• OPPONENT: Utah Jazz

    RECORD: 30-28 (18-9 at home, on 11-game winning streak)

    MEASUREABLES: 106.0 offensive rating (13th), 103.9 defensive rating (sixth), 2.0 net rating (10th)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: PG Ricky Rubio, SG Donovan Mitchell, SF Joe Ingles, PF Derrick Favors, C Rudy Gobert

    INJURIES: Dante Exum (out indefinitely – shoulder surgery), Thabo Sefolosha (out for season – knee surgery)

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 9:00 EST, Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City), NBC Sports Northwest/AT&T SportsNet

    The Utah Jazz boast a net rating comfortably better than the Portland Trail Blazers’. Friday’s game marks the beginning of a four-game homestand for Utah, which has the league’s ninth-easiet remaining schedule – compared to Portland’s sixth-hardest. The numbers geniuses at FiveThirtyEight give the Jazz, currently 10th-place in the Western Conference, an 87 percent chance of making the playoffs, 22 percent higher than they do the Blazers. Utah, winner of 11 straight, is just one and-a-half games behind the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans and two games behind seventh-place Portland.

    Friday’s game in Salt Lake City, needless to say, is the most important one the Blazers have played all season. Some will suggest that distinction could apply to each of Portland’s 24 remaining regular-season games, a tired trope that still applies given the overcrowded nature of the Western Conference middle class. Only two and-a-half games separate fifth from tenth in the standings, and the San Antonio Spurs, tied for third with the Minnesota Timberwolves, could perhaps be joining that capacity crowd given the season-long absence of Kawhi Leonard. The Blazers, 32-26, are just a single game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for ninth place despite going 16-10 – a 50-win pace over 82 games – since they fell to .500 on December 22. No team outside the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets is safe in the West.

    Utah should certainly be feeling good about their playoff chances, though, especially after waxing Portland 115-96 at Moda Center on February 11, both teams’ penultimate game before the All-Star break. The Jazz scored a whopping 72 points in the second half of that matchup, getting literally whatever they wanted or needed against the Blazers after intermission. They made 9-of-16 3-pointers and 17-of-19 from the free-throw line,  grabbed 10 offensive rebounds and had 12 fast-break points. Joe Ingles went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc in the second half, when Donovan Mitchell scored 21 of his 27 points – including 10 straight as Portland made a last-gasp comeback effort in the game’s final minutes.

    An inability to keep the ball out of the paint is what doomed the Blazers most during Utah’s utterly dominant second half. Ingles frustrated any defender that guarded him with ultra-patient probes, taking full advantage of Portland playing him for the pass by getting extra deep into the paint before kicking the ball out to the perimeter, where the Jazz kept moving it until they found an open shot. Mitchell and Royce O’Neale gave the Blazers similar issues, with the latter doing most of his playmaking damage by finding Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors for easy dump-offs in the paint.

    High hand-off action killed Portland. Gobert is both an excellent screen-setter and roll man, and forced rotations from weak-side helpers that yielded high-value looks like these.

    Most striking about the Jazz’s play on the other end was their comfort leaving Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner beyond the 3-point line away from the ball. With Gobert , or even Ekpe Udoh, manning the middle and a plethora of long, active perimeter defenders, they’re hard enough to score on when forced to play “normal” help defense. But when Utah can get away with clogging the paint by having weak-side helpers cheating an extra two steps toward the ball, offense is even harder to come by for its opponents – especially Portland, a team so reliant on the dribble penetration of and overall offensive production of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

    The Jazz are at home, they’re rolling and they, at least over the past three weeks, have been a much better team than the Blazers. Can Lillard and company rise to the stakes and steal a crucial win on the road, steeling themselves for a frantic push toward the playoffs? We’ll find out tonight.

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