The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2016-17 season fielding a familiar starting lineup, a bolstered bench, and high hopes for success. If tonight’s game versus the injured-but-feisty Utah Jazz was any indication, they have a decent chance of capitalizing on all three. Utah put up a fight, exposing Portland’s defense as not-quite-ready for prime time. 39 points from Damian Lillard and near-70% shooting from the three-point arc absolved all sins, defensive or otherwise, and left the Blazers proud owners of a 1-0 record after a 113-104 victory.
The Blazers made a banana out of the first quarter of this game, riding high points on either end of the period. Al-Farouq Aminu, CJ McCollum, and Allen Crabbe joined Lillard in an early three-point parade that left the Jazz looking flat-footed and stupefied. Noah Vonleh— called off the bench late in the period—scored on a couple of strong offensive moves. The Blazers shot 50% in the quarter on their way to 26 points.
The dip in between the two ends of the banana happened on the other end of the floor. If Portland showed up to the party with defensive improvement in tow, it was wearing one heck of a disguise. Non-Communication Man? Captain Standaround? Their suddenly-shy defense allowed the Jazz to shoot 56% in the first, ruining a nice offensive effort. The scoreboard read 26-26 after one.
Without Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, or Alec Burks (all dealing with injury) the Jazz faced an uphill battle in the second period. Their subs had become starters, filling the holes admirably. During the bench shift their patchwork second unit couldn’t keep up with Portland’s fully armed reserves. When Rudy Gobert sat Utah’s defense went with him. When starting guards George Hill and Rodney Hood rested, the offense went too. Utah had no answer as the second quarter became an all-you-can-eat Crabbe roll. The Blazers built a 54-46 lead heading into the half.
If Portland thought they could cruise to victory in the second half, they were sadly mistaken. Utah came into the third period with all the tempo of a dump truck...which was just how they wanted to play: slow and inexorable. Portland obliged by standing on defense, allowing prehistoric wing Joe Johnson to isolate them in the post. If the Blazers put a guard on him, Johnson shot over them. When they went to bigger forwards he spun around them. Either way, the point-of-attack defenders might as well have been practice dummies. When the Blazers sent help, Johnson’s Jazz moved the ball until they found an open shooter. Portland’s lead—at one time 13 points--withered to less than nothing under Utah’s 37-point third-period onslaught. The final quarter began with the Blazers down 83-77.
Utah began to tire again in the fourth. Their bench players still couldn’t score and their starters lost their lift...except Johnson who neither had nor needed any lift to begin with. The isolation specialist continued to hammer Portland’s defense until, abandoning all caution, the Blazers simply sent everyone on the floor towards him when he caught the ball. As passes found reluctant or fatigued shooters, Utah’s offense waned. Meanwhile Lillard and McCollum picked up the pace on the other end, McCollum burning slow-closing defenders with jumpers as Lillard opened up the blowtorch to maximum. The telling blow came when Lillard drained an effortless 24-footer with 1:00 to go, putting his team up 109-102 and smashing Utah’s dreams like Marty Jannetty’s head through a plate glass window. The invisible watch on Dame’s wrist might as well have been Big Ben, tolling Utah’s doom. Portland cruised to the 9-point win.
Analysis and Trends
The story of this game was pretty simple. For the most part the Jazz got better shots and executed their game plan with more conviction than the Trail Blazers. Portland’s offense looked good but their defense was in shambles. Hill scored 19, Hood 26. Utah shot 49% from the field. But none of that mattered because Portland’s starting guards were so...darn...good. Lillard and McCollum combined for 64 points on 21-36 shooting while playing personal Boogeymen in Utah’s fourth-quarter nightmare.
The Jazz might have had a chance if they could hit a three-pointer but they shot only 33% (8-24) for the evening. Nor could they cover Portland’s threes. The same bulk, height, and age that allowed Utah post-up opportunities galore kept them from closing out on Portland’s deep shooters. The Blazers posted an incomparable 13-19, 68% mark from the arc, eliminating any hope that Utah could get by on high percentage two-pointers alone. 1990’s ball got thrust into 2016 and 2016 won.
Portland’s away-from-the-rim emphasis (combined with a height/weight disadvantage) prevented them from gaining any advantage on the boards tonight, but battling the Jazz to a near-standstill is more than acceptable. Less acceptable: the two teams virtually tied in turnovers (Utah 11, Portland 12) and the Jazz ended up with 9 steals to Portland’s 5. If Portland’s plan was more aggression patrolling the perimeter and passing lanes, they didn’t end up with much to show for it. Coupled with horrendous stand-still defense (note: just parking yourself in front of someone is not really defending)...well, let’s just say that Portland’s "D" hasn’t really started the season yet and hope they can coax it out of the locker room on another night.
Utah will probably take hope from this game. Their wings played superbly on offense. They stayed close on the road against a key rival with two of their Top 4 players in street clothes. Blazers took home a far better prize: a 1-0 record and corresponding edge in the season-long divisional scrum. The days of moral victories in Portland are past. The real ones feel better and last longer. The Blazers will take it.
Damian Lillard not only put the team on his back when the game was in doubt, he lifted them up on his shoulders and let them hang the star on top of the Christmas tree. Every time Portland needed a point, he either canned a three or took Rudy Gobert to school in the lane. Lillard has the French Giant’s outstretched arms clocked with Swiss precision. His dizzying array of layups became the body blows that set up the knockout head punches during Dame Time. Lillard’s bid for MVP relevance this season starts with 39 points on 13-20 shooting, 4-6 from the arc, plus 6 assists and 9 rebounds. That’s not just money, that’s the whole damn bank.
CJ McCollum scored a paltry 25 next to Lillard’s 39, but he shot 8-16 from the field and hit both of his threes. When Jazz defenders tried to stay up on McCollum he simply danced into space and hit a mid-range jumper. It was effective and deadly.
Allen Crabbe pulled the same trick CJ pulled, heading into open space and pulling up. His 18 points off the bench brought the total of Portland’s top three guards to an amazing 82 for the game. That’s not fair. Hitting 4-5 threes in the process was REALLY not fair.
New recruit Evan Turner wasn’t anywhere near as settled as his backcourt teammates. When he passed off the drive everybody looked good, as 5 assists testify. His iso offense resembled a skunk in a blender: plenty of spinning but what’s that smell??? His 5 rebounds helped make up for the 1-7 shooting.
Noah Vonleh may not be the King of Portland yet but he was the most effective big man to take the court for the Blazers tonight. He shot 5-5 from the field, displaying the same confident moves he showed in pre-season. He boasted a NASTY blocked shot and a sweet hairdo. Stay tuned.
Meyers Leonard didn’t prove quite as sweetly coiffed and didn’t produce much either. His 9-minute stint consisted of two missed shots, a rebound, and an assist. Worse, the release on his three-point shot looked like something Gobert would produce if he were covered in molasses. The most telling stat of the night: Vonleh got the early bench call over Leonard. Maybe the injuries aren’t quite healed?
Ed Davis played 24 solid minutes with 7 rebounds and some decent help defense. I’m not sure I like him at center yet, but...
Mason Plumlee racked up 4 personal fouls and not much else in 15 minutes of play. Maybe this new defense disagrees with him.
Al-Farouq Aminu didn’t mind it much though. He scored 9 points, centered around a couple three pointers. He looked like he was filling the power forward slot fine. Then again, his opponents were asking for the honored citizen discount at Dr. Jack’s after the game.
Moe Harkless was neither here nor there, but you kind of expected that in Game 1 when everybody else would be featured. He did produce a couple of steals.
Odds and Ends (and Links)
The UNDEFEATED Blazers will face the much-less-injured Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night, a TNT game.
Get the other side of tonight’s story from SLCDunk.