• OPPONENT: Utah Jazz

    RECORD: 27-28 (11-19 on road, 9-1 last 10 games)

    MEASUREABLES: 105.7 offensive rating (13th), 104.2 defensive rating (8th), +1.4 net rating (11th)

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

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

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 9:00 EST, Moda Center (Portland), NBC Sports Northwest/AT&T SportsNet

    Yes, the Portland Trail Blazers, despite a winless recent road trip and pair of frustratingly-close victories over inferior foes, are now fifth in the West. No, that new and surprising place in the standings hardly means this team’s place in the postseason is safe. Why? The Utah Jazz just won’t stop winning.

    To be clear, strength and size of the Western Conference middle class has more to do with the Trail Blazers’ still somewhat tenuous grip on a playoff spot than their performance relative to expectations. Portland is 31-25 as the All-Star break approaches, on pace for 45 wins. This is about where most preseason prognosticators pegged the Blazers, and could even be considered a success after they were just 16-16 days before Christmas.

    Unfortunately, that much-improved play over the past seven weeks hasn’t allowed Portland to separate itself from the glut of six teams fighting for four postseason berths below the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves. As recently as late January, when Blake Griffin was traded back east, it appeared as if the playoff field out west was set. The Los Angeles Clippers had just taken the first step toward what many deemed a full-scale rebuild, and the Jazz, several games below .500 after a brutal December, were going to be sellers at the trade deadline.

    None of those assumptions have quite come to pass. Los Angeles just signed Lou Williams to an extension and held onto both DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley, while Utah is on an eight-game winning streak and did nothing at the deadline but swap Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder. The fifth-place Blazers, tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of record, are two and-a-half games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers, and three and-a-half games ahead of the surging, 10th-place Jazz.

    Needless to say, Sunday’s game at Moda Center will have a lasting effect on the playoff picture. To ensure that result is a positive one, Portland needs to play better than it did against the Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings last week. Utah has an overall net rating of +15.4 during its ongoing streak, per NBA.com/stats, with a road win over the Toronto Raptors and 30-point drubbing of the Golden State Warriors. The previously untenable frontcourt tandem of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors is absolutely blitzing opponents, Joe Ingles is showing aggression offensively that will help mitigate the impact of Hood’s absence and Donovan Mitchell continues to stake his claim as a worthy Rookie of the Year favorite.

    The biggest change for Quin Snyder’s team during this impressive stretch, though, has been the play of Ricky Rubio. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists over Utah’s last eight games, with a true shooting percentage of 64.7, an awesome line that supports the notion of his all-encompassing influence when playing well. But even those those numbers don’t convey the means behind the sudden and surprising improvement of both Rubio, and his team at large: red-hot jump-shooting.

    Rubio, who shot 29.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers before his team’s streak, has connected on 12 of 21 of those attempts since. Ingles is at a ridiculous 24-of-40, and Mitchell, who launches more threes of the dribble than the catch, a tidy 10-of-16. Even defense-first wing Royce O’Neale, a rookie who was hesitant to even look at the basket early this season, has made seven of his last 16 tries from beyond the arc. Together, the Jazz are shooting 44.6 percent on 11.4 made triples per game during this winning streak.

    Combined with Mitchell’s increasing comfort as alpha dog, the two-way interior dominance afforded by Gobert’s return to health and this group’s incessant commitment to the playing ethos fostered by Snyder and his staff, Utah’s team-wide hot hand has made it something close to a juggernaut of late. It won’t hold, of course. Rubio especially is due for some major regression to the mean, which will rear its ugly head to an even greater extent given the loss of a shot-maker like Hood. Lineups featuring Gobert and Favors won’t fare nearly as well offensively once the Jazz cool down from deep, either.

    That imminent reality doesn’t mean the Blazers can treat Rubio and O’Neal like non-shooters, or that they can focus defensive attention on Mitchell and Rubio while Ingles plays bystander. Utah is the hottest team in the league right now, and needs every win it can get to keep pace in a playoff race that’s apparently only just begun to heat up.

    Portland must be engaged defensively from the opening tip on Sunday. Slotting the lengthy Maurice Harkless onto Mitchell, or even Rubio if he’s feeling good, is the type of in-game that could be used to slow the Jazz down. Jusuf Nurkic will have his hands full with Gobert, especially at the rim; those soft, timid finishes won’t work against one of the league’s best shot-blockers. Utah hasn’t owned the offensive glass recently, but that doesn’t mean it won’t if the Blazers don’t commit to team defensive rebounding. Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, O’Neale and Alec Burks have the size to bother Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on jump shots, and Gobert awaits in the paint.

    This probably won’t be an easy game for Portland, but unlike those against the Hornets and Kings, it’s not the kind this team should win comfortably, either. The Jazz are good, perhaps better than the Blazers, and a road victory over the team at the top of the West’s middle-class morass would certainly be a message that their playoff push has legs. Let’s see if Portland can stop them from sending it.

Fantasy News

  • Tyronn Lue
    PG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting former Cavs championship-winning coach Tyronn Lue has agreed to join the Clippers as their top assistant coach to Doc Rivers.

    The Lakers and Clippers rivalry continues to heat up. Lue was very close to a deal with the Lakers in May to become their head coach, but the sides couldn’t reach an agreement. Lue now joins Kawhi Leonard as another person to spurn the Lakers this offseason.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • PJ Tucker
    SF, Houston Rockets

    P.J. Tucker says he is optimistic about signing a contract extension soon.

    The 34-year-old 3-and-D wing hopes to extend his deal with the Rockets, but a potential extension wouldn't begin until his age-36 season. Houston has him under contract for two more seasons at this point, so they may not be motivated enough to get something done this offseason. However, a maximum Tucker extension would only have him in the $10 million per year range. Even as a 37-year-old, that could be a great deal if he can keep up his current production. Tucker remains a sneaky source of threes and steals late in fantasy drafts or off the wire.

    Source: Kurt Helin on Twitter

  • Jaylen Adams
    PG, Milwaukee Bucks

    The Bucks officially announced the signings of guards Jaylen Adams and Rayjon Tucker on Tuesday.

    Adams and Tucker have their work cut out for them in their bid to claim a roster with the big club, as the Bucks have a reasonably deep guard rotation. Adams and Tucker are more than likely competing to get playing time in the G-League this season and can be ignored in fantasy.

    Source: NBA

  • Jeff Ledbetter
    G, San Antonio Spurs

    The Spurs have offered summer league guard Jeff Ledbetter an Exhibit 10 deal, but he is still mulling over his options which include playing in Europe.

    Ledbetter had a productive summer league and now finds himself with a chance to play for the Austin Spurs of the G-League. Ledbetter is sure to be staring at a bigger payday in Europe, so his choice will be an interesting one. We should have a decision soon.

    Source: Nicola Lupo on Twitter

  • Eric Mika
    C, Sacramento Kings

    The Kings announced on Tuesday that they signed summer league standout C Eric Mika to an exhibit 10 contract.

    The former BYU big man is now set up to play for the Stockton Kings of the G-League. The Kings have a deep big man rotation, and it's unlikely that we'll see much, if any, of Mika on the roster this season.

    Source: Sean Cunningham on Twitter

  • JA Morant
    PG, Memphis Grizzlies

    Ja Morant (right knee) said that he is completely healed from the minor knee surgery earlier this summer, saying he is "100 percent right now."

    Morant will look to get back into the swing of things in the coming weeks as he prepares for his rookie season. Morant has the talent and the role on rebuilding team and is undoubtedly going to cost a pretty penny in fantasy drafts.

    Source: Peter Edmiston on Twitter

  • Derrick Alston
    Team, New York Knicks

    The Westchester Knicks have named Derrick Alston as the new head coach, replacing Mike Miller who was promoted to join David Fizdale’s staff.

    Alston, a former NBA player, has been an assistant for Westchester for four years. Before that, Alston was a player development coach with the Rockets. This will be Alston’s first head coaching gig as he continues to move up the ladder.

    Source: Ian Begley on Twitter

  • Cory Joseph
    PG, Sacramento Kings

    Cory Joseph is not expected to play for Team Canada in the FIBA World Cup.

    Team Canada has been taking a beating the last few weeks with NBA guys continuing to pull out. This news won't have any effects on Joseph's role heading into the season, but it does create another dent in Team Canada's chances of making noise in the World Cup.

    Source: Doug Smith: Raptors on Twitter

  • Marcus Georges-Hunt
    SG, Free Agent

    Jay King of The Athletic is hearing that Marcus Georges-Hunt is in Boston working out with the Celtics for the next few days.

    Georges-Hunt last played in the NBA for the Wolves in the 2017-18 season. Last season Georges-Hunt was waived from the Celtics in mid-October and played nine games for the Red Claws. Georges-Hunt is a longshot to make the team and carries no fantasy relevance regardless of the outcome.

    Source: Jay King on Twitter

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is reporting that the Lakers are planning individual workouts to evaluate centers Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard and Mo Speights this week in Los Angeles.

    Marcin Gortat is also in the Lakers’ radar as the team is actively looking to sign another big after DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL last week. Speights spent the last season in China after 10 years in the NBA while Gortat remains overseas and it’s unclear whether he will be back to Los Angeles for a workout with the team.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter