February 11, 2018, 2:15 pm
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)
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.