a nasty game. Anything else and we're probably looking at a Jazz waltz. Maybe the hometown crowd and the traditional problems the road team has had throughout the history of this series will tip the balance. But the Blazers have their work cut out in order to create a balance to be tipped.
Check out the Jazz perspective at SLCDunk.
The Jersey Contest is taking a break tonight. We'll be back on Friday.