Game 21 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz

Game Time: 6:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW

The 12-8 Portland Trail Blazers visit the 11-7 Utah Jazz tonight, two teams in a virtual deadlock for the prestigious 3rd position in the NBA's Northwest Conference. The Jazz were flying high until they registered two losses to the Dallas Mavericks in as many weeks (plus a slightly less understandable loss to the Toronto Raptors). The Blazers fly high whenever they're at home but lift off like a blind, fat mule on the road. Both teams are in need of confidence and confirmation. Somebody is going to be happy with this win. Somebody else's bubble is going to get popped tonight.

The Jazz owe their success so far to a couple of big men. Veteran Al Jefferson, locked in a perpetual struggle with conditioning, isn't putting up numbers like he did in Minnesota but he still provides 18 points and 9 rebounds a night playing center. Power forward Paul Millsap is just spanking opponents. He registered the same 18 and 9 as Jefferson but does it with far fewer shots and more flair. His shooting percentage is hovering around 55% and he's netting 3 offensive rebounds per game. He's dangerous.

Less so are Utah's guards. Point man Devin Harris is like that guy in high school who used to get all the attention but you meet him again at your 10-year reunion and say, "What happened to you, man?" Everything about him screams "mediocre". He's becoming less and less a part of Utah's core attack and is now looking loss. At shooting guard the Jazz start Raja Bell, still a good shooter. Gordon Hayward starts at small forward. Outside of his 6'8" height and bad shooting percentages, he's known primarily for a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Utah's bench features a hodgepodge of veterans in Josh Howard, Earl Watson, and C.J. Miles at the smaller positions plus youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter at the big slots. It's not the worst bench but firepower can be an issue.

As you might expect, the Jazz feed off of points in the paint. Their main scorers are big men and their offensive rebounding is solid. They also score on the break, though. Their overall shooting percentage is understandably high. They also draw fouls, another solid source of points. They are not in any way, shape, or form a three-point shooting team. Bell is their best shooter by far in the regular rotation and he'd be considered a notch above fair on most teams. They want to run, pound, and rebound.

Defensively Utah is so-so. They're great shot-blockers and adequate rebounders. They do get back on defense but their interior line is as suspect defensively as it is imposing offensively. If they don't block your shot they're not going to stop you. They're not highly mobile and you can get good looks with a couple passes on most possessions.

On paper this looks like a pretty even matchup. The Jazz are talented and flawed, as are the Blazers. The Jazz are up and down, as are the Blazers. Utah has strengths of interior scoring and fast-breaking, though, which correspond to Portland weaknesses. Combine that with Portland's chronic road woes and the Blazers are going to have to come out with more determination than we've yet seen from them away from the Rose Garden. Utah really won't want to lose this game. The Blazers are going to have to take it. In order to do so they'll have to both defend and score in the middle, commit to getting back on defense, and work for smart shots instead of settling for convenient ones. Oh...and don't forget those rebounds.

Usually I have a pretty good sense of how a game is supposed to go. With this one I'm not sure. The Blazers could take it or they could get killed. It feels like the difference is in Portland's hands. The Blazers have the horses to win. But will they commit to making the right plays and delivering the energy for four quarters? This is yet another test on the long road to figuring out what this team will be.

Read about the Jazz perspective at SLC Dunk.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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