The Portland Trail Blazers clinched the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs race by upending the Utah Jazz in the final game of the regular season, 102-93. Portland snapped a four-game losing skid with this victory, looking impressive in the process. Their defense stifled the Jazz backcourt, which paved the way for Damian Lillard to manufacture double digit leads for long stretches. Lillard’s team-high 36 points proved to be a fitting end to a successful regular season that resulted in Portland clinching home court advantage in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. The Jazz had more at stake, but Portland’s effort prevailed.
The Blazers kicked things off by smothering the Jazz with excellent perimeter defense. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell each failed to register a shot from the field in the opening frame, which was a clear result of Portland’s commitment to contesting shots from outside. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum didn’t have the same problem, as the duo shot sharp. Led by their backcourt, the Blazers finished the quarter shooting above 40 percent from both the field and the arc. Nothing came easy for Utah; Portland led 28-21 after one.
McCollum kept the hot shooting going for the Blazers as the second quarter opened, which put the Jazz on the wrong end of a double-digit deficit. Rubio eventually got his offense going by moving downhill and getting his teammates involved. A Rubio-assisted Royce O’Neale three cut Portland’s lead to eight points with under four minutes remaining. But Lillard had other plans for Utah’s rally. He sliced, diced, and hit a handful of contested jumpers to complete a lead-preserving 11-point period. Thanks to 18 points from their starting backcourt, the Blazers found themselves ahead 55-41 at halftime.
Taking It To The Paint
Portland’s outside shooting cooled off in the third, but they offset the sluggishness by taking the ball inside. Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis each had impressive finishes thanks to some crafty pick-and-roll work, while the perimeter players found success weaving around Rudy Gobert’s outstretched arms. The Blazers built a solid 21-point lead by outscoring the Jazz 18-10 in the paint. Portland was sitting pretty with a 80-59 lead after three.
Big Lead Protects The Victory
The Blazers would have probably liked to have rested their starters at some point in the fourth quarter, but two prolonged scoring runs by the Jazz squashed those hopes. Utah doubled their three-point output from the first three quarters with four triples in the final frame, but the late push wasn’t enough to put the outcome in jeopardy for Portland. Thanks to their game-long lead, the Blazers scampered away with the victory despite being outscored 34-22 in the fourth.
After a rocky stretch of games, Portland’s outside shooting regained its old form for long stretches of this contest. The Blazers finished under 40 percent from beyond the arc, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were both hitting their attempts from outside the paint with relative ease. Hopefully tonight’s outing is the first step in the right direction for Portland’s perimeter offense.
Despite having more at stake, the Jazz were consistently outworked in the first three quarters. Portland closed out, fought for loose balls, and filled passing lanes with fervor in the first half. The Blazers’ defensive effort was impressive and suffocating on the perimeter, and it showed in the boxscore. Utah’s backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell combined for a paltry 11-for-35 from the field.
Portland’s headliners led the scoring charge, but the supporting cast deserves plenty of credit. Evan Turner, Ed Davis, and Al-Farouq Aminu were a thorn in the Jazz’s side from the moment they hit the court. The role players did an excellent job fulfilling their tasks on defense, winning 50/50 balls, and hitting their marks on offense.
Lillard Completes A Stellar Regular Season
Damian Lillard victory-lapped his excellent 2017-18 regular season with 36 points and 10 assists. His step-back jumper was falling tonight, which forced the Jazz to send help. When things got a little too crowded, Lillard had no problem finding the open man.
Jusuf Nurkic didn’t have the flashiest stat line, but he was a difference-maker on defense all night. The big fella did a superb job altering shots in the paint, which contributed to his four blocks. Nurkic finished 13 points and 9 rebounds in 30 minutes of action.
CJ McCollum kept the offensive momentum going in the early stages of the second quarter. He finished the first half with 14 points, but only managed 5 more before the final horn. McCollum chipped in 4 rebounds and 3 assists to go along with his 19 points.
Our friends at SLC Dunk will now have to wait two more games before the Jazz return home.
The last time the Blazers clinched the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference was at the conclusion of the 1999-00 regular season (let us not speak of how that postseason ended).
Portland will host the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Find the opening salvo of the series preview here!
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com