February 24, 2018, 12:00 am
So much for the Utah Jazz’s 11-game winning streak.
In one of their most impressive performances of the 2017-18 season, the Portland Trail Blazers beat the formerly streaking Jazz 100-81 on Friday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined for 50 points on 39 shots, and came up big during the moments their team needed them most. Maurice Harkless tied his career-high with six steals, spearheading an energetic defensive effort that led to 22 points off 20 turnovers and held the Jazz to just 15 assists.
Portland gave Utah a dose of its medicine, too. Just less than two weeks ago, the Jazz used a dominant third quarter to blow open a competitive game on the road. But on Friday, it was Terry Stotts’ team that used halftime as a springboard to convincing victory.
The Blazers got off to a great start against the Jazz. Al-Farouq Aminu opened the game by dropping in a schemed three from the right wing, almost exactly where McCollum drained a pull-up triple on Portland’s ensuing possession. It was defense even more than hot jump-shooting, though, that set the tone for the Blazers early. Harkless, incredibly active from the opening tip, picked off two Utah passes and went the other way for tough layups, and even kept Donovan Mitchell in check – at least for the game’s opening few minutes. The rookie had a quick eight points after a second consecutive off-dribble three, cutting what was once a 23-13 Portland lead to four with 3:14 left in the opening stanza. Lillard came alive from there, but the Jazz, when they weren’t turning the ball over, were shooting even better from the perimeter than the Blazers. Considering Utah’s 68.8 percent field goal shooting and four 3-pointers, Portland was lucky to leave the first quarter up 31-30.
One of the many encouraging signs of the game for Stotts came in the second quarter, when his bench helped push the Blazers’ lead back to double-digits. Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and Zach Collins each had their moments on both ends. Napier hit an off-dribble three from center after settling behind a flat screen from Jusuf Nurkic, and also got backdoor for a layup off a nifty feed from Collins. After Nurkic drilled a 21-foot jumper, his second mid-range make of the game, Portland suddenly led by 11 points with three minutes and 13 seconds remaining before intermission. But Utah, ever resilient, closed on a 7-2 run behind Mitchell and Gobert, entering halftime trailing 53-47.
The Blazers, like the Jazz before them, flat-out dominated the third quarter. After McCollum drained a three and probed his way to the paint for a difficult finish over Gobert, Harkless swiped his fifth steal of the game, leading to a dunk by Aminu in transition that put Portland up 66-51 less than four minutes into the period. Nurkic badly outplayed Gobert, too, blocking his shot on one end and backing him down from the left block for an easy righty hook shortly thereafter. Utah got some momentum after the Blazers’ extended their advantage to 16 points, but Lillard made sure he stole it right back. Portland’s All-Star drove hard to the rim to draw a pair of shooting fouls, nailing all four freebies, then closed the period with this sick step-back 20-footer over Royce O’Neale, putting his team up 80-64 heading into the fourth.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) February 24, 2018
The Jazz, slowly chipping away at a deficit some teams would deem insurmountable, got within nine points after a jumper by Jae Crowder with three minutes and five seconds remaining. Were the Blazers about to let another double-digit lead go to waste? McCollum answered that question with authority over his team’s next three possessions, nailing a trio of pull-up jumpers off the same, simple pick-and-roll action. His last make put Portland up 96-81 with 1:38 left in the game, and was almost the exact opposite of the pair that came directly before. That’s not to suggest it was any less nasty, though.
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 24, 2018
There’s no reason to sugarcoat the significance of this victory for the Blazers. They not only ended Utah’s 11-game winning streak and put more distance between themselves and others fighting for Western Conference playoff positioning, but also played arguably their most complete game of the season. There’s no formula for Portland that will yield more consistently successful results than establishing a big lead through a balanced two-way effort, then allowing Lillard and McCollum to take over when the going gets tough. If the Blazers ever develop a concrete identity before the season ends, it should look pretty much exactly like this.
Portland’s win, on the road against a quality opponent who is surging up the standings, is cause for celebration. The Blazers can’t get too happy, though – this victory will be for naught if it’s not followed up by beating the lowly Phoenix Suns in less than 24 hours.