The Portland Trail Blazers take on the Utah Jazz at 7:00 p.m. this evening in a game broadcast locally on CSNNW.
Here's the biggest thing to remember about this game. The Blazers sit 3 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the 8th playoff seed with 11 games remaining. It's unlikely they'll make up that gap but it's possible. The biggest obstacles are the two teams sitting in between Portland and L.A.: the Dallas Mavericks and these same Utah Jazz. The Blazers play the Lakers and Mavericks at home, with rest, on April 7th and 10th. But before they do that, the Blazers must face the Jazz twice in their next three games. For any playoff aspirations to survive, the Blazers must win both of these games. The Jazz stand one-half game behind the Lakers in the seeding race. They want a sweep in the other direction.
This is the weekend where Portland's playoff dreams either persevere or crumble. This is going to be one heck of a matchup. Or it should be, anyway, if the Blazers have any juice left.
Juice is a major question, though. The Blazers have shown grit, determination, a refusal to die all season long. Just when you thought they were done, ready to sink into the conference cellar, they'd leap back to life again. But that resurrection motif has been painted with the sweat of starter minutes and injury endurance. The wear and tear is showing. LaMarcus Aldridge is questionable for this game because of an ankle injury. J.J. Hickson is ill. It seems like years since Nicolas Batum has put in a full 36 minutes of quality work. Wesley Matthews is on and off. Smart opponents key on Damian Lillard in the oft-quoted "cut off the head" strategy. Portland's bench has never been a strong point. This team has teetered on the verge of collapse for months. Now they're dangling over the cliff, hanging on by half a pinkie. Will they leap up in action-hero fashion, whupping butt in a stirring comeback rally or is this the moment when they disappear into the depths?
The Jazz aren't playing at their peak, but they're no easy out for Portland. They hold a 36-36 record, 10-27 on the road. They've won 2 straight but they're only 5-12 in their last 17 outings. Any team that fields Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap is going to cause problems for Portland's defense though. Heck, even reserve forward Derrick Favors has hulked up against Portland. (He's another player I wish the Blazers could get their hands on, by the way.)
The rest of Utah's starting lineup runs small...a three guard setup of Mo Williams, Randy Foye, and Gordon Hayward. They're an oddly-matched trio but all of them can shoot the three. (Thought they probably don't do it enough.) The Jazz bring a little size off the bench with guard Alec Burks and forward Marvin Williams. That's about as far as the rotation goes now that they're making their post-season run.
Utah runs 3/4 of the modern efficiency offense. They'll look to fast break. If that opportunity isn't there then Jefferson and Millsap can score up close. They're also proficient offensive rebounders. The missing fourth, somewhat inexplicably, is three-point production. All four of their guards shoot 37% or better from distance with Hayward and Foye topping 40%. Yet the Jazz are 28th out of 30 team in three-point attempts. Granted, none of those guards are pure catch-and-shoot guys, but you'd think they'd adjust. I also suspect that the Jazz will fire more than their average number of threes against the Blazers. The A-B-C diagram is toss the ball inside, wait for the obligatory double, and kick out for an uncontested three. Easy profit. The Blazers will either have to find a way to knock Jefferson off his horse or rotate out really quickly.
Sloppy defense has kept the Jazz from fully exploiting their scoring ability. They're good shot blockers and play the passing lanes well but they're not great individual defenders and they have trouble keeping cohesive for an entire shot clock. Jefferson and Millsap are no stalwarts in the paint. Containing penetration isn't a specialty of Foye or Mo Williams. Plus the Jazz smalls are usually overmatched in size. When anybody requires help slow rotations give opponent the same kind of three-point field day that the Jazz should be inflicting on others. Plus the Jazz allow offensive rebounds.
Utah's offense and defense match up like a jigsaw puzzle. They give up the same things on defense that they exploit on offense, like a mirror or a shadow self. Their .500 record is a nifty piece of serendipity, the frosting on the point.
The problem for the Blazers is that .500 is no good here. They need 1.000, a win at home and one on the road. This goes beyond dealing with Utah's talent. They have to take the opponent out of their game in a way we haven't seen much this season. If you let the Jazz shoot 50% they're going to score 108-110. Portland's offense won't be able to keep up that pace even once, let alone twice. The Blazers will need more than hot three-point shooting to achieve their goal. They're going to have to muscle out and frustrate Jefferson and Millsap, taking the heart out of Utah's offense, leaving those guards to score on their own. How they're going to manage that is a matter of "Step 2: ????? Step 3: Profit!" The forecast gets worse if Hickson and Aldridge are ailing. Chances are the Blazers will need season-best contributions from players who have been sporadic otherwise. They'll need the Superman versions of Batum and Matthews instead of Clark Kent. Meyers Leonard is going to have to lay lumber and rebound like a pro. Joel Freeland or Eric Maynor might be called to be mysterious strangers from the shadows, saving the day unexpectedly. Better yet, the Blazers could use all of the above.
This is the time for Portland to gel and fire on all cylinders. If it doesn't happen now, it either won't happen or won't matter. Let's see what these guys have left in the tank.
SLCDunk covers the Jazz.
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