April 11, 2018, 2:31 pm
OPPONENT: Utah Jazz
RECORD: 48-33 (20-20 on road, 8-2 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 106.4 offensive rating (15th), 101.6 defensive rating (first), +4.8 net rating (fifth)
INJURIES, ABSENCES: Thabo Sefolosha (knee surgery – out)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30 EST, Moda Center (Portland), ESPN
No matter what happens in the regular-season finale, the Portland Trail Blazers won’t see the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. That’s a good thing, too. As anonymous as the Jazz may be on a national scale, they’ve blitzed the NBA since Rudy Gobert returned from injury on January 19, tying the Philadelphia 76ers for the second-most wins over that timeframe with 30, and leading the league with a mind-boggling +11.4 net rating. Remember when it seemed like the Blazers were the clear-cut third-best team in the Western Conference? That was never actually the case; Utah was just quietly racking up wins, climbing the standings to earn that distinction by beating Portland on Wednesday.
The winner of this game will be the three seed out west, and have the chance to play the hobbled, reeling Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs – assuming either the Blazers or Jazz and the defending champions get there. No other seeding or matchup scenarios are quite so cut-and-dried, other than that Portland can’t finish any lower than fifth in the West. The Blazers can make it easier on themselves and their fans, of course, by simply taking care of business on Wednesday at Moda Center.
That will be far easier said than done. Utah is running on all cylinders right now, and has even more incentive than Portland to get a win. If the Jazz lose to the Blazers, there’s a chance they could drop all the way to seventh in the standings, setting up a date with the Warriors in round one. It’s not like a team coached by Quin Snyder, who some view as the frontrunner for Coach of the Year, ever needs extra motivation to get a victory anyway. Utah has long been one of the the most well-prepared and consistently engaged teams in basketball, and its supplemented that reality with top-tier talent and quality depth to match in 2017-18 despite losing Gordon Hayward over the summer.
The late-season injury to Joel Embiid makes Gobert the prohibitive favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, and rightfully so. The Jazz’s defensive rating since his return is 97.4, lowest in the league by four points; their defensive rating when he was sidelined for a calendar month from the middle of December to the middle of January was 110.6, per NBA.com/stats. Any statistic available makes him a worthy winner of the award, and so does the eye test. Gobert has the necessary combination of length and mobility to aggressive drop in ball-screen coverage, meeting the dribbler at the level of the pick while maintaining the ability to contest a pull-up triple and slide his feet to deter penetration. That’s key against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, obviously, especially considering the weeks-long shooting labors of their teammates.
Donovan Mitchell would be a runaway Rookie of the Year in any other season, but might have to settle for being the rare first-year player to lead a postseason team in scoring – the first since Carmelo Anthony in 2003. The safest bet to keeping him in check is letting Mitchell launch off-dribble triples, shots he’s struggled with all season long despite steadily increasing their frequency. Mitchell’s blend of burst, ball-handling craft and overall knack ensures he gets wherever he wants on the floor regardless; forcing him to prove it from beyond the arc, though, will certainly make his life just a bit more difficult, and plays right into the Blazers’ ultra-conservative defensive scheme. This is another area where Portland will miss Moe Harkless. Evan Turner isn’t quite quick enough to keep up with Mitchell, leaving the Blazers’ biggest individual defense onus on Lillard.
The Jazz still aren’t a prolific 3-point shooting team, but the improved Ricky Rubio and emboldened Joe Ingles – together with Mitchell, of course – have nevertheless made them much more dangerous from beyond the arc. They’re extra difficult to defend because each of those starting perimeter players can both run an effective pick-and-roll and make spot-up threes. Ingles, a deadeye shooter, killed Portland with his unique sense of timing as a playmaker in its 115-96 loss to Utah on February 11. Dante Exum and Royce O’Neal are far less threatening from deep than those other guys, but still give Snyder a dose of the two-way effectiveness he demands from all his players. It’s tough to imagine the Blazers’ bench thriving on Wednesday if it’s not making jumpers; the Jazz’s reserves, including Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, are just too sound and talented defensively to allow Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and company to make that big an impact offensively.
Portland likely won’t be privy to the grab bag of easy points its consistently managed since the All-Star break, either. Utah has been the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA since Gobert’s return, grabbing 80.7 percent of opponent’s misses. While the Jazz are even more dominant on the defensive glass with Derrick Favors next to Gobert, the frontcourt tandem of Crowder and Gobert – which is included in Snyder’s preferred crunch-time lineup – still rebounds at a league-high rate. Utah is somewhat turnover prone, and the Blazers have grown increasingly comfortable running off opponent’s miscues as the season’s worn on. One problem: The Jazz have the second stingiest transition defense in basketball, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The playoffs are finally almost here, and not a moment too soon for Portland. Terry Stotts’ team needs a reset in the worst way after four straight losses and seven defeats in 11 games, struggles that weakened its grip on the three seed to the point of almost losing it entirely. A win over Utah would go a long way toward helping the Blazers forget their recent play, and earn the postseason position that’s long seemed a formality. Either way, Portland will surely be content to move on from the regular season; how glad, though, will largely depend on what transpires Wednesday night.