Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW
The battle royale between also-rans in the Northwest Division continues tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Utah Jazz. But let's face it, isn't everybody besides Oklahoma City an also-ran in the division this year?
The Jazz were trying to lay claim to significance within the division and conference during the middle of March when they rattled off 7 wins in 8 games, falling only to the Atlanta Hawks in overtime. Their March 26th win versus New Jersey left them 27-23, in nice position to claim a lower-tier playoff seed. They've since lost three straight courtesy of Boston, Sacramento, and the Clippers. They're now in 9th, a game out of the final seed with Houston ahead and Phoenix nipping at their heels. If they have any designs on the post-season, games like this one will be critical to their success. Portland is only a couple games behind in the standings but they have to leapfrog three teams to reach the eighth position, unlikely but still possible. Whatever hopes the Blazers have of making the playoffs also ride on games such as this. It could be a great contest between motivated opponents. It could be a late-season slop-fest between teams who suspect they're lottery-bound. It's a wildcard matchup where the stakes are low but still comprise the entire purse of the competing parties.
The Jazz have been crippled by injuries to two key veterans: Josh Howard and Raja Bell, both down with bad knees. They aren't the biggest names on the roster but Bell was a reliable shooter and Howard--though a shadow of his old self offensively--had big-game potential. Center-foward Al Jefferson has done all he can to fill in, taking a prodigious number of shots and scoring high...26 and 27 in their last two games. Power forward Paul Millsap, himself an offensive impresario, offensive rebounds and takes whatever shots Jefferson leaves behind. They're a handful for opposing teams, a constant threat to score at the big positions.
Utah's small position players need some work. Point guard Devin Harris had a good run during the winning streak--a key to Utah's victories--but lately has shot horribly when he's shot at all. He's good but streaky, certainly less reliable than you'd like in a starting point guard, let alone a team cornerstone. Shooting guard Gordon Hayward has had a good month but then again that's good relative to Gordon Hayward. Starting small forward C.J. Miles is also streaky, ambling along to a good game, a couple bad, and a few that don't matter. None of Utah's starting wings can hit a three, making the scoring of their bigs even more impressive.
Hamstrung by injuries, Utah's bench is just getting by. Derrick Favors can rebound. Alec Burks scores in double-figures occasionally. Enes Kanter, Earl Watson, DeMarre Carroll...two-dimensional and thin are the bywords. It's not that they're 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 second 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.
SLCDunk will have your Utah news.
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