By Dan Clayton
Whether they like it, or even realize it, the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are on parallel paths; and the two clubs will be dealing with each other for years to come. Both were rebuilt on the fly to become bubble playoff teams a year ago (Portland got in, Utah fell just short), and both are widely expected to be a notch better than that this season.
That’s why it’s interesting whenever these franchises – at similar points on their respective journeys – wind up in the same gym. They started their 2016-2017 seasons squaring off in Portland on Tuesday night, and Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers got the better of this first matchup. Sixteen of Lillard’s 39 points came in an unstoppable fourth quarter that saw Portland take and keep the lead on the way to a 113-104 victory.
Lillard attacked switches, challenged Utah’s paint protectors and hit tough fadeaways over Jazz defenders, connecting on four of five shots and all six free throws in the game’s final eight minutes. Nothing the Jazz did seemed to bother Lillard at all – not even the 9-foot-7 standing reach of Rudy Gobert, whose length was tested (and bested) at least twice.
Nice finish over Gobert by Lillard off of the PnR https://t.co/OlNDt4akHa
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) October 26, 2016
Even before Lillard went off, the game was largely determined by shooting prowess. The Blazers shot 68 percent from three for the game, including a 4-of-5 performance by Allen Crabbe off the bench. His 18 and CJ McCollum’s 25 kept the Blazers in striking distance leading up to Lillard time. Noah Vonleh punished some defensive miscommunications by Utah on his way to a 5-for-5 night (including three jumpers), and Al-Farouq Aminu rattled a couple of corner threes in.
The Jazz spent much of the night inviting Portland pull-ups with a defensive scheme that matched their available personnel. Without starter Derrick Favors, the Jazz mostly had bigs hang back while guards followed the likes of Lillard and McCollumn over high screens. This allowed Blazer ball handlers a little pocket to squeeze a shot off, and they obliged. Portland also ran a lot of 4- and 5-out motion stuff and, while the Jazz were diligent about rotating, the home team patiently kept the ball moving until it found an open player.
More often than not, that open player was someone who could can a jumper, and that’s really what this game down to. Portland converted 63 percent of its uncontested jumpers per NBA stats, while the Jazz only managed to make 37 percent of theirs. In a game that wasn’t out of reach until the final minute, that’s a pretty enormous difference.
While a lot went right for Portland, the game also wasn’t a resounding validation of their offseason. Their prime free agent get, Evan Turner, finished with just three points on 1-of-7 shooting, although he did facilitate to the tune of five assists. Their other offseason addition, Festus Ezeli, still hasn’t practiced because of ongoing knee issues. But the Blazers got enough offensive juice from their incumbents to not have to sweat the lack of production from the new guys.
The Jazz, on the other hand, got encouraging debuts from their newcomers. Joe Johnson dominated during a 27-point second half (he had 29 for the game). Iso Joe went to work against matchups in the mid and low post areas, and also hit three catch-and-shoot threes. Joe spent the preseason on cruise control, so a strong showing for him was a welcome boon for the Jazz, who will be without top scorer Gordon Hayward for at least another couple of weeks.
George Hill’s Jazz premier was almost as brilliant, in ways that his 19 point, six assist line undersell quite a bit. While he could have been more effective on catch-and-shoots (1/6 overall on threes), the game just had a different feel every time the former Pacer stepped out to the hardwood. The Jazz offense clicked to the tune of 122.4 points per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor; when he was off, it ground to a pretty lackluster 54.8 – a sign that the injury-riddled Jazz still have some depth issues when they’re missing main guys.
Hayward and Favors might be Utah’s two best players, and sixth man Alex Burks is an important bench scorer who can get to the lane at will. So it stands to reason that the Jazz would sense a drop-off when their 11th, 12th and 13th mean were promoted to rotation roles in the stead of three of the team’s top six or seven guys.
Favors’ absence probably hurt most of all. Not only is the Atlanta native really good overall, but he has some positional versatility that gives Utah an option while Rudy Gobert sits. Coach Quin Snyder could only afford to sit Gobert for seven minutes last night, because lineups with any other Jazz center combined for a 28.6 ORtg.
Favors is also a key to Utah’s defensive identity, especially late in games. Utah likes to switch pick-and-rolls down the stretch, and Favors’ defensive versatility and mobility give them the option to switch everything, one through four. Without Favors, that role was left to Boris Diaw, the one 2016 Jazz acquisition who didn’t really shine in his debut. The Blazers frequently targeted Diaw, trying to put him in the pick-and-roll defense so they could catch him in his tracks or force switches onto McCollum or Lillard. More conspicuous were Diaw’s shortcomings on the offensive end, where he was 1-for-8 and assistless.
Meanwhile, Rodney Hood was on superb, putting his full repertoire on display in a 26-point performance that included spot jumpers, patient drives and one monster dunk. When Hayward and Burks get healthy, Hood and Johnson will team with that pair to make a pretty deep, dangerous wing rotation for the Jazz.
That’s good news for Utah, but also for this budding rivalry, which should only grow in intensity as both teams see their principals get healthy and comfortable. Portland and Utah certainly haven’t heard the last from one another.