Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz: Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez Help Blazers Win Ugly

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

The Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz each fielded partial rosters tonight. Both teams struggled but Robin Lopez's dominance and Damian Lillard's scoring left the Blazers on top.

Tonight's game between the quite-injured Portland Trail Blazers and the slightly-injured Utah Jazz invited observers to pose two critical questions:

1.  What the heck is this?

2.  Why exactly am I watching it?

If you got past the first question and found a coherent answer to the second--perhaps, "I'm a masochist," or, "I cheated on my spouse but haven't told them so I'm working out my residual guilt by punishing myself," or, "Because Trey Burke is my baby boy and I wuv him no matter what!"--you actually saw a semi-entertaining, Damian-Lillard-fueled fourth period.  Otherwise this 102-94 Portland victory was just plain ugly.

I'll spare you the detailed recap and just hit the high points.

For the first three quarters everything that wasn't a drive fell short for both teams.  Long-range shooting was a particular eyesore.  "Layups or Bust" was the motto on offense.  Normally you shouldn't be able to conduct an offense that way for long.  You'd think the opponent would adjust.  Not tonight.  Miscues--turnovers, bad individual defense, poor rotations--paved the way for most of the meaningful moments.  Teams didn't score because they were great as much as they scored because the other team screwed up.

There were a few exceptions to the general rule.  These became more frequent as the second half progressed.  The Blazers had a few nice passing plays...impressive given their cobbled-together lineup.  The Jazz set screens well.  Robin Lopez looked like a man among boys most of the night.  The Jazz drove into his wheelhouse and he provided blocked shots and rebounds aplenty.  Portland played impressive defense during the first part of the fourth period.  Lillard lid up the house when his team needed it.  Will Barton had a couple nice finishes.  Terry Stotts wore a 70's collar and plaid blazer to honor Jack Ramsay.  And, of course, the Blazers won.  From Portland's perspective that wipes away plenty of sins.

But this game also exposed a few chronic issues:

--Some of the players on which the Blazers are forced to rely aren't ready and frankly don't belong on the floor except in a blowout.  It's not just that the Blazers lack depth, it's that their bench players are equally dangerous to their own team as they are to the opponent.

--As we've said about a billion times in these recaps now, every time Robin Lopez has to help Portland's defense and rebounding fall apart.  It was more obvious tonight than usual.  The Jazz were driving.  Lopez didn't even have to move far.  He'd just switch to the other side of the rim to help against penetration...right there within 3 feet of the hoop.  But if that wasn't a blocked shot--if the ball got up to the rim--you could pretty much guarantee a weak-side offensive rebound and putback for the Jazz.  The utter lack of recognition and "oomph" surrounding Lopez's body of work astounds me.

--The Blazers don't recognize when they're getting a reprieve from the officials and end up complaining about calls that technically they've been getting a pass on.  I suppose this doesn't affect the game as much as the others but it's still annoying and I'm still waiting for the point where it starts biting them in the butt, probably in the form of technical fouls and super-tight scrutiny when they can't afford either.

--Portland worked for, and got, a few nice looks from distance in this game but they still aren't keeping their three-point shooting optimal and their percentages (35% this evening) aren't in top-of-the-league form.

That said, the Blazers fulfilled some of their necessaries tonight as well.  They rebounded, got up more shots than their opponent, hit all 17 of their foul shots.  They also ended up edging the Jazz in the paint 52-44 and on the break 9-6.  Thank God they weren't content to bomb away, else this would have been a loss.

Individual Notes

Damian Lillard scored a game-high 28 and saved Portland in the fourth period but he wasn't terribly efficient in doing so, shooting 11-28, 2-5 from range, 4-4 from the charity stripe.  The good news: he knew what time it was and took over the reins.  The bad news: when Damian handles the ball that much Portland's offense looks more traditional than the beautiful symphony we saw earlier in the season.  But the Blazers don't have enough juice to get by on a more traditional offense.  Yes, they beat the Jazz tonight.  They could have also beaten the Bucks probably.  But against a better team Lillard would have scored 28 and the Blazers would have lost by 15.  Making maximum use of Lillard while still finding open, non-isolation scoring opportunities for his teammates is a puzzle Portland will need to solve.

Robin Lopez was fantastic, anchoring Portland's defense, blocking 4 shots, grabbing 12 defensive rebounds, and making Enes Kanter look like an overgrown rabbit whenever their bodies were in contact.  5-8 shooting, 6 offensive rebounds, and 12 points didn't hurt on the other end either.  When their bodies weren't in contact Lopez didn't look quite as great.  Kanter scored on the move and off the jumper, finishing the game with 25 on 12-20 shooting.  But part of that is attributable to Lopez's teammates and part is attributable to Lopez having to sit with foul trouble...a serious blow to Portland.  You can't ask much more of Robin than he gave tonight.  He was the player of the game.

Wesley Matthews scored 24 on 9-17 shooting, a more than respectable night.  As the game wound on he seemed to understand that somebody had to help out Lillard on offense and keep this from becoming a nasty loss.  He took it upon himself and he did well.  Portland's backcourt defense was another matter.  They need to give Lopez half of their game check or at least buy him lunch during the next road trip.

Nicolas Batum apparently had a serious stomach issue in the locker room after the first half, which pretty much matched what he was going on the court.  He did pick it up in the fourth but it wasn't among the top 300 games of his career.

We'll sum up everybody else quickly.

Dorell Wright had 7 rebounds in 21 minutes.  Nice.

Mo Williams hit a couple critical shots but went 4-11 overall.  Shaky but OK.

Will Barton got a clear breakaway off of a turnover and threw down an impressive Triple Salchow dunk.  It was spectacular.  Had he missed it, he probably would have been rotisserie barbecued and stuffed in a box.  He also flashed an amazing reverse layup and finished the night 3-5 for 8 points in 18 minutes.

Thomas Robinson is not reliable, is occasionally helpful, and is Exhibit A for how deep the Blazers are digging when they go to the bench.  That's not on him.  He's just not ready for the positions in which the Blazers have to put him.

The same is more or less true of Victor Claver, though at least he's in the right spot most of the time.  He's just not effective enough in those spots.

C.J. McCollum should be Portland's dedicated intern, getting those "time to learn" minutes.  Tonight he learned he probably shouldn't hoist 9 shots in 15 minutes if he's only going to hit 3 of them.  But his court sense and playing ability at least merit him being out on the court.  This shows the actual state of Portland's bench versus the optimistic assessment thereof.  Sometimes you'll hear folks say, "C.J. is ready for the rotation, the young bigs are almost there, and the guys we're not seeing deserve a chance."  In truth C.J. deserves a chance and everyone else is south--in some cases way south--of that.

Minnesota comes in on Sunday.  The Blazers need to have some players back or at least get more organized on offense before then.

Boxscore

Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review

SLC Dunk

Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Minnesota are HERE.  Tonight's answers: Robin Lopez had 30 combined points and rebounds, Portland's bench scored 30, Allen Crabbe committed the most fouls per minute, and Trey Burke shot a higher percentage than Damian Lillard.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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