Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers Preview

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: KGW

Another night, another chance to play a team hanging on to the lip of the playoff cliff, trying desperately to pull themselves up over the edge before it crumbles and sends them plunging to the doom of an early vacation. The Phoenix Suns lifted themselves Monday night, clobbering the Blazers 125-107. They now sit in that precious 8th spot in the West, tied with Houston. One half-game behind are the Utah Jazz, Portland's opponents for the evening. This is a huge evening for the Jazz. They have four games remaining, facing Orlando, Phoenix, and Portland again at home after tonight's contest. They need to leapfrog two teams to make the playoffs. 2-2 probably won't do it. 3-1 just might. 4-0 and they're sitting pretty. The key to that 3-1 or better record is this game. If they're at all serious about ripping away that playoff spot from Phoenix and Houston they need to win this game.

The Jazz have had a mediocre month, going 5-4 in April. Their biggest disappointment of the year may have been a 96-85 loss to the lowly Hornets last Friday night. Their biggest success followed on Monday, a thrilling 123-121 overtime victory over the visiting Mavericks. They're not exactly on a roll. Instead it's like they were driving NASCAR and found themselves behind the pack so they just decided to floor the gas pedal. They're careening all around in desperation and we're waiting to see whether they make up a couple spots or go plowing into the wall.

Utah is missing several players from the lineup. Raja Bell, Josh Howard, Earl Watson, and C.J. Miles are all injured. This doesn't affect their starting lineup too much. Al Jefferson is playing great, right around the 20-point mark most nights. He pasted 28 points and 26 rebounds on the Mavericks. Paul Millsap is also good for plenty of points and rebounds. They're scary on the offensive boards and anywhere near the paint. 6'8" small forward DeMarre Carroll has been filling in the gaps, rebounding, passing, shooting incredibly well from the field. Point guard Devin Harris has been feast or famine, scoring 25 or 6, nothing in between. So, too, shooting guard Gordon Hayward, but he's been good for plenty of assists and a few rebounds and steals as well. Like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when they're good they're very, very good but when they're bad they're horrid. (Shout out to Longfellow, yo! Keep it real, H.W.! Fist bump! Chest bump! Down low! Quill pen saber cross spin! Whack-Whack!)

Sorry. I don't usually use the blog for personal messages but he's one of my peeps.

Anyway, the scary thing for the Jazz is...that's it. Those injuries have destroyed their bench. You've got guys like Jamaal Tinsley and Derrick Favors in reserve but they're not reliable, not even good most nights. The starters are playing 40-odd minutes per game. If you hobble them, they're done.

As we said in the Blazers-Jazz preview from their games a couple weeks ago:

It's not that [the Jazz are] bad, per se, just inconsistent.

Inconsistent aptly describes the whole team right now. They're relying heavily on Jefferson and Millsap, both of whose production comes with a price tag defensively (albeit a lower one this year than usual). The Jazz don't have the defensive chops to compensate from the smaller positions nor the offensive talent to push the team over the top via scoring alone. The effect is like a bicycle with just enough momentum to move but not enough to glide: wobbly.

Sometimes the obvious strategies are the best and that certainly holds true for the Blazers tonight. You know where Utah's scoring is coming from. They're 2nd in the league in points in the paint through a combination of their bigs and a better-than-expected number of points off the break. Get back on defense, clog the middle, and make their shooters shoot. The farther they get from the hoop the more their game crumbles, all the way down to a 29th ranking in the league in three-point percentage. If they score easy and inside they'll kill you. If you take away their opportunities early and close they'll stumble. You also have to watch out for Jefferson and Millsap on the offensive glass. They have a nose for the ball not seen around these parts since Zach Randolph. They will convert those misses into points, leaving you slapping your head in frustration.

Defensively you have to watch out for the big play. Utah is fond of blocks and steals. If they don't get either they usual won't disrupt you, with the caveat that those wings do get out to cover the three-pointer. The Jazz also foul a ton, though, so you can make your extra points at the stripe instead of the arc. If Portland's mantra on defense tonight is "play smart", covering the basics first and worrying about the jumper later, then the mantra on offense is "don't play stupid". Move the ball, make the Jazz defend a little. Don't fall in love with the first long bombshell you see. You'll twist them up, get nice shots, probably draw whistles, maybe make their already-thin lineup a little thinner through foul trouble. Fight even a little on the boards after doing that and you have yourself a victory.

All of that still holds true, right down to the statistical rankings.

Portland, of course, has been decimated by injuries as well. LaMarcus Aldridge is out. Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton didn't play last game. Presumably Felton will be back but Batum is always a game-time decision now. The difference is, these aren't bench players we're talking about but starters. Utah would appear to have the advantage here in both talent and motivation.

However this is the last home game of the year for the Blazers. Somehow that makes me think they're going to pull a rabbit out of the hat. When they've been motivated and paying attention to defense and board-work even these crippled Blazers lineups have fared well. Recent losses are attributable not just to talent imbalance but to a team content to fire away haphazardly on offense and giving no attention to the other end of the floor. Oddly enough, I think the emotion of their final curtain call at home could provide a temporary cure for that malady tonight...at least enough of a cure to tip the balance against an uncertain Jazz team. Somehow I hear, "It felt good to give the fans one more chance to cheer. Now we're just going to finish out the season and see what happens (translation: 'lose")..." as a post-game refrain. That's probably stupid, as the Blazers have nearly zero effective defense to throw against the Jazz at the big positions where they're strong, but still...

I don't see the Blazers winning any of their remaining three games on the road, so if there's to be one more victory this probably has to be it. If this does turn out to be a horrible effort, I'm genuinely worried that this will be the first season in forever where the final sound we hear from the Rose Garden is mixed, tending towards boos, rather than the usual rousing cheer of thanks no matter what. Here's hoping we don't have to find out.

SLC Dunk will probably be intense about this outing.

Your Jersey Contest form for this game.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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