With the Portland Trail Blazers holding a seemingly-insurmountable lead in the Northwest Division, guaranteeing them no worse than 4th-place in the Western Conference playoff bracket, calling a Wednesday game against the less-than-spectacular Utah Jazz critical would be an overstatement.
When those same Blazers have lost 5 straight games, when confidence, health, and momentum are flagging, when the once-mighty contenders are searching for any ray of hope, some way to throw the emergency brake on their slide to ignominy, well...this game wasn't so much "must win" as "mustn't lose".
Fortunately, the Blazers didn't lose to the Jazz tonight...though it was a nearer thing than you might imagine. Mixing a little bit of pretty basketball with a whole lot of ugly, stirring in a side order of grit, the Blazers managed to concoct a 92-89 victory. The good guys left EnergySolutions arena with sighs of relief, if not smiles. For a night all is well in Blazer-Land.
The Utah Jazz played without super-expensive shooting guard Gordon Hayward tonight. Meanwhile the Blazers returned LaMarcus Aldridge to their starting five, albeit a bit gingerly. Nicolas Batum dressed but didn't play; Chris Kaman remained sidelined. If you thought the abrupt shuffling of lineups would produce an interesting, chaotic affair--one of those hidden NBA treats played with abandon by eager players, suddenly unleashed--you were dead wrong. For most of the evening play veered closer to pathetic than frenetic.
Portland's problems started at the offensive end and they started early. Aldridge gave it a good go, trying to fill his usual role as offensive hub, but he was all thumbs. He couldn't hold onto the ball, direct it, or get much of a shot off besides step-back fade-aways. He would score but 4 points in the first half.
Portland's back-up superstar, Damian Lillard, suffered similarly for different reasons. The Jazz hounded him tightly, making sure he never danced free in the lane. Lillard's jumper wasn't falling either. He'd notch 2 points in the first 2 quarters.
With both main scorers out of commission, responsibility for the offense fell on Arron Afflalo, Allen Crabbe, and Robin Lopez. Collectively they went BONK. Lopez couldn't finish around the rim, Afflalo wasn't hitting his shots, and Crabbe didn't get many touches.
Put this all together and what do you get? A 12-point first quarter. Consider that Aldridge often manages 12-point quarters all by himself. The mark provided a new season low for the Blazers.
Portland's offense may not have been doing them any favors, but Utah had no such problem. Derrick Favors, in fact, scored 19 points in the first half alone, barely blinking in the process. His prowess opened up opportunities for teammates outside. Fortunately they couldn't hit them, at least not consistently. Utah's 21 points in the first period felt like a blizzard compared to Portland's production, but it didn't bring about Doomsday the way a 30-point outburst would have. Still, a 21-12 deficit exiting the first wasn't exactly what the Blazers had in mind for this supposedly momentum-turning game.
A funny thing happened on the way to the blowout, however. Portland's bench played...well. Really well. Particularly in the second period. CJ McCollum and Dorell Wright each hit a pair of shots in the first 6 minutes of the quarter while Steve Blake canned a three. Utah got a couple buckets from Favors and a whole lot of nothing besides. As Portland's starters began to filter back in, the 9-point debt had been made good. The ballgame was tied at 27. Afflalo and Crabbe would keep the Blazers close as the half closed. The score stood at 39-37, Utah at intermission. It was a performance only a mother could love, but at least mom could cheer her boys only being down 2.
The third period started with the Blazers playing masterful defense. Sensing weakness, they refused to let Favors get near an open attempt. Absent their big scorer, the Jazz went limp. Utah was lucky to end up with 8 points in the first 6:00 of the period. Portland's offense wasn't doing much better, but even they could surpass an opponent scoring a point per minute.
Except they didn't, mostly because they held onto the ball like it was a rabid, Ebola-laden porcupine. Every time you turned around the Blazers were coughing up dribbles, passing to nowhere, and watching Utah laugh their way to the other end. Portland committed 7 turnovers in the third period. Before you could blink those point-a-minute Jazz had 26 compared to only 18 for the Blazers. It's hard to hit shots that you never take. Utah led 65-55 after three.
65 points over 3 quarters gets you many things, but a double-digit lead usually isn't among them. That's the way Portland's night was going.
Once again the bench came to the rescue as Dorell Wright hit a pair of threes at the start of the fourth. Lillard also began a quarter-long quest to cram the ball through anything orange and cylindrical that didn't get out of his way. If Rudy Gobert was a redhead, Lillard would have given him a concussion. As it was, Damian settled for dunking, converting layups, and drawing plenty of foul shots. His 13-point period provided the backbone for Portland's comeback.
Aldridge also showed signs of life, finally. If he wasn't exactly in his comfort zone, at least he stopped playing like the ball was coated in low-viscosity margarine. A trio of layups helped his shooting percentage and further highlighted Utah's interior defense as it was falling apart.
The Blazers might have run away with the game at that point had they been able to corral a defensive rebound. As it was the Jazz supplemented their shaky shooting with plenty of second chances. Portland's lane-destroying onslaught chipped away at Utah's lead but didn't overcome it until 1:30 remained in the game.
Even as they overtook the Jazz, the Blazers could push the lead no higher than 3. They left Utah within a single bucket right down to the final horn. Fortunately that bucket never came. The Blazers cut off the Jazz in the lane, refused to allow them any more offensive boards, and held on through Favors' missed desperation heave at the horn. Portland walked away with a 92-89 victory. If they didn't exactly get the losing streak monkey off their backs, at least they shifted it down towards the lumbar region instead of letting it perch on their shoulders and give them Wet Willies all day.
This game was so ugly, folks watching on mobile devices via NBA Broadband began left-swiping reflexively.
Portland's 92 points came off of a less-than-impressive 42% shooting clip, plus an even less-less-than-impressive 26% rate from the arc. Utah didn't fare much better. The teams attempted 43 three-pointers between them, managing to hit only 11. I'm pretty sure coaches Terry Stotts and Quin Synder can deduct the evening as depreciation on their taxes.
Portland's 21-9 edge in fast-break points helped their cause. Easy buckets work wonders when you're slumping. They almost gave it back with a 14-9 turnover deficit, but the Jazz don't play fast even when they have the advantage. The turnovers ended up preventing Portland attempts more than bolstering Utah's score. Thank heaven for small favors.
Everything else stayed just about even, as you'd expect in a close game.
Aldridge's play was concerning. He warmed up near the end of the game, courtesy of those layups, but he wasn't all there tonight. His 19 and Lillard's 23 look impressive but they hit only 13 of 34 shots combined. By comparison Favors and Trey Burke shot 18-38 for 48 points.
The shot in the arm the deeper bench players got against Golden State last night may have worked wonders for their confidence, though. They seemed to sense that the starters weren't up to carrying the load alone. Dorell Wright had another strong outing. Joel Freeland, CJ McCollum, and Steve Blake played admirably. Allen Crabbe hit the right notes starting for Batum at small forward. When we say the Blazers put forth a good team effort we usually mean a couple guys played well alongside Aldridge and Lillard. In this case the whole team stepped up when needed. Who cares how pretty it was? It worked.
Aldridge: 7-18, 19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 turnovers. For most guys that'd be a decent night but compared to Usual LaMarcus, it's fairly anemic.
Lillard: 6-16, 23 points and 12 assists. His masterstroke came in the 4th when he broke the Jazz defense by stuffing the rim full of goodness. 10-10 free throws provided his shining stat of the night and his commitment to the lane allowed it.
If Robin Lopez gets any deeper in the funk we'll have to issue him a trumpet and some sequined loafers. His 2-6 shooting performance wouldn't be bad if it came off of face-up 12-footers. Instead he missed from 6 feet and in. A half-dozen rebounds didn't do much to buoy his game. He did show Rudy Gobert a thing or two about leverage, though, and that was fun to watch.
Speaking of funk, Arron Afflalo: 3-8, 0-3 from distance, 7 points in 27 minutes. Ah well, those horn sections always have multiple players anyway.
Allen Crabbe's 8 points in 30 minutes didn't look that impressive, but you know what he did? He hit the sideline three (2-4 for the game). 5 rebounds and a little bit of defense later and that guy was a semi-adequate starter in Portland's system.
Dorell Wright hit 3-7 triples of his own on his way to 15 points in 27 minutes plus 5 rebounds and a little bit of everything thrown in. This guy has been on it for the last month or so. Blazers fans owe him a "Thank You".
Joel Freeland hit all 3 of his shots and grabbed 5 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Steve Blake didn't have a great statistical outing with 3 points and 2 assists in 17 minutes but he was helping to direct traffic during those bench comebacks.
CJ McCollum shot 3-6 for 7 points in 21 minutes. 2 turnovers during that span weren't so hot but he also had 4 rebounds.
Tonight's low point totals accompanied by good shooting points out what the Blazers need from most of their bench guys. They don't have to score 20 as long as they shoot well with the attempts they're given. If Portland's bench can be efficient they don't have to be dominating.
The Blazers are cemented in 4th place in the playoff bracket until their record gets better. They'd need to make up 2.5 games on the 3rd-place Houston Rockets, leapfrogging the Los Angeles Clippers in the process, to move forward. They cannot move backwards unless the Oklahoma City Thunder overtake them. The magic number to clinch the Northwest Division and prevent that unlikely occurrence now stands at 6.
The Blazers will face the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix on Friday night.
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