Despite 32-point performances from both Damian Lillard and Norman Powell, the Portland Trail Blazers fought a fruitless battle, losing in a wire-to-wire, 120-105 matchup against the Utah Jazz. In a game that had the makings of a potential blowout just five minutes in, Portland showed signs of grit, despite having eight players sidelined. In the end, they dropped their fourth straight game, falling to 13-21, No. 12 among Western Conference powers.
The bright side is that the Blazers are soon poised to bid goodbye to a nightmarish December, in which they’ve gone 2-10 — eight of those 10 losses coming by double-figures — with one more matchup to go. If you missed it, take a glance at Ryan Rosback’s instant analysis of tonight’s game. Here’s a look at a few takeaways.
The Unstoppable Force vs. The Movable Object:
For those that missed the actual broadcast, allow me to humor you with a few of the matchups Utah was able to scheme up within the first six minutes:
— Rudy Gobert (7-foot-1) vs. Norman Powell (6-foot-3)
— Rudy Gobert (7-foot-1) vs. Tony Snell (6-foot-6)
— Hassan Whiteside (7-foot) vs. Anfernee Simons (6-foot-4)
— Rudy Gay (6-foot-8) vs. Anfernee Simons (6-foot-4)
To their credit, Portland was able to stop the Jazz on every occasion that they missed shots … that just wasn’t very often. Health and safety protocols have ravaged any semblance of size on this Blazers roster, and the Jazz — top 10 in points per possession and efficiency with pick-and-roll roll men — spammed it over and over again like an arcade fighting game. Just as he was in the inaugural meeting between these two teams on Nov. 29, Gobert made French toast out of the Blazers’ defense; Portland opened the game by either switching everything or having their guards rotate over. The drawbacks of that strategy well-documented, he slipped screens, rolled, or got shots at the basket on the way to an efficient 22-point performance.
Further exacerbating matters, Portland was ill-equipped to deal with Whiteside, an old friend of theirs. The more things change, the more they stay the same. He still flexes after and-one scores on guards; he’s still exploitable in drop coverage; he can still flirt with a double-double in record time. He did a little bit of all of that despite accruing boos at the Moda Center. Here’s the stat of the hour: the Jazz led the Blazers with a 22-2 edge in first-quarter points in the paint, and 74-30 overall. Yikes.
That big man dominance yielded results. Portland had to leave their assignments to collapse the paint, allowing Utah’s forwards to either cut through lanes and go bowling for easy layups, or … don’t cut, stay statue-esque, and spot up for open 3-pointers. A lose-lose situation by all accounts.
Blazers’ Slow Start Spells Doom:
Before tonight, Utah had won three of the last four meetings against this Blazers group, winning each of those three games by 19 or more points. The opening of Wednesday’s game had a similar vibe; the Jazz opened up with a 14-3 lead, and won wire-to-wire, despite the Blazers continually cutting the lead to single digits. After a Lillard lay-in that pushed it to 84-77 in the third, it appeared Portland would be within striking distance. But, the energy one must expend playing from behind proved too much.
It’s becoming something of a troubling trend for the Blazers. Here’s a tidbit: they’ve won the first quarter just once over their last 12 games. Even free throws proved expensive for this group. The Blazers’ new signees — think Reggie Perry, Cameron McGriff and Brandon Williams — will have a few clips to add to their highlight reels for the hustle and grit they showed in garbage time, but that’s what it was. The levee eventually broke on a potential comeback, and a 15-point loss was the result.
Thinking positively, it’s easy to be overly critical of a team with 13 victories over 34 attempts, and rightfully so. But, the Blazers entered Wednesday with eight players on the injury report, and hung within striking distance of the Western Conference’s No. 3-ranked team. There was a brief stretch in the third quarter in which the Blazers’ healthy shot diet would have allowed them to creep further into the game; shots went everywhere around the rim but through. For years, that’s been a Portland staple against top-tier talent: keep the game close, and then rely on arguably the game’s greatest closer. Unfortunately, their slow start hindered their ability to get close enough.
Boom, Smash, Powell:
Despite sharing the floor with a six-time All-Star in Damian Lillard and a four-time All-NBA teamer in Rudy Gobert, Norman Powell made his case for being the best player to take the floor in the first half. You hate to play the “he had a different look in his eye” card, but Powell wore the No. 24 jersey well, opening the game with a perfect mix of aggressiveness and efficiency to create a truly incandescent offensive performance.
By the end of the first half, Powell was on pace for a 50-piece on just 12 shots. Unfortunately, that 25-point first half would only translate to a 32-point finish. He eventually fell in line, seeming to lack that same pop after he rolled his ankle to begin the half. But, this game would’ve been over by tip-off if not for his ambition. He wove through pick-and-rolls, worked off curls, and sniped away from 3-point range, taking full advantage of the absence of other Blazers stars. Over his last ten games: 22.3 points on 43-37-85 percentage splits.
Portland has had to worry about help beyond Lillard, but Powell played his role tonight. Outside of him, Larry Nance Jr. played one of his most complete games as a Blazer, with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and three steals. He seems to have a better feel for the two-man game with Lillard and that pairs well with his intangibles. Those three were among the only reliable performers in tonight’s loss.
If you missed it, here’s the link to Ryan Rosback’s instant recap.
The Blazers end their December nightmares with a trip to STAPLES Center to play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, December 31 at 7:30 PT.