Even with LaMarcus Aldridge in street clothes because of an ankle injury the Portland Trail Blazers gave the Utah Jazz a pretty good game tonight.
The night held few surprises. The winning formula was easy for Utah. In the first half they dominated in the paint, frying Meyers Leonard and J.J. Hickson like two tubs of economy pack bacon. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap ran up the score and gobbled up offensive rebounds to their hearts' content. Utah's bigs were not so sharp on the defensive end, however. Portland used ball movement and some wicked attacks by Damian Lillard to match and then over-match the Jazz scorers. Utah's guards were no help and Portland took a 10 point lead into the halftime break.
That's when Utah point guard Mo Williams decided he'd seen enough. During the entire second half he conducted a personal clinic on how to break through Portland's other defensive weak spot, point guard. He drove past the defense repeatedly, hitting floaters, passing to open bigs, even freeing up Utah's heretofore dormant three-point game. The Blazers got back ahead with penetration, free-throw shooting, and a couple nifty three-pointers of their own. But Aldridge's absence began to tell as the stretch run loomed. Lillard had his hands full with Williams, leaving Wesley Matthews pushing the offense on multiple possessions. Want to see what a bad idea that was? Go lick a frozen flagpole while peeing on an electric fence and attempting to give yourself a neck tattoo. Even with the ball out of Matthews' hands the Blazers still couldn't find a go-to scorer, instead turning over the ball on multiple possessions as the fourth quarter closed. All Utah needed to do was grab easy rebounds or steals and run out. Portland's margin shrunk. Nobody on the floor could calm them down or even hit a bankable shot. In the end the wheels fell off and the Jazz prevailed by 10, 105-95.
Three Utah players topped 20 tonight: Millsap, Jefferson, and Mo Williams. Combined they shot 31-54, over 57%. The rest of the team went 12-32, 37.5%. Utah knew where to get their shots.
12 of Portland's 16 turnovers were Utah steals. The Jazz grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Portland's 6, getting up 21 more shot attempts than the Blazers did. Utah also went +22 in the paint. All of these countered Portland's bright spots: a 16-9 edge in fast break points, +8 at the foul line, holding Utah to 21% from the arc while the Blazers shot 46%.
Portland fielded strange lineups so we'll only go with the most indicative stuff here.
Damian Lillard scored 24, feasting on 10-14 free throw shooting, but even with his penetration conversions he was swimming upstream in that second half. Williams demolished him, taking all the air out of his game.
J.J. Hickson scored 17 with 14 rebounds while starting next to a regular-sized center and guarding a semi-regular-sized power forward but still bit the big chalupa on defense. He was a beneficiary of Portland's fluid first-half offense for sure. It's fun watching him score free and easy.
Meyers Leonard's defense is well-chronicled at this point. Less so...the guy's got good offensive instincts. Leonard played aggressive on offense tonight, hit shots, set screens, passed well, kept in plays. You can see where in a couple years he could become a weapon on that end, if nothing else spreading the floor and keeping a defender glued to him. 5-11, 12 points, only 3 rebounds in 32 minutes.
Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews played really good defense on their Jazz counterparts for most of the game. Sadly the defensive gaps around them yawned so widely that it didn't end up mattering. Neither Portland wing had a great game otherwise. Matthews shot 3-10 for 12 points in a, "No! Don't!" kind of performance. (One of those makes was a buzzer-beating three to boot.) Batum hit 4-6 plus 6-7 foul shots for 17 points in 40 minutes but committed 4 turnovers, 4 personal fouls, and only dished 4 assists with 2 rebounds.
Eric Maynor played hot potato in his 21 minutes, parceling out 5 assists and hitting 3-5 shots for 7 points. For a while it looked like he was sticking it to his old team.
Victor Claver had his Wax Fruit Jumper on full display tonight but that was the only part of his game that registered sub-par. He stayed active (though foul-prone) in challenging defensive situations, drove the lane for a nasty dunk, shot 3-6 for 6 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, blocked 2 shots, and grabbed a steal in 18 minutes.
Joel Freeland had 4 rebounds in 14 minutes but wasn't much help otherwise.
Even if you're not a huge fan of his style, you have to value the surety and steadiness LaMarcus Aldridge brings to this team, particularly down the stretch. One game without him as an option and they fell apart.
With this loss the Blazers' playoff hopes have shrunk to near the vanishing point. They won't admit it's over until they're mathematically eliminated, of course, but it's over. Two thoughts:
1. It's amazing that it took the Blazers so long to get to this point. We could have been burying the playoff dream at the All-Star break had this team not shown resilience and a nose for close games. This feels like rooting for your kid that you knew wasn't going to win the race, but they ran their hearts out and finished higher and stronger than you expected. In a way you just want them off the track so you can say, "Well done!" and give them a hug. Blazers fans should probably have just that kind of reaction to this season and their teams challenge for a top eight seed.
2. The unofficial end to playoff hopes doesn't rob the remaining games of significance. Not only will the younger guys get more run (hopefully), last I checked there are three nifty spoiler games ahead, starting with Utah again on Monday then Dallas six days later before the best of them all...an April 10th matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Rose Garden. Feel free to consider the next 5 games as a tune-up for that one, in which the Blazers will have the chance to knock L.A.'s over-hyped, under-performing behinds a little farther back in their desperate struggle to claim their own playoff spot. Really, who could ask for more?
SLCDunk has got to be happy about these proceedings, as the two-game sweep over Portland now seems likely and one possible hurdle to their playoff chase is all but cleared.