Portland Trail Blazers (36-17, No. 3 in the West) vs. Utah Jazz (19-34, No. 12 in the West)
Friday, February 20
EnergySolutions Arena; Salt Lake City, UT | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Jazz: Alec Burks, Joe Ingles (questionable)
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The Blazers return to action tonight against the Utah Jazz following an extended All-Star break.
Both teams were active leading up to yesterday's trade deadline, shuffling up the lineups that will be available tonight. The Jazz sent big man Enes Kanter and wing Steve Novak to the Thunder in exchange for center Kendrick Perkins (who will likely be bought out), forward Grant Jerrett, a few draft picks and the rights to German big man Tibor Pleiss. Meanwhile, Blazers GM Neil Olshey jettisoned wing Will Barton and forwards Thomas Robinson and Victor Claver, along with some future picks, to the Nuggets for guard Arron Afflalo and swingman Alonzo Gee. None of the players acquired by Portland or Utah are expected to be available for their respective teams in tonight's matchup.
The Blazers won't be affected much by the loss of Barton, Robinson and Claver, as all three were fringe-rotation players who had combined to produce 77 DNP-CDs in 53 games with Portland this year.
Jazz coach Quin Snynder, on the other hand, will have to fill the roughly 27 minutes a night Kanter was receiving this season before the trade. Kanter, with averages of 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on 49.1 percent shooting, started in the middle all year for Snyder.
The move effectively shifts power forward Derrick Favors back to his natural position full-time, also opening the door for 7-foot-1 French big man Rudy Gobert -- who is among the league-leaders in blocks per game this season -- to start and receive huge minutes at center. Power forward Trevor Booker and seldom-used big Jeremy Evans should also see expanded roles.
Still, Utah's frontcourt rotation took a huge hit today; The 23-year-old Favors is, for all intents and purposes, the elder statesman and by far the most experienced and proven of the group.
The Jazz play at one of the most plodding paces in the league, ranking No. 28 overall this season in pace, according to NBA.com. They don't score a lot of points, have pretty ineffective ball movement -- especially considering how often they pass -- and occasionally struggle with turnovers. The field goal shooting is, in general, fairly mediocre and Utah is a bottom-10 three-point shooting team.
Forward Gordon Hayward is essentially the hub of Utah's offense, putting up almost 15 shots a night and making 46 percent of them. He's a great midrange shooter, reliable at the rim and effective from outside, where's made over 39 percent of his attempts this season. Hayward gets to the line somewhat often, passes well and gets involved in the rebounding game. While he's not exactly the superstar player many fans would prefer to build a franchise around, he's a cornerstone of the Jazz and an underrated all-around player. The last time these two teams met three weeks ago, Hayward shot 10-of-16 from the floor and 3-of-4 from outside for 27 points. The Blazers held on to win, 102-103.
Point guard Trey Burke, who was relegated to a sixth-man role recently in light of guard Dante Exum's promotion to the starting lineup, gets plenty of minutes and attempts off the bench. Burke likes to take the ball to the hole -- he's not a great finisher at this point in his career -- but also falls in love with the jumper. He struggles in the midrange and is even worse from deep, making just 31.6 percent of his threes this year. Neither Burke nor Exum are great set-up guys, the latter also requiring some time to adjust to his recent swell in minutes. Burke was aggressive the last time Portland played Utah, putting up 17 shots and making seven of them for 19 points. Exum was 0-for-3.
Favors should really see a sizable increase in attempts with the departure of Kanter, due to both players preferring many of the same shots. Favors has excellent touch around the rim, though his effectiveness wanes the further he gets from the basket.
Gobert rarely drifts from the paint offensively, also a reliable scorer inside, though his touches are more limited. Kanter took a dozen shots a game, though, so expect Gobert to be much more assertive offensively with an increase in playing time and, ostensibly, shot attempts.
The rest of Utah's lineup is pretty nondescript. Elijah Millsap starts on the wing in place of the injured Alec Burks but has trouble shooting the ball, Evans has taken fewer than 20 attempts this season and guard Rodney Hood is inconsistent at best. Booker's solid inside, but he hasn't played big minutes all year and shoots just over five shots a game. Big man Joe Ingles is a great role player, yet his contributions on offense aren't always apparent and he may not even play tonight.
The Jazz' defense is really the weak point of the team. They're decent in transition, can hold down the paint -- though that could change as Snyder deals with a shortened frontcourt rotation -- and have the length to prevent easy ball movement. That said, opponents don't have much trouble scoring on Utah within the arc and are free to bomb away from the three-point line against a porous perimeter defense. It's worth noting, however, that the Blazers made just 7-of-23 threes in the win over the Jazz a few weeks ago and turned the ball over 14 times. It took 36-for-76 shooting from the field and 34 free throw attempts for Portland to squeak by with the 1-point victory.
Portland comes into tonight's game on a two-game winning streak, also having won four of its last five contests. Now that center Robin Lopez has returned from injury, the starting five is set and the offense is flowing much better. For the season, the Blazers are No. 10 in the league in Offensive Rating, according to NBA.com. They don't score inside or on the fastbreak often, but they get up almost 28 three-pointers a night and make 36.2 percent of them, good for No. 7 in the NBA.
Portland has had some offensive success recently as a team, but point guard Damian Lillard has made just barely more than a third of his threes this year and 43.3 percent of his overall field goals. He's been an average finisher and jumpshooter, too. Lillard's outside shooting has been mostly inconsistent all season, but he is passing the ball well and padding his production by getting to the free throw line. Though he missed all six of his outside attempts three weeks ago against the Jazz, Lillard did hit 10 of his 17 shots and finished with 25 points and six assists.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has been a somewhat underwhelming scorer in the paint recently, but his midrange jumper is on and he's also supplemented his scoring output with points at the free throw line. Aldridge made half of his 16 shots in the recent win over the Jazz, scoring 22 points and pulling in 11 rebounds. Now that Snyder's frontcourt rotation has been shortened, Aldridge should have a solid opportunity to have a big scoring output tonight. Lopez could also benefit, as he's shown recently how reliable a scorer he is inside, making 57.1 percent of his attempts in five games since returning from injury. Gobert is long and athletic, but he likely lacks the experience required to slow down Aldridge and Lopez down low from possession to possession.
Guard Wesley Matthews has been able to exploit the cracks in opposing defenses by knowing where to be on the perimeter when Lillard and Aldridge are working with the ball and garnering extra attention from the defense. Matthews' ability to hit the step-back three helps keep Blazers coach Terry Stotts' offense well spaced-out and punishes defenders who sag off to help against other threats. He can also take smaller wings down in the post, where he's able to finish with regularity. Exum and Millsap log a lot of minutes at the off-guard spot, and though both are taller and longer than Matthews, they lack experience and Exum gives up plenty of bulk.
Wing Nicolas Batum is still having a hard time with his shooting, much to the detriment of Portland's offense. When he's not hitting his outside shots, his defender is able to back up and play the passing lanes much more aggressively. This limits Batum's effectiveness, but he's kept a lid on the turnovers lately and still picks up plenty of assists. Against the Jazz earlier this month, he made just 2-of-7 shots but peppered in six assists and eight rebounds to go along with his 10 points. If Batum is again having difficulties with his shots, he'll still be needed as a distributor against the length of the Jazz defense.
Stotts will likely go with a nine-man rotation tonight, with guard Allen Crabbe and forward Dorell Wright fighting for scraps at the end of the bench. Point guard Steve Blake has shot fairly well lately in limited attempts, though his assists are slightly down and his turnovers are slightly elevated. Guard CJ McCollum has recently emerged as a scoring wing option for Stotts off the bench, showing an ability to get the hole and also hit the catch-and-shoot three pointer. Center Chris Kaman appears to be hobbled by various injuries, his production dipping as the season has progressed, but a nine-day vacation over the All-Star break may have been just enough to recharge his batteries and get him back to contributing 15-20 solid minutes a night off the bench. If not, center Meyers Leonard will continue eating into his playing time. The third-year big man nailed 46.2 percent of his threes in the five games leading up to the break and 59.3 percent of his overall field goals. Leonard has displayed plenty of confidence in his shot, runs the floor well and sticks the outside three often, especially when teams dare him to shoot from the perimeter.
Portland's defense has carried the team in several recent games, especially with the return of Lopez down low. The Blazers don't force a lot of turnovers and are liable to give up hefty point totals in the paint, but they contest shots very well -- both inside of and outside the arc -- and limit easy ball movement. Defenders on the perimeter fight through or go over the top of screens, effectively limiting opponents' ability to shoot from the perimeter without a hand in their face.
Before the trade deadline, the Jazz were one of the best rebounding teams in the league. Without Kanter, a dent is sure to be put in their efforts on the glass, but Gobert, Favors, Evans and Booker are no slouches, either. Utah feasts on offensive rebounds -- they got 14 in their last meeting with the Blazers -- and Gobert is the ring-leader beneath his own teams' basket. With extended minutes tonight, he could be even more of a pest. Portland has been a tough team on the boards, too, and Aldridge, Kaman and Leonard have cleaned up lately. Lopez is best at grabbing rebounds on the offensive end, but his positioning and boxing out creates space for his teammates to grab defensive rebounds, which will be needed tonight as much as ever.
Considering each teams' moves this year at the trade deadline, it's clear that the Blazers are in win-now mode and that Utah is content to let the young guys run and continue developing its own talent. With just 29 games left in the regular season, Portland should be taking care of business against under-handed and inexperienced teams like the Jazz. Even so, Utah is a long, athletic squad and Hayward is fully capable of carrying it to victory -- remember, the Blazers only beat the Jazz by a single point a few weeks ago. They'll have to keep Hayward bottled up and limit his teammates' activity on the offensive glass tonight in order to pick up the road win. If the Blazers can do that, they'll likely be looking at returning to the Moda Center on Sunday to face the Grizzlies with a win under their belt and Afflalo set to make his Portland debut.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
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