Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
The Utah Jazz are sitting where the Portland Trail Blazers would like to be: in the lower seeds of the conference playoff picture. They're also wounded and the Blazers should have no trouble figuring out how to stop them...in theory. Will Portland be up to the task in actuality? Can they take both games and pass Utah in the standings?
The Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz face off tonight in battle for Northwest Division also-ran bragging rights and possibly Western Conference low playoff seed contention. The Jazz hold a 25-21 record, good for 3rd in the division, 7th in the conference. At 23-22 the Blazers are 4th in the Northwest (a Nelson Muntzian "Ha Ha!" to Minnesota here) and 9th in the conference. If the Blazers are going to crawl into a playoff seed they need wins and they need to knock off somebody just ahead of them. Tonight's game in Utah and tomorrow's at home against this same Jazz squad qualify in both senses. 6:00 p.m. Pacific marks the Friday tip-off hour for the CSNNW game. Saturday's start time is 7:00 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on KGW.
As is typical of Portland opponents lately, the Jazz are running hot. They blasted through January with a 10-4 record. Granted, the quality of opponent wasn't that high. The only laudable victories in the bunch came against Miami and Indiana, both at home. But 10 out of 14 is legit no matter which way you look at it and their confidence is undoubtedly high.
Copying the Minnesota Plan from a few years ago, the Jazz have stocked their lineup with point guards and power forwards, stretching them to play any old position needed. The forward corps includes Paul Millsap (15 points, 8 rebounds, their actual power forward), Al Jefferson (17 and 9.5 at center), Derrick Favors (9 and 6 but rising of late), and Marvin Williams (don't ask). Mo "Don't Associate Me with Marvin" Williams is their lead point guard but he's out with thumb surgery. They're running with Jamaal "I'm Still Playing" Tinsley and Earl "Yes, Holmes, I'm Old Enough To Be That" Watson. Tweener guard Randy Foye plays a short shooting guard along with Gordon Hayward, who, like Mo Williams, won't play tonight. 6'6" sophomore (and horrible shooter) Alec Burks plays some shooting guard minutes as well, largely to the chagrin of his team.
Oh, they have a small forward too. DaMarre Carroll averages 17 minutes a game and is OK when he's not fouling people.
So here was their latest starting lineup: Tinsley, Foye, Marvin Williams, Millsap, and Jefferson. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out their game plan here. You don't have to be a college science professor either. You don't even have to be one of those sandwich scientists who asks you if you actually want banana peppers on your sub at the local fast-food joint. They will...try to...score with...their bigs. And by "bigs" we mean Jefferson and Millsap with an occasional favor from Favors. Nobody else currently healthy for this squad could score 10 points without taking 15 shots to do it.
Soooooo kiddies, what do you think Portland's game plan should be? If you said, "Everybody gather around Millsap and Jefferson, grab some popcorn, then stand and watch Jamaal Tinsley try to hit a jumper" give yourself a big round of applause. If you do that, you keep them away from secondary scoring off offensive rebounds, and you don't let them run out for unopposed layups, they will score 90 points and you will win. (Unless, of course, your name ends in "Hornets" or "Wizards" or "Lakers", but that goes without saying.)
Points in the paint and fastbreak points are the friends of the Jazz. Nobody's left outside of Randy Foye who can hit a three. Double those bigs. Triple those bigs if you have to. Dare anybody else to beat you as long as it's over the top and as long as you rebound it.
On the other end Jefferson and Millsap are almost as bad defensively as they are good offensively. You can get anything you want in the paint versus Utah. You can also rain threes on them until they have to bring out the tarp. They're not even great defensive rebounders so you can hit the offensive glass as long as you remember that they like to score in transition and can get somebody back. The only thing you have to watch out for is steals, as they're relatively decent overall and Tinsley can still pick your pocket.
The best way for the Blazers to approach this game would be knocking the Jazz off their perch early. That would drain their confidence and allow extra bench minutes in this back-to-back. But make no mistake...if the Blazers are serious about a playoff run they should also be serious about taking both these games from the wounded Jazz. Nobody's going to blink if they split after the typical lackluster effort on the road. It's expected. But it's also expected that the Blazers will miss the post-season this year. If they want to change that fate they need to stop going with the "young team" flow and make their mark here and now. If the Blazers were to come out of this weekend 25-22 while the Jazz fell to 25-23 that would be a message sent, not just to Utah but the rest of the league and, more importantly, themselves. Nothing before the All-Star break is critical but those critical loss-column spreads as the season winds down could well bear the legacy of a weekend like this. The Blazers have been occasionally brilliant, often aimless this season. Their aim should be set on these next two games. Utah's exactly the right opponent in exactly the right condition while sitting in exactly the right standings position to make this move possible. Let's see if the Blazers are up to it.
Note: Portland F Joel Freeland (gastroenteritis) will not travel with the team today and is out for Friday's game at Utah. #ripcity
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