The Trail Blazers had just completed a five-game win streak when I learned that I would be in Salt Lake City on Tuesday evening, giving me a rare opportunity to watch the Blazers compete in a road game. Given all the success that the team was enjoying, I quickly secured tickets in hopes of witnessing a meaningful victory over the Jazz in the final stretch of the season.
The Basketball Gods had other plans - news of Jusuf Nurkic’s injury surfaced less than 24 hours I purchased tickets. But optimism managed to creep back in early-Tuesday, as a string of injuries left the Jazz short-handed as well. With the sudden infusion of hope, I eagerly made my way to the heart of Salt Lake City to experience Blazers basketball inside the cozy confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena.
The Jazz’s home stadium instantly reminded me of Veterans Memorial Coliseum as I arrived. Once inside, the glass facade provided the same lighting that the Blazers’ former home.
However, the similarities ended there; despite being nearly 30 years old, VSHA manages to feel modern. After visiting Oracle Arena earlier in the season, another of the NBA’s older arenas, I was pleasantly surprised by the spacious concourse inside VSHA. Being able to make my way through the arena without having to squeeze through seemingly endless concession lines definitely made exploring easier.
The added space also allows for a diverse choice of food options, but none of the offerings were able to convince me to pass on a potential stop at In-N-Out after the game.
After exploring the concourse, I made my way inside to find my seat and watch the tail-end of individual exercises.
Maurice Harkless was finishing up his workout with assistant coach Nate Tibbetts, while Evan Turner was working solely on his 3-point shot when I arrived. A decent sized pocket of Weber State and Portland fans were camped on the baseline to observe the activities.
The players eventually retreated to the locker room, only to return later for introductions. Normally the visiting roster is announced with little fanfare, but Damian Lillard still has a strong contingent of fans in the area. The former Ogden resident was announced last, and he received a cheer that was on-par with some of the Jazz players.
Then things got a little ridiculous. Utah’s introductions involved the following: a bear mascot, an actual motorcycle, and a pair of strategically placed flame-throwers. It appeared that Jackie Moon himself choreographed the routine for the Jazz.
The odor from the pyrotechnics had barely evaporated before the smell of trouble set in for coach Terry Stotts’ squad. Utah pounced on Portland, holding them scoreless for the first four minutes of action. While the visiting team would eventually rally back, it was clear that Rudy Gobert was going to cause a ton of problems for the Nurk-less Blazers.
In a game that was lacking signature moments for Blazers fans, CJ McCollum did manage to make the Jazz crowd uneasy in the second quarter. When Portland’s backcourt gets hot I am usually witnessing it inside the Moda Center or on television, but McCollum’s 14-point first half gave me a chance to enjoy his play in a different atmosphere. Witnessing the former Lehigh guard illicit groans and yells from Utah fans was far more satisfying than I could have expected.
Portland managed to stay within striking distance for most of the contest, but Utah’s Joe Johnson energized his team and the crowd with his buzzer-beater to finish the third quarter. The Blazers never recovered, and the confetti eventually fell for the home team.
Much to my surprise, my seat was surrounded by Blazers fans. I later learned that most of them were former Oregonians, and they made it a point to come out and see Portland when they visited Utah. Even in the loss, most fans remained optimistic that the Blazers would find a way to fight off the Nuggets for the eighth seed.
As for the Jazz fans, they love their throwback uniforms. The team store has a robust collection of jerseys featuring two specific players, with a cameo from a third.
The love for John Stockton and Karl Malone is obvious, and it is also clear that Utah fans are ready for bigger things. Outside of a few plays by Gobert, the crowd was fairly reserved for most of the game, leading me to believe they are already focused on the postseason.
Even after watching a blowout, I left this game feeling grateful, as I had witnessed some solid basketball from the Blazers in person earlier this season. Unfortunately, the Portland fans I sat with can’t say the same after the loss.
With all things considered, I was able to come out ahead. I managed to score a nice placemat for my much-anticipated dinner later that night.