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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz Preview

The Blazers host the Jazz tonight at the Moda Center! Tip off is 6:00 p.m. PST.

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Portland Trail Blazers (28-27) vs Utah Jazz (27-27)
Sunday, February 21
Moda Center | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN NW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: None | Utah injury report: Alec Burks (Questionable - Ankle), Dante Exum (Out - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The Portland Trail Blazers (28-27) face off against the Utah Jazz (27-27) tonight at 6:00 p.m. in the Moda Center.

The Blazers and Jazz are in the middle of a hotly contested battle for the final Western Conference playoff spots. The four teams in the 6-9 spots in the standings, including Portland and Utah, are currently separated by a single game, which effectively turns every game between these teams into a de facto playoff. As such, the winner of tonight's Blazers/Jazz contest could move into the sixth seed, while the loser will tumble to eighth or ninth.

Both teams have been playing their best basketball of the season in recent weeks. The Blazers have won 13 of their last 16, good for the third best record in the NBA since Jan. 10, and the Jazz have won eight of their last 10. Portland is coming of a pummeling of the best team in the NBA, behind 51 points(!) from Damian Lillard. Utah beat Boston handily on Friday, 111-93.

Utah's recent hot play has correlated strongly with the return of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors from injury. The two big men play crucial defensive and offensive roles, respectively, for the Jazz. Gobert often appears to have go-go gadget extending arms and terrorizes opponents around the rim. His replacement, Jeff Withey, played serviceably while Gobert was out for 18 games in December and January with a knee injury, but, when healthy, Gobert has an incomparable effect on his team's defense.

Favors, on the other hand, serves as the offensive ying to Gobert's defensive yang. He's having a career year after being moved to power forward to allow Gobert to play center. Favors leads the Jazz in PER at 22.4, and is second in points (16.6) and rebounds (8.4) per game. He has improved significantly this season by diversifying his bruising low-post style with a decent jumpshot. Favors importance was on full display on Friday against the Celtics, when his 23 points led the Jazz to victory.

The Jazz have been weakest all season in the back-court. Presumptive starting point guard Dante Exum tore his ACL this summer while playing for the Australian National Team, and their backcourt bench sparkplug, Alec Burks, has missed time with an ankle sprain. The Jazz have relied on Raul Neto and Trey Burke to fill the gap at point guard. Unfortunately, both players are poor defenders and Utah has been shellacked all season by opposing guards.

The Jazz attempted to solidify their backcourt at the trade deadline by acquiring Shelvin Mack from the Atlanta Hawks. Mack is a strong defensive player, but had fallen out of the Hawk's rotation behind Dennis Schroeder and Jeff Teague. He will serve as Utah's third point guard and help provide defensive stability.

Despite their woes at point guard, the Jazz are an elite defensive team. Their defensive rating of 97.7 over the last ten games is second in the NBA, behind only the Blazers. That success has come in part thanks to good 3-point defense; the Jazz have held opponents to 33 percent shooting from deep over the last 10 games. They also clean up the defensive glass, and have the fifth highest defensive rebounding percentage in the league in recent games.

After an explosive offensive affair against the Warriors on Friday that saw the Blazers put up 41 points in the first quarter, tonight's game is likely to look more like a snail fight. Utah is dead last in pace over the last 10 games, and is tied for last in average speed. The Blazers did run hard against the Warriors, but their success all season has largely been in the half court. They don't grind, per se, but they do run more pick-and-roll sets than any other team, and have no qualms about setting up in the half court.

On the Blazers' side, it will be worth watching how often coach Terry Stotts calls on backup center Meyers Leonard. Leonard has vacillated from completely ineffective to total gamechanger all season. His inconsistent play and laborious decision making has perplexed coaches, while his flashes of ability have made fans salivate. Stotts' patience with Leonard, however, appears to be wearing thin. In two of Portland's last three games Leonard has been largely absent from the rotation for the first time all season. It remains to be seen whether this is indicative of the end of the "Meyers Leonard era," or whether Stotts is simply playing the matchup game.

Tonight's game will be the fourth and final meeting of the season between Utah and Portland. The Blazers have won two of the three games against the Jazz so far, so a victory tonight will give them the all-important head-to-head tie-breaker. The Portland loss to Utah came on New Year's Eve with Damian Lillard out of the lineup. In the two Portland victories Lillard has averaged 28 points on 54 percent shooting.

Keys to the game

Don't be hungover: In February of 1998 the Blazers marched into Chicago and beat the two-time defending champs on their homecourt. It was Portland's first win in the Windy City with Michael Jordan in the lineup since 1992. Two nights later the Blazers flew to Indiana and suffered the second worst loss in league history (124-59). The point here is that there's going to be a tendency toward a letdown in the game following a major victory. Maintaining focus, especially early  in the game, will be important for the Blazers tonight. Utah's slow pace makes it more difficult to mount a comeback, so an early deficit could spell doom for Portland.

Relentlessly exploit the point guard advantage: Utah has employed nine starting point guards in five seasons since trading Deron Williams in 2011. Those players have have been universally unreliable on defense against opposing backcourts. As noted above, this year's combination of Neto and Burke has been no exception. Mack may shore up their defense...eventually. But this is only his second game with the team so he will likely need an adjustment period before becoming effective. Lillard and McCollum should be able to take advantage of Utah's backcourt weakness for the full 48 minutes tonight.

Three-point shooting: The Jazz have defended the 3-point line well in recent games, and Gobert has shut down all offense around the rim. The Blazers will need to reverse one of those trends if they hope to beat the Jazz. Given that Portland has struggled around the rim all season, being able to get and hit open looks from three will likely decide the outcome tonight.

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