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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz Preview

Can Portland get back on track against the other Cinderella story of the West?

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (10-5) vs. Utah Jazz (11-6)

The Portland Trail Blazers face the Utah Jazz tonight in a battle of the Western Conference’s top two teams (and with that, the Conference’s two biggest surprises). It’s the final matchup of a three-game home stand for the Blazers before they fly away again for a four-game road trip.

After a 4-2 record on their last road trip had people shouting and dancing from the rooftops, the Blazers have cooled off a little since returning to PDX. The Blazers barely got by the inexperienced San Antonio Spurs, then ran out of gas Thursday night against the dying-in-dysfunction Brooklyn Nets, losing 109-107 in the final second. Still, Portland holds the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference and has a great chance to rebound tonight against quality competition.

The No. 2 seed in the West, The Jazz have also cooled off lately. After starting the season 10-3, The Jazz are losers of their last four games, but that one win did come last night in a 134-133 barnburner over the Phoenix Suns. On the second night of a back-to-back, The Jazz will look to collect another W against a stout conference opponent.

Trail Blazers vs. Jazz - Saturday, November 19 - 7:00 p.m. PT

How to watch on TV: Root Sports Plus, NBA League Pass, NBA TV

Blazers injuries: Gary Payton II (out), Keon Johnson (out), Nassir Little (questionable)

Jazz injuries: Rudy Gay (out)

SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk

The Matchup

Moving that rock! I hear you Blazer’s Edge, I read what many are saying in the comments. The Blazers offense wasn’t beautiful Thursday night and Portland’s two high-octane guards resorted to too much dribble-pounding, iso-heavy basketball. Damian Lillard (8-24 on the night) shot 1-6 in the third quarter and 2-8 in the fourth, riding questionable shot selection. Anfernee Simons (8-20), after catching fire in the third, rode the hot hand too long and took the offense out of rhythm with several unsuccessful isolation plays. It helped spur an 11-0 run from the Nets to get them back in the game. While some of these issues were exacerbated by Portland’s Big Three shooting a combined 18-57 — and while I think we owe Simons some grace as he takes on a star role for the first time — the two guards must be better navigating that tap dance between hunting shots and giving the offense flow. They know it and Chauncey Billups knows it. Let’s see how the system works tonight.

Scoring. As rugged as Portland’s offense looked at times last game, believe it or not, the Blazers were nearly on pace for their season scoring average of 109.7. That’s good enough for 25th best in the Association. The Jazz on the other hand, score in bunches and move that rock! Utah is scoring 117.6 points per game (third-best in the NBA) and dishing out 28.1 assists per game (fifth-best). They’ve got a plethora of different weapons to beat you with. Forward Lauri Markkanen is having a career year, averaging 22.2 points per game. Jordan Clarkson, now inserted into the starting lineup, is always a tough cover. High-scoring guard Collin Sexton has taken over the role of torching bench units, scoring 13.3 points in a little over 20 minutes per game. The Blazers defense has vastly improved this year. Tonight will be a great test.

Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe. One of these players came back down to earth Thursday night, while the other skyrocketed to a career high. After averaging 31 points over a three-game stretch, Jerami Grant shot 2-13 for just 5 points against the Nets. On the other hand, Shaedon Sharpe had his best game as a pro, scoring 20 points on 7-8 shooting and 4-5 from long distance. He did it all in 21 minutes off the bench. Against The Jazz, we’ll see if Grant can get it going and if Sharpe can keep it going.

What Others Are Saying

Sven Karabegovic of SLC Dunk talks about how Utah was able to get back to its winning ways last night with blazing-hot offense.

After back-to-back games highlighting low levels of energy, focus, and execution, the Jazz came out with no holds barred against the Suns. In the first quarter alone, Utah scored a whopping 42 points on the backs of hot shooing from both Lauri Markkanen and Malik Beasley. For the night, the Jazz shot a blistering 51.6% from three and 56.0% from the field.

For the most part, Utah actually got plethora of open looks. While I think it’s fair to say that the Jazz have gotten a decent amount of positive random variance (i.e., their great 3pt shooting, poor opponent 3pt shooting, lucky loose balls, other wacky basketball moments), they also do a fantastic job of generating good shots for themselves.

Zach Kram of The Ringer argues there’s one reason why Utah’s hot start may be for real and Portland’s may be less so: point differential.

Along with ranking fourth in the Western Conference standings, Utah is third in the West—and sixth in the whole NBA—in net rating. Compared to teams like the Trail Blazers, who lead the West standings despite a middling point differential, or the Wizards, who are 8-7 despite being outscored, the underlying numbers suggest the Jazz have more staying power.

Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune writes how rookie coach Will Hardy helped The Jazz overcome Phoenix last night by deploying a small-ball lineup. The decision kept Malik Beasley in the game, who scored a season-high 27 points and hit seven triples.

For a long stretch of the fourth, Hardy kept starting big man Kelly Olynyk on the bench, opting to roll with the other four starters (Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan Clarkson, and Mike Conley) plus the 6-foot-4 Malik Beasley. Only when Vanderbilt fouled out with 1 minute, 1 second to go did the coach put Olynyk back in.

At no point during that pivotal stretch did 7-footer and legit center Walker Kessler touch the court, even as Deandre Ayton kept the Suns alive by working the boards.