After one quarter, the Portland Trail Blazers brought the energy needed to beat the Utah Jazz; after two quarters, it seemed that they’d compete. Ultimately, though, the firepower of the NBA’s top-ranked offense proved to be too much. In a dominant effort from behind the arc and in the paint, Utah cruised to a 129-107 victory, pushing the Blazers’ recurring road nightmares to a 1-10 start on the year.
The stars aligned for Utah, with Donovan Mitchell freeing himself from his shooting slump with a 30-point performance, the headliner on a Jazz team with six different double-figure scorers. On the Blazers’ side, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic contributed 24 each as the Blazers struggled through nagging injuries.
The loss drops Portland to 10-11, good for the No. 10 spot in the Western Conference. Here’s a quarter-for-quarter look at tonight’s loss.
You certainly wouldn’t have assumed Utah and Portland were No. 1 and No. 4 respectively on offense if you tuned in exclusively to the first three minutes. Portland’s defensive effort, paired with makeable misses by the Jazz led to a mutual drought, though it didn’t take long for the levee to break. Utah found a hole, literally, in Portland’s defense, having Rudy Gobert screen-and-roll right down the middle of the lane, slicing through untouched on multiple possessions. That’s even more troublesome when considering that Gobert had taken only seven shots in his last two games, yet he nearly eclipsed that in the first quarter alone tonight.
Norman Powell’s absence left 21 possessions unaccounted for, something Portland’s star backcourt appeared up to the challenge for. Lillard and McCollum scored the Blazers’ first 11, and then the second unit reinforcements came. Defensively, they were able to goad Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson into a “who can make the tougher shot” competition, which proved mostly fruitless. In boxing terms, Portland controlled the first “round,” but allowed Utah to get the needed hits to stay close on the scorecard. Portland led only 23-21 after one.
This is a Blazers-focused recap, sure, but one would be remiss to not take note of Gobert’s tangible impact. Utah’s defense goes as their 7-foot-1 Frenchman goes, but he had the Blazers’ defense on a string, too. His deceptively-quick cuts forced Portland’s weak side tagger and help in a bind, which opened up 3-point shots for teammates. And should they miss, he was there to corral misses, gobble alley-oops and zip no-looks to corner shooters.
In short: All-Star Weekend is February 20th, 2022, in Cleveland; the Slam Dunk Contest took place tonight in Utah, Gobert as the headliner. He hung on the rim that frequently.
Perhaps out of inspiration, the other Jazz players followed his lead, seeing the Blazers’ twos and hitting 3-pointers in response. Anfernee Simons had some notable minutes, stepping in as Portland’s tertiary scoring option. When the starters returned, the offense was balanced, with Lillard working off-ball, mismatch hunting, or Portland seeking drive-and-kicks. Jusuf Nurkic had a brilliant end-of-quarter stretch, using his competitiveness and brutality to match Gobert’s production. That — and a little strategizing, pulling Gobert out of the paint — helped Portland creep back into contention, trailing only 53-49 at the half.
Schematically, it would’ve seemed Portland put themselves in position to compete. They elected to start Nassir Little ahead of Tony Snell, and kept the Jazz’s stars out of the paint, Gobert on defense, and Mitchell on offense. The end result? A 10-1 run by the Jazz to open the quarter. Mitchell — having the worst 3-point shooting season of his career to date — certainly picked a convenient time and team to start his sizzle. His offense ballooned the lead to 13, putting the game’s watchability in jeopardy.
Also of note were a few separate occasions in which Lillard had a slight limp. True to their leader’s attributed continued to fight and claw, but ultimately they were rendered answerless against Rudy Gay and Rudy Gobert … Rudy Tomjanovich wasn’t in the arena tonight, but they wouldn’t have had a defensive scheme for him, either. Portland always seemed to have the 3-pointer needed to keep them in contention. Ultimately, they ended the third trailing 94-84.
Amongst all of the negativity surrounding the Blazers’ performance tonight, how about an appreciation sentence for Anfernee Simons? From the six-minute mark of the third quarter to the six-minute mark of the fourth, he chipped in 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
Unfortunately, it proved to be all for naught, as the Jazz put the finishing touches on, proving effective on both ends. In the end, Portland could never again push the lead to double-digits, as Utah cruised to a convincing victory, adding extra cushion to their No. 3 seed at this point in the season.
Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s extended recap.
There’s no place like home, and the Blazers head back tomorrow against the Detroit Pistons at 7 pm PT.