The Portland Trail Blazers knew that it would be tough to win without Jusuf Nurkic, but they might not have expected it to be this tough. For the second time in two days, a rival big man broke through the Nurkic-sized hole in the Blazers’ facade and exposed the weaknesses of the structure beneath.
Tonight, the wrecking ball took the form of Rudy Gobert. The Jazz big man completely disrupted the Blazers’ offense and also added 20 points and 11 rebounds on 6-for-6 shooting. Portland had no reliable center to counter Gobert, resulting in an inevitable 106-87 loss.
Gobert’s impact, and Nurkic’s absence, could be felt from the opening tip-off tonight. The Jazz, led by Gobert, dominated the Blazers on the inside, blocking or challenging shots repeatedly and grabbing six of the game’s first eight rebounds. Consequently, the Blazers failed to score for the first 5:36 of the game, while the Jazz reeled off 11. Gobert played a major role in Utah’s offense too, drawing two quick fouls on Noah Vonleh and easily converting his first four shots for 10 points.
The feeling of the game immediately shifted when Gobert checked out with 1:28 to go in the first and the Jazz ahead 19-10. After scoring only 10 points in 10.5 minutes, the Blazers were suddenly able to get to the rim with ease. They scored 13 points in Gobert’s 4.5 minute absence to pull within five (28-23). CJ McCollum led the charge with 10 points in the quarter on a variety of nifty drives. But when Gobert returned the game reached it’s old equilibrium. The Jazz led 47-41 at the half.
The third quarter played out similarly to the first half. Gobert drew two quick fouls on Vonleh, forcing the Blazers into a smallball frontcourt of Evan Turner/Maurice Harkless/Al-Farouq Aminu for long stretches. McCollum scored enough, 11 points in the quarter, to keep the Blazers within striking range - down 65-58 with 1:30 to go.
Then Joe Johnson and the Jazz got hot. Johnson drained four consecutive 3-pointers in three minutes, and Shelvin Mack added a fifth, pushing the lead to 88-68. Meanwhile, the Jazz continued their stifling defense and the Blazers missed on seven consecutive field goal attempts. With Utah ahead by 20, the game was functionally over and the Jazz cruised to a perfunctory 19-point final margin.
Gobert set the tone from the get-go tonight and it influenced the entire game. Tellingly, the Blazers had only two field goals around the rim during his first shift. Once Gobert checked out the seas parted and the Blazers pounded the ball inside for four lay-ups in the next four minutes. Gobert had “only” three blocks, but his presence altered many additional shots throughout the game.
The intimidation factor that Gobert brought carried over to the rest of his team. The Jazz physically pushed the smaller Blazers around for much of the night. The overwhelming 47-28 advantage for the Jazz on the boards tells that story well. The Blazers also struggled with Utah’s physical style on the perimeter - for example, Evan Turner could be seen repeatedly complaining about extra contact on screens. And those screens made a difference; Gordon Hayward scored 30 points with many open shots coming from solid picks.
With Gobert locking down the inside, and physical play established as permissible, the Jazz were able to harass Lillard all night. Portland’s star faced the bulk of the defensive pressure on the perimeter and had few open shooting opportunities. He finished 5-for-20 from the field with 16 points.
Lillard’s poor shooting, Nurkic’s absence on offense, and the Gobert-led defense combined to paint a dire offensive picture for the Blazers, symbolized by the fact that they had only FIVE assists through three quarters. They would finish with a season low 10 assists.
Gobert could have had an even bigger impact if the Jazz had found a way to get him more involved offensively. He scored 10 of their first 15 points but would finish with only 10 additional points in subsequent 3.5 quarters, and had only six field goal attempts. The Blazers got away with playing a smallball lineup, with no real center, for long stretches because Utah could not translate Gobert’s finesse offense into scoring opportunities.
Nonetheless, the Blazers still struggled defensively with Nurkic missing. As always, the guards allowed easy penetration, but with no center to play backstop they had to try to catch the driving Utah players’ from behind. Playing defense from behind can be deceptively effective when the team is rotating together, but that rarely happened as players struggled to figure out how to compensate for a lack of a rim protector.
Damian Lillard struggled for a second consecutive game. With Nurkic out of the lineup opposing defenses are free to focus their entire energy on Lillard. When the opposition has a good defense, he’s going to struggle more often than not under these circumstances.
CJ McCollum was the only bright spot for Portland. He was hitting from everywhere on the court. No, seriously, everywhere:
Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless were both totally overwhelmed. Vonleh got into all kinds of foul trouble and could not handle Gobert’s agility. One particularly nice Euro-step move from the Utah Center left Vonleh completely flummoxed. Harkless similarly struggled to score on his trademark hard cuts against the physical Jazz, and was regularly outsmarted by the wily veteran Boris Diaw. It’s going to be hard to win when those two combine for only 4 points and 4 rebounds.
Al-Farouq Aminu was a little better and had 11 points and 4 rebounds. But he was only 1-for-4 on triples and badly airballed one. The Blazers desperately needed floor spacing tonight and Aminu was not the answer.
Allen Crabbe had only 8 points but showed up on defense again - although he checked out in the second half.
Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner were not going to be deciding factors tonight. Turner had 6 points and 3 rebounds, Leonard had 9 and 3. Leonard is still visibly struggling with a hip injury.
The Denver Nuggets beat the Pelicans tonight, eliminating New Orleans from the playoff chase. But the win also pulled the Nuggets within a half game of the Blazers for the No. 8 seed. For full details on the standings, and the Blazers’ “magic number,” check out this post.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@Gmail.com | @EricG_NBA