The Portland Trail Blazers completed the first step in their quest for the 2021 NBA Playoffs tonight, defeating the Utah Jazz 105-98. The victory gives the Blazers cushion between themselves and the dreaded 7th-seed in the Western Conference, helping them avoid participating in the Play-In Tournament. At the time this is published, the Los Angeles Lakers—Portland’s chief rival in the race—lead the Houston Rockets. If the Lakers win that game, the Blazers will still need one more win in their final two games to assure themselves of finishing in the 6th seed or better.
The Blazers held Utah to 12-40 (28%) shooting from the three-point arc, well short of their 39.0% rate for the season. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 30 and 26 points respectively. Carmelo Anthony added a critical 18 off the bench.
The Blazers came out as they have in the last couple weeks, working through Jusuf Nurkic. Rudy Gobert made that not work as well as usual. Portland ended up with a bunch of mid-range shots, few of which actually went in. The Jazz weren’t able to push their offense hard, as they lacked shot creators with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley out. They did manage to drive the ball inside, however, and that provided a steady stream of points that Portland lacked. Utah went up 11-4 off of dunks and layups before the game was four minutes old.
The story did not get better as the quarter progressed. Portland’s interior defense was missing in action. Jusuf Nurkic had a nice block, a layup off of a screen and roll, and a sweet alley-oop pass to Lillard, but those plays were intermittent. The Blazers had to rely on foul shots and jumpers for scoring as Utah laid in the ball.
Back-to-back threes by Enes Kanter (!) and Lillard within the final two minutes made the margin look respectable, but a nearly-impossible four-point play by Jordan Clarkson with 4 seconds left repaired most of the damage. In the end, Utah without two of their main scorers put up 31 points in the first quarter. The fully-stocked Blazers managed only 24. Lillard had 11 points in the period.
The second quarter started out much better for the Blazers, mostly thanks to CJ McCollum. He either scored outright or drew the defense so Carmelo Anthony could fire open shots. After Anthony hit a couple, he got onto one of his patented ‘Melo Rolls and all of a sudden, Portland was cooking. You don’t have to defend every opponent play when you’re scoring every trip down the floor yourself. Portland quickly reduced Utah’s lead to just 1, then tied it with 6:20 left on a Nurkic free throw.
The teams battled back and forth for the next few minutes, with Portland manufacturing awesome jumpers and Utah screening the ball and continuing to lay in every second attempt. Portland got a small edge on the offensive glass, which helped. Utah missed most of their threes, which helped even more. But repeated straight-line drives to the hoop gave the Jazz all they needed in order to keep up with even the best Portland scoring streaks. Nurkic returning helped the defense a bit. Lillard got a parade of foul shots on sketchy calls on the perimeter, which didn’t hurt. McCollum hit a buzzer-beating baseline jumper at the horn to give Portland a 59-56 lead at the half.
The Blazers extended their lead at the start of the third for one, simple reason: they hit three pointers and the Jazz could not. It’s not like Utah’s shots were contested. They just missed, somewhat uncharacteristically. To Portland’s credit, the flow of layups stopped. (It was as simple as not letting Utah dribblers get straight-line drives.) That made three-pointers by Lillard, McCollum, and Robert Covington count. When Nurkic hit a free throw off of a roll play with 5:49 left, Portland’s lead reached 10, 73-63. You almost began to feel sorry for the Jazz at that point. Portland would cede them a wide-open three-pointer, just standing and watching. Utah would miss, but somehow get the offensive rebound, exposing Portland’s lack of defensive acumen. But then Utah would miss the put-back. The Blazers finally clamped down on Clarkson as the period closed, which inhibited Utah’s production further. The Blazers led 84-76 after three. Utah was shooting 9-30, 30%, from the arc. That’s bad for anybody, disastrous for them.
At this point, Portland’s defense is a Jedi mind trick. They’re not getting anywhere near shooters or cleaning up on the glass, but they’re all, “These are not the shots you are looking for.” Utah is just nodding solemnly and missing.— David Deckard (@DaveDeckard) May 13, 2021
With a lead heading into the fourth, all the Blazers needed to do was hold serve in order to win. They managed it easily. The Jazz continued to brick wide-open shots in agonizing fashion. Everybody kept waiting for their scoring to jump-start. It just didn’t happen. Nor did they have a player who could take over and will them out of their despair. When the Blazers took away Utah’s buckets at the rim, they had no answer. Portland’s offense left them no respite. McCollum and Anthony poured it on big, just as they had in the second quarter. Half of their production would have been too much for Utah to compensate for. As it was. Portland coasted to the finish.
Stay with us for Kyle Garcia’s extended analysis of the game!
The Blazers will turn around for a back-to-back with the Phoenix Suns tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, Pacific. If Portland wins that game, they will automatically be a Top 6 seed in the playoffs. If they lose, they’ll have to wait for a Lakers loss, or to clinch their spot with a victory against the Denver Nuggets in the final game of the season on Sunday.