Portland Trail Blazers (44-25, No. 4 in the West) vs. Utah Jazz (31-39, No. 11 in the West)
Wednesday, March 25
EnergySolutions Arena; Salt Lake City, UT | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews, Chris Kaman (doubtful), LaMarcus Aldridge (doubtful), Nicolas Batum (doubtful) | Out for the Jazz: Alec Burks, Rodney Hood (doubtful), Gordon Hayward (doubtful)
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The Blazers ride a five-game losing streak into Utah tonight to face the Jazz on the second night of back-to-back. With forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum on the sidelines last night along with center Chris Kaman, Portland lost to the Warriors at home, 122-108.
The Jazz have been one of the league's best teams since the All-Star break, winning 12 of their 17 games in that span and boasting the NBA's best defense. A 16-point blowout win against Portland just over a month ago kicked off Utah's late-season surge.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts wouldn't expound on the status of Aldridge, Batum and Kaman for tonight after the loss to the Warriors, but it may be safe to assume the three won't be making the trip -- if they rest tonight and return Friday at home against the Suns instead, Aldridge and Batum will have had a full five days to recuperate in between games, Kaman six. Also consider that Jazz coach Quin Snyder won't be rushing starting wings Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward back from recent minor ailments, as they're both listed as "doubtful" for tonight's matchup. Don't be surprised to see the Blazers trot out a starting lineup of guards Damian Lillard and Arron Afflalo in the backcourt with wing Alonzo Gee, forward Dorell Wright and center Robin Lopez up front.
Though the Jazz came storming out of the gates post-All-Star break, they've since cooled off a bit and have gone just 2-3 in their last five games. Still, they boast a Defensive Rating of 95.2 in that time, good for third-best in the league. Utah kills opposing teams' ball movement, forces turnovers and stifles opponents from scoring inside. The Jazz allow a fairly high percentage from deep but force teams' into a league-low 15.6 three-point attempts per game over the last five.
Utah plays with the slowest pace in the entire NBA and has gotten up just 76.4 field goals per game the last couple weeks. Almost a third of the Jazz' attempts come from deep, where they've shot 38.8 percent the last five games. A lot of their converted shots go unassisted but they're good at getting to the free throw line.
Of course, most offensive stats go out the window tonight if Hayward and Hood are out, two starters who've combined for over 24 field goal attempts and 31 points per game over the last handful. Starting in their places would be forward Joe Ingles and either point guard Trey Burke or shooting guard Elijah Millsap.
Ingles has made 60 percent of his threes and 53.6 percent of his 5.6 field goal attempts a night the last five outings -- a solid, unselfish team player -- but he doesn't begin to approach Hayward's effectiveness as a scorer, distributor or rebounder. Hood's backcourt production (52.1 percent field goal shooting, 50 percent three-point shooting, 12.2 points per game the last five) will be hard to replicate for Burke (36.6 percent shooting from the field) or Millsap (33.3 percent). On the positive side, Burke is a very willing volume-shooter who's made a respectable 37.5 percent of his threes the last couple weeks and he's a more gifted passer.
Though center Rudy Gobert has stolen much of the frontcourt spotlight since the All-Star break with his tremendous defensive play -- the 7-footer with the 7-foot-9 wingspan is statistically the best rim protector in the NBA in that time while blocking almost three shots a night -- forward Derrick Favors has quietly put up solid numbers and will have much of the scoring load fall on him tonight.
His jumper has been broken the last several games, but Favors is still a reliable scorer inside and poured in 16 points on 7-for-15 shooting the last time these two teams met about a month back. He would probably mow through Wright inside, and Blazers big man Meyers Leonard probably doesn't have the defensive prowess to reliably slow down Favors. Stotts may opt to play Joel Freeland tonight in the frontcourt more often with Lopez to match Utah's size down low.
Jazz backup power forward Trevor Booker provides a better matchup for Wright at 6-foot-7 but he's still more inclined to bang inside instead of stretching things out. If you liked Stotts' ultra-small, unconventional lineup of Lillard, Afflalo, Gee, guard CJ McCollum and wing Allen Crabbe that he ran with at times last night against the Warriors, you'll be disappointed to know Snyder will likely consistently play with at least one de facto center on the court at all times between Favors, Gobert and Booker. Like Favors and Booker, Gobert's range is particularly limited.
Snyder usually runs with a nine-man rotation, and if Hayward and Hood indeed sit tonight, his bench will be very short and his pool of available players inexperienced and little-used. Guards Ian Clark and Bryce Cotton and forward Jeremy Evans, Grant Jerrett and Jack Cooley have combined to play a total of 43 minutes the last five games and have attempted a collective nine shots.
Though the Blazers will likely be without two starters and their sixth-man tonight, Crabbe is the only player likely to play who has been out of the rotation long-term. Everyone else available on Portland's bench for Stotts last night played at least 15 minutes against Golden State and had played at least sparingly the few games prior.
There are a few silver linings for the Blazers as they sit out key players down the stretch run of this tight playoff race. First, Aldridge, Batum and Kaman will receive some much-needed rest after all three had been playing through a litany of injuries, nicks and bruises for months. Next, consider that Stotts gets to see a bit more of his bench players this week, able to get them valuable on-court time while evaluating who looks likely to contribute in the playoffs when the rotations shorten. The big winners in that sense last night were Gee and McCollum. Gee showed that solid defense, effort and hustle deem him worth of playing time, while McCollum poured in a career-high 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting against the Warriors, proving that he can be instant offense off the bench against even the best of defenses.
Another positive aspect Portland fans can glean from the team playing short-handed is that Lillard has the opportunity to try and shoot himself right out of his recent stretch of struggling from the field. After a rough five-game road trip shooting from from both inside and outside of the arc, Lillard made nine of his 21 shots against Golden State last night and turned in a vintage performance from deep, sinking six of his 11 three-point attempts. A 5:4 assist-to-turnover ratio may be troubling, but Lillard had seven rebounds last night to help offset his gaffes and made all five of his free throws.
Afflalo never established a rhythm against the Warriors and ended up with nine points and 4-for-10 shooting. You could see him more willing to back his man down last night -- though it was often unfruitful -- and he'll have a solid opportunity to keep working on his individual offense tonight against the relative inexperience of Burke, Exum, Clark and Millsap.
Wright made just four of his 10 field goals last night but went 2-for-4 from deep and has been as active on either end of the floor for Portland the last few games as he has been since signing with the team the summer before last. Lopez was only good for 21 minutes against the Warriors, but that was more a function of Golden State coach Steve Kerr's use of small lineups than anything. Lopez should play more minutes tonight in an effort to help neutralize Gobert's length. The last time these two teams played, Lopez played a major role in baiting Gobert into committing shooting fouls. If Lopez could get the young Frenchman in foul trouble again, Portland's chances of a win tonight would become exponentially better.
Leonard missed his only shot last night but may prove useful against the Jazz in stretching Favors, Gobert and Booker out and forcing them to respect his jumper if he's connecting. Guard Steve Blake, who had 10 points and five assists in 15 minutes last night, will be big with his veteran presence, as he'll be orchestrating the offense alongside some guys tonight who haven't played much together recently.
The Jazz are a great rebounding team on both ends. Gobert is a difficult defensive rebounder to counteract with his combination of size, athleticism and technique, but he is even more of a monster on the offensive glass and keeps many Jazz possessions alive that would otherwise be dead in the water. Booker and Favors are solid up front and can benefit from the attention Gobert receives. The Blazers got beaten soundly on the glass last night by the Warriors, 46-35, but they managed 12 offensive rebounds behind three each from Lopez, Gee and Lillard. Gang-rebounding will again be key tonight for Portland, as Utah has a few solid workhorses down low to trot out against the Blazers' depleted frontcourt.
If Portland allows the Jazz to dictate the tempo again -- the Blazers only got up 72 shots the last time these two teams met -- avoiding a sixth straight loss will be difficult. Instead, Portland needs to get the ball moving and test Utah's youth by getting out on the run when possible and attacking from the outside-in. With Hayward and Hood likely on the shelf tonight, the Blazers have a chance to sneak into Salt Lake City and steal a game from the surging Jazz. A victory tonight for Portland would require some deft outside shooting, at least a smattering of transition offense and a little bit of luck for a team that hasn't had much lately.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
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