The Portland Trail Blazers broke their losing streak against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, and knew they had a solid opportunity at home against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday. The opportunity was not wasted, as Portland earned a 134-124 victory in front of their home fans.
Damian Lillard was jaw-dropping, going for 60 points on 72.4% shooting from the field and 60% from deep. Whenever the Blazers looked a bit wobbly, Lillard steadied the ship in one of the most efficient efforts the NBA has ever seen.
The Jazz are one of the worst teams at getting out of the gate in the NBA, and they demonstrated why tonight. Unfortunately the Blazers didn’t start out any better. Both teams combined for six straight misses with a few turnovers mixed in for good measure. Damian LIllard finally gave the scoreboard operator something to do at the 10:03 mark by hitting a three. That woke up the Jazz, who managed a few buckets as the Blazers kept missing. By the time Head Coach Chauncey Billups called timeout with 7:16 to go in the quarter only Dame had scored for the Blazers and the Jazz led by a score of 9-5.
Drew Eubanks came in for the ineffective Jusuf Nurkic after the timeout and promptly demonstrated his worth with a dunk, a defended alley-oop attempt and just all-around hustle. Drew’s effort seemed to rub off on both teams and the game opened up. Both sides hit shots and got more active on defense. While the Blazers looked better, they couldn’t make up any ground on Utah’s lead, which now stood at 23-17 as the Jazz called timeout with 2:45 left in the quarter.
The end of the quarter went pretty much as badly as it could. Portland missed on good looks, while the Jazz hit a few threes to extend their lead to 31-19 when the horn sounded. Frustration was starting to bubble, especially from Anfernee Simons, who got hammered while driving late with no resulting whistle. In fact, the Blazers didn’t shoot a single free throw in the frame for reasons known only to the referees.
Rookie guard Shaedon Sharpe promptly canned a three followed by another from veteran Gary Payton II as the second period began, but every time Portland looked poised to make a run, the Jazz answered. Two threes in successive possessions from Lillard and Payton got the Jazz concerned about their defense, if not yet the score. Utah called a timeout with 7:39 to go, still enjoying a nine-point lead. More bad news came for the Blazers as it was announced that starting small forward Josh Hart would not return because of a hamstring issue.
At that point Portland’s defense stepped up while Lillard lit the torch on the other end. An 11-0 run powered by three Lillard threes and a Jerami Grant dunk gave the Blazers a brief lead before the Jazz regained their footing and hit a few threes of their own. Utah got the lead back to four, but with 3:16 left there was plenty of energy in the building and the Blazers had a hop in their step.
After some back-and-forth, a Eubanks hook shot tied it at 55. A Blazers steal leading to a Simons three gave Portland a three point lead. As time was winding down both teams exchanged difficult bombs from beyond the arc, but it was Nassir Little’s three that beat the buzzer and provided the exclamation mark to the sentence. Portland finished the half with their noses in front, 66-64. Damian Lillard led all scores with 26 on 69.2% shooting from the field, 6 of 8 from beyond the arc. Grant finished the half with 12. Utah countered with balanced scoring: no one over twelve points and seven players with at least five. Another encouraging sign for Portland was that they finished the half with just four turnovers.
Nurkic started the half with increased energy. Inside moves from the big man on the offensive end and some active hands on the defensive end helped the Blazers keep a modest lead. A Nurkic and-1 caused Utah to call a timeout before the ensuing free throw with the Blazers leading 80-74, 7:30 to go.
Good looks were increasingly difficult for the Jazz to find thanks to better communication from the Blazers on the defensive end. Utah settled for contested threes along with a few mid-range shots against two or more Blazers. Still, when the Blazers slipped up, Utah was hitting just enough attempts from three to stay in contact.
Portland was getting the upper hand though, and slowly the scoreboard started to reflect that. Lillard continued to lead the charge on the offensive end, at this point largely through electric rumbles into the land of the giants, almost always earning a basket or free throws. Dame penetration leads to Dame threes, so adding a few more triples to the tally brought Portland’s lead up to 15 and Lillard’s total up to 45 with 2:23 left in the third.
The Dame-olition continued, as a penetration two was followed up by deep three, bringing Lillard up to 50 after just three quarters. The Blazers otherwise let the game get a bit sloppy and the Jazz were able to cut the lead to 11, 102-91. as the horn sounded.
With Dame enjoying well-earned rest, it was time for other Blazers to step up. Simons answered the call. In spite of having a rough night shooting, he pitched in with an aggressive and-1 drive followed by a shot-clock-beating three to keep Utah from getting too close. The Jazz were finding the mark from deep though, so this one wasn’t over yet. When Dame re-entered the game with 9:05 to go the Blazers were in front by a score of 113-101.
Four Blazers turnovers in fairly short order reared their ugly heads, and Portland called timeout with a nine point lead and 7:47 left in the game. Instead of a delirious Moda Center crowd celebrating Lillard, an air of concern filled the air.
Dame made the decision that the ball was best left in his own hands at this point. He didn’t pile on the points, but things seemed to stabilize a bit as the clock ran while the lead was maintained. A flurry of Blazers dunks got the edge back up to 11, and Utah needed a timeout with 4:29 to go.
The Jazz needed points. They tried to get them via the deep ball, but shooting touch beyond the arc failed them. When they did manage to find paydirt, Lillard answered and kept the lead safely in double digits. While the game wasn’t yet mathematically decided with a handful of minutes left, all eyes shifted from victory to LIllard’s scoring total. Would he break the team scoring record? Two free throws got him up to 60, just one point short of his own franchise-leading mark. His last attempt, a step back three, had a chance, but it rimmed off. All the while, Utah failed to mount a serious challenge, and the Blazers won 134-124.
The extended recap from Ryne Buchanan will be up soon.
The Blazers get a couple of days off before facing the Toronto Raptors at 7 p.m. Pacific on Saturday. Advantage to the Blazers as the Raptors will be on the second night of a road back-to-back after facing the Golden State Warriors on Friday.