The Utah Jazz put the smack down on the Portland Trail Blazers tonight, 122-114 at the Moda Center. If you’re wondering why I would use the term “smack down” to describe an 8 point loss, this was a classic, “The end score doesn’t tell the entire story,” game.
The Jazz shot 53.3% from the field and only committed 11 turnovers, with 7 of them coming in the fourth quarter once the game reached official blowout status. The Jazz lead the NBA with over 17 turnovers a game, so only committing 11 overall was a miracle. Taylor Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton played like they were trying out for the all-star team. Both of them were spectacular for the Jazz.
On the flip side, Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe could not buy a bucket. The duo has combined for over 57 points per night over the past 3 games, but tonight they scored a combined 13. Most of this had to do with Utah’s defensive scheme, but it was also just an off night for the young stars.
On the plus side, the Blazers saw the return of two veterans and had high-end performances from rookies Scoot Henderson and Toumani Camara. It just wasn’t enough to hold off the blistering hot Utah Jazz.
If you missed the game, you can find a quarter-by-quarter recap here. After you’ve read that, here are the details that defined the contest.
Tonight saw the return of Deandre Ayton and Malcom Brodgdon for the Blazers. Ayton started right where he left off before the injury. Grabbing offensive rebounds and hitting his first three jumpers. He looked comfortable on both ends of the court.
Having Ayton back restores balance to the big man rotation for the Blazers, but also requires some adjustments.
Doup Reath has been playing well for Portland. He has been starting in place of Ayton and holding his own, communicating well on defense and knocking down the open three-point shot.
The small ball lineup that Head Coach Chauncey Billups has deployed in Ayton’s absence has also been a bright spot for the Blazers. That lineup, with Toumani Camara or Jabari Walker playing the center position, has been very effective. The small ball lineup can switch on everything and get out and run in transition. Having Ayton return to the starting lineup forces the Blazers back into more traditional roles.
If the Blazers are going to win games, they need Ayton engaged and playing well. But it is still okay to switch it up with the small ball lineup.
Brogdon came off the bench for the Blazers tonight. He went right to work, hitting his first three attempts from long distance. He looked more rusty than Ayton, but it was still good having the veteran point guard back in uniform. He didn’t play as much in the second half when the game become well out of reach.
The Camara Show
Even on a night where the Blazers could do nothing right, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Camara did not get the memo about it being a rough shooting night for Portland. Even though he averages around 25% from three point range, his form looks good. That impression bore out tonight, as Camara went 3-4 from long distance and 7-10 overall from the field, finishing with 18 points.
Camara has plenty of assets. Finishing with either hand is a special skill, especially for a young player. His hustle, defense, and rebounding are a given every night. You could see the frustration mounting from Collin Sexton when Camara picked him up full court. That full court pressure is a sight for sore eyes. But if that three ball can continue to fall, it will set Camara apart from other players at his position.
You have to give credit to Utah Jazz Head Coach Will Hardy. The Jazz were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off a win against a good New York Knicks team. They came ready to play and looked more inspired than the Blazers.
Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons have been setting the world on fire over the past three games since Simons returned from injury. Tonight they both came back down to earth. Sharpe is usually much better than 1-12 from the field and Simons’ stat line of 3-8 from the field is not his norm.
This wasn’t an accident. The Blazers were never really able to adjust to the box-and-1 defense Coach Hardy used for most of the night. It took Simons out of the game and put Sharpe in an off-ball situation that he didn’t know how to handle. When either player got a look, the Jazz defended it well. The Blazers now go as Simons and Sharpe go, and without their young stars playing well tonight, the team was doomed from the start.
Scoot is Learning
Scoot Henderson set another career high tonight with 23 points on 9-21 shooting. His three-point shot was not falling, but he was the only Blazer who knew how to break down the box-and-1 defense we just mentioned.
Towards the end of the third quarter, Scoot alertly called for Sharpe to come and set a screen on his defender. Once Scoot made the turn towards the paint, Sharpe’s man didn’t adjust. That left Scoot with an open drive to the hoop for an easy layup.
That play alone tells me Scoot has a high basketball IQ. Yes, he is still a rookie and rookies make dumb mistakes, but we are starting to see the player that was so highly sought after in the draft.
Henderson coming off the bench was the best thing for him. It has calmed him down and allowed the coaching staff to utilize him in opportune moments. He can see the starters struggling and find ways to impact the game.
It was also nice to see explosive athleticism on three monster dunks during the game. The Scoot that was struggling to finish at the rim seems to be a distant memory.
Back to Reality
Through 22 games the Blazers exceeded (at least some) expectations. Their young players are showing signs of growth and the coaching staff has everyone buying in on a defensive identity. The Blazers rank 16th in opponent points per game and near the top of the league in opponent three-point percentage. Their offense has sputtered but that has been because of all the injuries and various lineups the team has had to use.
Tonight was just one of those nights where everything the Jazz touched turned to gold and Blazers came up with nothing. Portland looked like a young team trying to find their way, but I have full confidence in their bounce back potential. This team is built differently. But I am so glad we are done playing the Utah Jazz for the 2023-24 season.
The Blazers take on the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, December 16 at 6:00 p.m.