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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz Preview

Can the Blazers close out 2015 with their longest winning streak of the season? Or will the injury-plauged Jazz find a way to pull out the victory in Utah?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (14-20) vs Utah Jazz (13-17)
Thursday, December 31
Energy Solutions Arena | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN NW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Damian Lillard (Questionable - Foot) | Utah injury report: Derrick Favors (Questionable - Back), Alec Burks (Out - Ankle), Rudy Gobert (Out - Knee), Dante Exum (Out - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The Portland Trail Blazers (14-20) head into tonight's game at Utah (13-17) on their longest winning streak of the season. Impressively, Portland's last three victories have all come with All-Star Damian Lillard on the sideline resting a foot injury. While the Blazers have been ascending over the last week the Jazz have been plummeting. Excluding a narrow victory over the barely-an-NBA-team 76ers on Monday, the Jazz have lost three in a row and seven of their last nine.

Utah's struggles can largely be attributed to injuries to three starters and their top reserve. Rudy Gobert has missed most of December with a knee injury, Derrick Favors hasn't played in three games because of back spasms, Alec Burks broke his ankle on December 26, and Dante Exum is expected to miss the entire season after suffering a torn ACL last August.

Gobert's absence, alone, has been enough to turn Utah's formerly stifling defense into a porous mess. Jared Woodcox of Purple and Blues elaborates:

With Gobert on the floor, opponents have averaged 93.5 points per game compared to 97.9 points when he is off the floor. In the Jazz's last 10 games without Gobert, they have given up nearly 102 points per game while in their first 16 games they gave up an average of just 94. This in and of itself is clear proof of how greatly Gobert's absence is felt.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has tried to fill the gap at center by starting Jeff Withey for the last three games. Withey has played decently, averaging 10 points and eight rebounds, but he cannot even begin to match the defensive impact of Gobert.

Beyond losing their center, game tape reveals that Utah is noticeably inconsistent on defense. At times they have crisp rotations and cut-off their opponents' primary options, but too often they make sloppy mistakes. Perimeter defenders are routinely caught ball-watching and allow opponents to sneak under the defense for a backdoor lay-up or open corner three. Some of those bad habits may be hidden by Gobert erasing mistakes, but without him they are at times glaring.

Utah's offense, on the other hand, has been significantly damaged by the loss of Favors and Burks. Before missing the last three game, Favors was averaging 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds on 52 percent shooting. This season has been a breakout year for Favors who has thrived after being moved to power forward to make room for Gobert at center. Favors has used his size to outmuscle other forwards around the rim, while also helping Utah's spacing with a newfound jump shot and passing ability. Without Favors, Utah relies too heavily on its guards for points. In the three games Favors has missed Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, and Trey Burke have combined to shoot an unfathomably horrible 33 for 100 (33.3 percent) overall from the field and 10 for 47 (21.3 percent) from deep.

Burks has been Utah's best scorer off the bench, averaging 14.3 points per game on 39 percent shooting from three. Without him Burke becomes the only reliable punch off the bench. Joe Ingles, Trevor Booker, and Elijah Millsap also chip in, but none of those players are as effective as Burks.

Favors status for today's game remains uncertain. He was officially listed as questionable last night against Minnesota but did not participate in the morning's shoot-around. He is listed as questionable again tonight. If Favors does sit again the Jazz will rely heavily on Gordon Hayward for points. Hayward is an athletic wing player who can score in a variety of ways, and has the passing and ballhandling skills to be the centerpiece of the Jazz's offense while Favors recovers. He averages 19 points, five rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game.

This will be the second of four games this season for the Blazers and Jazz. The Blazers prevailed 108-92 in the first meeting of the season on November 4. The Blazers were led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who combined for 62 points on 24 for 40 shooting. Burks paced the Jazz with 21, while Hayward scored 19. The victory came in unusual fashion for the Blazers who had only 11 assists on 41 field goals. Most of the Portland offense came from off the dribble jump shooting - this was the first game of the season that suggested that the Blazers had enough fire power to compete with any team in the league if Lillard and McCollum are hot from the outside.

Tonight's game also has early-season playoff implications. The Jazz sit in eighth place in the Western Conference standings and are the presumptive favorite to hold on to the last playoff spot. If the Blazers hope to make a push to sneak into the postseason they need to defeat other challengers on the road. Given Utah's injury status, this remains true with or without Lillard tonight.

Keys to the game

Exploit inside defensive weaknesses: Without Gobert and (possibly) Favors Utah will rely on Withey to patrol the paint. At times this season any Portland player not named Damian has struggled to get inside - that should not be the case tonight. The Blazers should attack the paint early and often to generate easy offense and try to get Utah's depleted front line into foul trouble.

Let Utah rely on its guards for offense: The Jazz have a point guard problem. Without Exum they rely on Neto, Hood, and Burke to handle guard duties. Neto is a solid defender but still struggling to learn to run an NBA offense, while Burke is more combo guard than point guard and often overdribbles instead of creating scoring opportunities for others. As noted above, the Utah guards have been atrocious shooters in recent games, culminating in a combined 4 for 22 from three last night against the Timberwolves. The Blazers can win this game by focusing their defensive effort on Hayward and low-post offense, while letting the Utah guards continue to bomb away.

Rebounding: Over the last 10 games Portland and Utah are both in the bottom five in field goal percentage - tonight's game will feature a lot of rebounding opportunities. Over the same timespan, the Blazers are third in overall rebounding and offensive rebounding while the Jazz are No. 23 and No. 13, respectively. Trevor Booker did collect eight offensive rebounds in the first half against Minnesota last night, but otherwise Utah has been fairly tootheless on the boards. Portland should be able to parlay that into extra possessions that could swing the final result of the contest.

All time series:

The Jazz leads the all-time series between these teams 95-79.

Utah has been a particularly unkind place to visit for the Blazers: they have lost 67 of 87 road games in the series.

The Blazers have had a measure of revenge against the Jazz in the playoffs, winning four of six postseason series between the teams. Most recently, Portland beat Utah in the 2000 conference semifinals.



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