The 4-16 Utah Jazz visit the Moda Center tonight to challenge the Blazers and their No. 1 overall record in the Western Conference.
Does this game have the potential to be a "trap," or a "letdown", two oft-repeated phrases bandied about by fans when a superior team faces a clearly weaker -- and in this case, somewhat weakened -- opponent?
Frankly, probably not. The Jazz are a team developing younger guys, as five of their top six players likely to see the most action tonight are 23 years old or younger. Forward Richard Jefferson, 33, is the only current rotation player one could really consider an experienced veteran.
The Blazers have clearly proven they're deserving of their record -- amid early-season allegations of a weak schedule -- following recent victories over the Pacers and Thunder, two of the NBA's top teams in either conference. Add to that list quality wins over the Spurs, Warriors and Bulls, and it's not hard to see why Portland deserves to be taken seriously among the league's elite.
Plain and simple, if the Blazers come out and execute coach Terry Stotts' gameplan against the Jazz as well as they have the majority of the season, guys like center Meyers Leonard and guards Allen Crabbe and Will Barton should be in the game mid-way through the fourth quarter.
Utah coach Ty Corbin will likely be without two of his three healthy small forwards in Marvin Williams and Jeremy Evans, leaving time at that spot to be split between Jefferson and the little-played Mike Harris.
Jefferson has played slightly better lately following a cold start to the season, but his defense is just not there at this point in his career and neither is his rebounding. Portland wing Nicolas Batum should have no trouble finding shots for himself or his teammates tonight. Dorell Wright, who has cooled off considerably the last several games while shooting sub-20 percent from outside, should get plenty of playing time tonight and an opportunity to realign his suffering jumper.
Utah does very little defensively you'd consider "good," or even average, really. Likely missing Williams and Evans won't help tonight. Somehow, the Jazz manage to limit three-point field-goal attempts and assists by opponents, but that's probably less attributed to their defensive pressure and more to their length on the wings and other teams' desire to attack the heart of the defense off the dribble. Utah's best healthy, rotational big man is Forward Derrick Favors, who allows opponents to score on over half their field-goal attempts against him inside. Jazz starting center Enes Kanter's defense is just as forgiving, though Favors does get a block every now and again.
Utah allows opposing teams to score on them from all over the court, as the worst unit in the NBA at defending within the arc, giving up a higher shooting percentage than 29 other teams and allowing more points in the paint than anyone else, as well. They sometimes bother outside shooters with their length, but the Jazz are still pretty mediocre perimeter defenders as a whole. They rarely block shots, get steals, force turnovers, grab defensive boards and they foul a lot, putting the opposition at the line more than only a handful of other teams.
Meanwhile, Portland operates a pretty efficient offense around playmaking point guard Damian Lillard and forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Wings Wesley Matthews and Batum attempt and convert a heavy dosage of three-pointers, trailing only Lillard in outside attempts per game. When Portland's vaunted deep-shooting attack isn't pulling its usual weight, Aldridge has shown a willingness and an ability to put the team on his back and score via his almost un-blockable mid-range jumper and recently, his forays into the paint where he's played as physical as ever. Backup guard Mo Williams is an offensive spark off the bench, hitting half of his three-pointers in the Blazers' last five games.
Even center Robin Lopez, not always considered a commodity on the offensive end, is making almost half his field-goal attempts lately and is dominating the offensive glass the last couple weeks, pulling down about five rebounds a game on that end, for about nine total boards a night.
In short, Portland's offense overmatches Utah's defense from just about anywhere on the court. If the Blazers execute well tonight, the Jazz would have to play one of their best games of the season to have a chance at sticking in this game.
On the face of things, Utah seems like a pretty bad team. That's true so far this season, but they're also young, inexperienced and play in a tough conference.
Favors has played well inside this year with the ball and has been making his presence felt on offense the last several games, putting up 15 points a night in his last five outings. He also has played solidly on the glass.
Wing Gordon Hayward has the green light to shoot this year. Although his efficiency has suffered with his increased volume of shots, he's still scoring reasonably well and can get to the line and hit free-throws. Hayward also rebounds well for where he currently plays at shooting guard, and he'll be a tough matchup for either Matthews or Williams because of his height at 6 foot 8 inches.
Though Hayward and Favors have responded to increased usage this year, rookie point guard Trey Burke has probably been the best pleasant surprise for Jazz fans, following an offseason injury that held him out of the first several weeks of regular season games. Burke is hitting over half his three-point attempts and getting up more field-goal tries than the rest of his team recently as one of their top options with the ball. He doesn't set up teammates as well as Hayward yet, but he also handles the ball better and turns it over less. Though the Jazz starting backcourt isn't exactly efficient right now, they have shown flashes of ability.
Other than Burke, the only real threat from outside right now for Utah is backup point guard Alec Burks. Corbin will be forced to shuffle up his usual lineup to make up for his injured small forward corps, and Burks should be a huge beneficiary in the form of playing time. He also can score closer to the hoop and draws a decent amount of fouls.
Outside of Hayward, Favors, Burke and Burks, things have been a bit bleak for the Jazz when they have the ball, but that's not been a surprise for any follower of the team as it was pretty clear heading into the season that the youth-movement was on and that they're playing for the future. Kanter and French rookie center Rudy Gobert have been a bit underwhelming so far, but they both have shown good rebounding potential.
Portland may not come out and crush the Jazz -- even if they are favored on paper almost across the board -- but this game probably shouldn't be close by the mid-way point of the final quarter. If it is, then either the Blazers played pretty poorly, Utah played over their heads or a combination of both circumstances occurred.
Portland has advantages around the arc, in the mid-range and even inside of the paint. One of the core guys for the Jazz could go off, and really, one of the other main contributors could catch fire and Utah still probably doesn't have the talent to keep up with the Blazers when they're playing as good as they have lately.
Here's one last tidbit to consider, though, a little food-for-thought for those of you who like to pay attention to quirky irregularities and random, coincidental happenings: The Jazz went on a two-game winning streak in the last week, their first and only back-to-back set of wins on the season.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter
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