Utah Jazz (17-30, No. 13 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (32-16, No. 4 in the West)
Tuesday, February 3
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: NBATV, CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Jazz: Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Carrick Felix
SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk | Timmay's Viewing Guide | BE's 2014-15 Jazz Season Preview | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers, fresh off an 0-3 East Coast road trip, return to the Moda Center tonight to host the Utah Jazz. Portland center Robin Lopez, who's missed the team's last 23 games with a hand injury, practiced with the team yesterday and is listed as "probable" for tonight's contest.
The Jazz come into their matchup with the Blazers fresh off a 110-100 win over the Golden State Warriors Friday night. Utah wing Gordon Hayward picked up 26 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals as his team cruised to the victory by dominating the boards, 55-41.
Jazz coach Quinn Snyder preaches a "positionless" system in which his players are asked to be more flexible than their traditional positions would indicate on paper. Hayward, with a team-leading Usage Rate of 27 percent the last five games, initiates much of the offense for Snyder.
Former starting point guard Trey Burke was moved to the bench several games ago in favor of rookie guard Dante Exum. Snyder's decision to transition Burke into a sixth-man role for the team was due to the second-year guard's lack of consistent defense.
The move has paid off so far, as Burke has paced the reserves the last five games with 14.6 points a night in that span. He's not attacking the basket particularly hard off the bench and has a 37.3 percent field goal percentage in that time to show for the jumpers he's been taking, but over half his 15.7 shots per game are from outside and he's made them at a 35.7 percent clip, his best shots coming from the corners.
Utah had one of the least productive benches in the league over the last several games heading into Friday's win over the Warriors, but the reserves notched 51 points that night behind 15 from Burke and 17 from forward Trevor Booker, who's made over half his shots the last five games, mostly inside attempts.
Starting big man Enes Kanter has been on a roll over that stretch, hitting 50 percent of his shots. Kanter has no jumpshot to speak of right now, but he only steps out for jumpers a portion of the time and attempts most of his shots right at the rim, where he's made 70 percent of his shots the last couple weeks. Forward Derrick Favors has range out to about 10 feet but often does his work down low, where he's been a decent finisher recently. Both Kanter and Favors spend a fair amount of time with the ball in their hands, particularly for frontcourt players.
Exum, who plays a lot off the ball -- even as the starting point guard -- has become a solid catch-and-shoot threat from outside, attempting almost all of his shots from deep. Exum has been most dangerous from the left side of the floor lately.
Hayward is a versatile wing who can hit the three-pointer, take the ball to the hole and finish or find open teammates for good looks. He's a great midrange shooter and a decent finisher inside.
Forward Joe Ingles, at 6-foot-8, starts in the frontcourt alongside Favors and Kanter. He was very hesitant in the offense early on in the season, but has since come out of his shell a bit and is shooting almost four threes a game over the last five, connecting on 47.4 percent of them. Ingles is also a great passer for his position.
Center Rudy Gobert and guard Elijah Millsap round out Snyder's rotation. Gobert is a great offensive rebounder, often scoring inside off his teammate's misses. Millsap doesn't shoot often but when he does, it's often from deep where he's a 40 percent shooter the last several weeks.
Overall, the Jazz feature a fairly average offense -- albeit with plenty of options who can get hot at any given time -- and a below-average defense. They have plenty of good shooters and scorers, though that doesn't always translate to points on the board as the team can be pretty inconsistent as a whole. Utah has decent ball movement and puts up a lot of three-pointers, mostly from the guards.
Defensively, Gobert and Favors get after shooters in the paint and help redirect opponents' shots. The Jazz' perimeter defense is okay, but their length allows them to play the passing lanes solidly and prevents teams from moving the ball easily. They don't foul often but also don't force many turnovers, either, which makes for a pretty slow-paced offense.
Portland's been a bit out-of-sorts lately, dropping eight of 10 games and losing three in a row. The defense has been serviceable, even without Lopez and big man Joel Freeland, as the Blazers have the fourth-best Defensive Rating in the NBA over the last five games, according to NBA.com. Still, they're struggling to contest outside shots consistently. The re-insertion of Lopez into the lineup should instill some confidence into the team, as the perimeter defenders will be better equipped to run shooters off the three-point line, knowing they have their reliable 7-footer as a rim-protector behind them to help contest shooters in the paint.
Portland's offense is really what's been bogging the team down recently.
For all of the admiration forward Nicolas Batum deserves this year for playing through a handful of injuries, his poor shooting has certainly affected the team. Because he hasn't been able to hit his three-point shots this year -- not even open attempts -- defenders have been able to sag off of him to help out against either forward LaMarcus Aldridge or point guard Damian Lillard. Normally, Batum would be able to capitalize on such tactics, either sticking the jumper or whipping the ball to an open teammate. Without a shot, though, he's unable to keep the defense honest and it's difficult to find open teammates when there's essentially an extra defender playing the passing lanes.
Batum's not the only Blazers struggling right now, though. Lillard is really having a hard time with the extra defensive pressure he's been receiving lately, shooting 22.5 percent from deep the last five games and 30.9 percent from the field, also turning the ball over 3.2 times per game in that span. Dealing with double-teams and traps is something Lillard's had a hard time dealing with all season, but if he can recognize when the extra attention is coming and use his screeners more effectively in pick-and-roll situations, he should be able to make teams pay for bringing the extra man by finding the open teammate.
Aldridge has had several solid games since his return to action nine days ago against the Wizards, but his masterful offensive performances have been for naught as few of his teammates have been able to create around him. Guard Wesley Matthews has been shooting well from outside, but has seemed to get away from the back-to-the-basket game that -- while somewhat predictable -- brought him plenty of easy points early in the season.
With Lopez likely back tonight, center Chris Kaman gets to slide back into his position as the sixth-man and main scoring option off the bench for coach Terry Stotts. Against reserves, Kaman's versatility -- for a man of his size and age, at least -- should again be apparent like it was earlier in the season. Batum should also benefit from Lopez' return, as he's had a pretty solid two-man game with the seven-year veteran the last couple seasons, especially with the side pick-and-roll.
Wings CJ McCollum and Will Barton have picked up a decent amount of playing time the last several games, but neither has done enough recently to give Stotts much confidence and solidify their spots in the rotation. Forward Dorell Wright responded fairly well to his uptick in minutes with the depleted frontcourt, but now that Lopez is back, he'll likely be used almost exclusively off the bench as a small forward instead of a stretch-four, a position he's played recently to some degree of success that will now be much more situational. Guard Steve Blake had 12 bad minutes against the Bucks but did show a bit more of a willingness to shoot in the couple games prior, a solid sign for the veteran who often passes up good shots of his own.
Either big man Meyers Leonard or forward Thomas Robinson could get squeezed out of the rotation with the re-addition of Lopez into the lineup. What's likely to happen, though, is that Stotts continues piece-mealing his frontcourt rotations depending on matchups. If he needs to go small, Wright can fill in at the backup four-spot. If spacing and size are required, Leonard could get the nod and if Stotts needs a change-of-pace off the bench, Robinson can disrupt an opposing defense -- and sometimes his own team's offense -- with his energetic, physical game.
The Jazz have been one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the entire league lately, which was fully on display Friday night when they grabbed 17 of their own misses against the Warriors. The Blazers are a good defensive rebounding team and, again, things are looking up with Lopez back in the lineup. Portland will have to keep an eye on Kanter and Gobert, especially underneath their own basket, because they're both long and quick and able to cash-in on second-chance opportunities.
After the last three games -- losses on the road against the Cavs, Hawks and Bucks -- the Moda Center will be a welcome sight for the Blazers, and a matchup with the young, inconsistent Jazz may appear to be just what the team needs to round Lopez back into playing shape and get back into the win column. Even so, Utah's No. 13 ranking in the Western Conference isn't entirely indicative of how they've been playing lately, and they have a recent win over the Warriors to show for their improved play. Portland will have to play focused perimeter defense tonight, because the Jazz have Hayward and a few other weapons who can attack from outside, while their bigs help clean up down low.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
(Note: I subbed in for Phil Naessens and Dave Deckard on the Blazer's Edge Podcast today and will be releasing more weekly episodes in the future. If you'd like to listen, check it out here)
Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: