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Game 31 Preview: Trail Blazers vs. Jazz

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Game Time:  6:00 p.m.  TV:  KGW

The division-leading Utah Jazz sit at 21-9 as they welcome the Trail Blazers into town.  There's plenty of bad news for the Blazers in this matchup too.  The Jazz have been able to field a consistent lineup so far this season.  They play 6players and 5 of them have suited for every game:  Deron Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, C.J. Miles,  and Andrei Kirilenko.  Raja Bell, their defensive-minded shooting guard, has only dressed for 26 of their 30 games but he's been back for a couple weeks now and is looking good.  The Jazz seldom play anyone else extended minutes.  (Earl Watson is next on the depth chart with 14 mpg logged.)  All of these guys are veterans.  They're meshing.  That makes this lineup tough to crack.  The story might be different in Game 71, but at this point they're looking spry and playing well.

Utah ranks at the lower end of the top third in the league in most key offensive and defensive categories.  They're not dominant as much as well-rounded and consistent.  They score a little in the paint, a little on the run, a little off jumpers.  Most of their guys can hit from anywhere inside the three-point arc.  If they have a weakness offensively it's the long ball.  Kirilenko and Bell can hit deep.  Williams is so-so.  Nobody else is a factor.  But they don't need a ton of threes to score.  Jefferson and Millsap are more than capable, as is Williams when needed.  They keep the ball and their players moving, probing for mismatches.  As is their tradition, they're not afraid to run the same play 15 times out of 20 if you can't stop it.  They're happy to be the mirror into which you gaze and realize you're not playing great basketball.  If you've got the hoops version of love handles they'll expose them mercilessly.

They're also nestled comfortably in that lower-upper third region on the defensive end.  Fast breaks, points in the paint, field goal percentage allowed, three-point percentage allowed...all in the 7-10 range in the league.  They foul at a fast clip.  That's about their only true weakness.  Most of the time it doesn't matter.  Every once in a while you can catch them relying on some of their weaker big-man defenders but they have a strong corps of smaller guys to make up for it.  Those smaller defenders show up in spades when you look at opponent assists (low) and turnovers (fairly high).  Only a couple of teams have Utah's ability to disrupt opposing wings.  The Blazers, at least statistically, are one.  If the Jazz ever got a major defender at power forward or especially center, they'd be truly scary.

For all that, the Blazers can take some small comfort in Utah's 11-5 home record this year...not bad but not indomitable.  They've fallen to the Suns, Thunder, Spurs, Mavericks, and Heat at home.  The Blazers aren't in that lofty realm but sometimes they fake it for 36 minutes or so.  They'll need to do so at least that long tonight to have a chance.  If you can play better than the 7th-10th best team in the league Utah doesn't have ready answers in the bank.  They're like a high bar.  It's obvious when you don't clear them but if you have the height it's not like they're going to move upwards.  Another way of saying it is they're getting nearly the maximum out of their potential, something the Blazers have been unable to do for a variety of reasons.

The Blazers have been adept scoring with their smalls under different conditions.  Andre Miller won't be intimidated anywhere, let alone in his own backyard.  Wesley Matthews is playing against his former team.  I'm not overly concerned about Utah bullying or derailing Portland's guards.  LaMarcus Aldridge being Portland's only semi-legitimate inside scorer, you can bet the Jazz will view him as a key.  They don't forget stuff like that.  One challenge for the Blazers will be getting him into the offense.  Early may be better, before Utah has had a chance to target him.  The Blazers should also be able to feast on the boards, as this is one area where the Jazz are relatively weak.  Controlling the ball off the glass may open the door a tad further.  Defending without fouling their frontcourt players will be a serious issue, particularly for Aldridge.  If LMA goes down with fouls, who scores up front for Portland OR defends Millsap and Jefferson?  Getting something out of Nicolas Batum would be a boost.  Both he and Kirilenko are potluck producers.  Batum needs to bring the prime rib to the table and hope Kirilenko brings the burnt Jell-o.

This won't be an easy game for Portland to win and may not even be an easy game for them to play.  The Jazz won't destroy you as much as dismiss you.  The Blazers have to refuse to be dismissed, starting strong and playing tough throughout.  Minutes management is always an issue in back-to-backs but Portland has to go for broke tonight if there's any chance to take this game.  A bird in the hand is probably more than they should expect.  If it alights there, take it and run.

Hear the Utah perspective at SLC Dunk.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com) 

P.S.  Remember on game days these preview threads double as a forum for Blazer-related thoughts not covered elsewhere on the site.