In a game with significant playoff implications, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz 105-98 in Salt Lake City tonight. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 56 points, with Lillard putting up 30 and McCollum scoring 26. Jordan Clarkson was the top scorer for the Jazz with 29 points off the bench while Rudy Gobert had a rugged 15 points and 20 rebounds.
If you missed it earlier, here’s our quarter-by-quarter recap of the big win. After you know how it went, here are five critical observations from tonight’s game.
Is 2-for-3 good enough?
The Blazers had great nights from their two best players in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They did not get a good night from Norman Powell, who struggled from the field with a 3-for-11 shooting night. The good news for Portland? They didn’t need Norm to shoot that well to win.
Portland has a three-headed offensive monster in Lillard, McCollum, and Powell. Tonight they scored 105 points with one of those players not breaking double digits. 105 isn’t a ton, but when three of your five starters are straight up bad offensively, you’ll take it. A trio that can get you an easy 75 points came up short of that and they still had enough firepower to win (thanks Carmelo Anthony!). It helped that Utah couldn’t hit anything from outside, keeping Portland out of a true shootout, but it bodes well generally when not all of your top players have to be electric in order for your team to win.
The Necessity of Nurk
Jusuf Nurkic shot horribly from the field. He was 3-for-14 and struggled to finish shots inside. Yet despite those finishing woes, he was one of the best players on the floor tonight for Portland. His defense went beyond the three blocks he accumulated. He was the only one that could match up in any capacity against Gobert (who still had a monster night). Nurkic’s ability to defend the pick and roll was crucial to Portland winning this one.
I wrote last week about how the Blazers will only go as far as Nurk takes them. I think this game showed how. He didn’t have to score much to make an impact. His defense and screen-setting were enough to jump start Portland. He deterred drivers with ease and was an excellent team defender in help situations. He can’t have too many nights where he shoots this poorly from the field, but as long as he keeps cutting off drivers and redirecting traffic, he givesPortland a chance.
So About That Defense...
Since I mentioned the bevy of missed threes from the Jazz, it feels appropriate to talk very quickly about whether or not the Blazers were good defensively. The answer is a resounding...kind of? Nurk was incredible and the Jazz shot poorly, but it didn’t feel like they were defended super well from outside. The Blazers missed rotations and Portland’s perimeter defenders still got exposed on drive and kicks. It just didn’t matter because Utah couldn’t make anything.
I mention this because the defense probably should still be a slight worry for Portland as the playoffs approach. Don’t get me wrong, tonight’s win felt great. A lot of key guys stepped up at the right time. The numbers with Nurk starting are solid defensively as well. But when they play a really good team at full strength, can they hold up? I’m not 100% convinced yet.
National TV Melo
The Blazers need to keep Carmelo Anthony on national TV. 18 points off the bench on 4-of-5 shooting from outside (defense optional)? That’s the perfect Melo night. The Blazers need to tell him that ESPN or TNT is broadcasting every single game for eternity.
In all seriousness, one could probably safely assume that the eight players we saw tonight will play night in and night out in the playoffs. If so, that means Anthony is really the only depth the Blazers have at the wing. What does he need to do to make up for any defensive struggles? Have nights where he takes and makes his outside shots to nullify inefficient post-ups and swiss cheese defense. Good thing the playoffs are broadcast nationally.
There are a million reasons why this game was important, the playoff implications chief among them (Dave Deckard broke that down for you). But another reason this game was worth watching was to see how the Blazers match up against a potential opponent. The Blazers are still in danger of falling into the play-in tournament (as of this writing). If they play in the tournament and win, their reward is playing one of either the Jazz or the Suns. Even if they don’t fall to the tournament, they could still face the Jazz in the second round. This game was crucial to our understanding of how Portland would handle Utah.
So what did we learn? We learned that the Jazz still have a trillion playmakers even with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley sitting out. They know who to attack on the Blazers defense. The true saving graces for Portland were Nurkic’s defense and the lid someone left on Utah’s rims. Otherwise, this Utah team still looks really sound on both ends. If the Blazers do end up having to face Utah — either in the first or second round — it’s going to be crucial for them to limit the shot creation from their ball-handlers and cleanup ability of Gobert. The Blazers should probably take it one step at a time and not worry about opponents before even officially making the playoffs, but it’s still important to take notes.
The Blazers are headed to Phoenix tomorrow for their matchup against the Suns. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. PT.