April 12, 2018, 1:35 am
Wednesday night could not have played out any better for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Their first-round fate was sealed minutes before tipoff against the Utah Jazz, after the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder both won their regular-season finales, locking the Blazers into a matchup with the Pelicans that will be hosted at Moda Center. The only things left to decide from there were what side of the bracket Portland would be on, and how much momentum, if any, it would carry into the postseason after the good vibes remaining from that 13-game winning streak had all but completely vanished. No more.
The Blazers beat the Jazz 102-93 on Wednesday night, ending a four-game losing streak, winning the Northwest division and securing the three seed in the Western Conference – and a potential date with the fragile Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs. Damian Lillard was dominant for Portland from the opening tip to the time he left to a standing ovation late in fourth quarter, scoring 36 points and doling out 10 assists on 13-of-25 from the field and 4-of-10 from beyond the arc. The only other Blazers to reach double figures were C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, the former of whom seemed to break out of a shooting slump in an eye-popping second-quarter sequence, but still needed 18 shots to score 19 points.
Portland shot 46.1 percent overall and made nine of its 24 tries from beyond the arc, acceptable efficiency made artificially encouraging by team-wide shooting struggles of the previous three weeks. Utah’s inability to find a consistent means of offense contributed to feelings of a relative offensive outburst for the Blazers, too. The Jazz, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, shot just 37.1 percent from the field and 8-of-23 from 3-point range. Those numbers would have looked even worse if not for an ultimately futile fourth-quarter charge. Utah entered the final stanza trailing by 21 points and slowly cut into that massive deficit, hanging around long enough for Terry Stotts to leave his starters on the floor until the game clock read 1:01 and his team led 101-90.
There was much more at stake for Utah on Wednesday night than Portland. This loss, the Jazz’s first since March 28, pushed them down to the five seed, losing home-court advantage in a juicy first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah just didn’t have the legs to keep up with Portland. Donovan Mitchell, absolutely hounded at times by Evan Turner and Wade Baldwin, who was Stotts’ first sub off the bench in both the first and second halves, didn’t get his first basket until late in the second quarter, finishing 6-of-23 from the field and connecting on one of of his eight 3-point attempts en route to 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. Ricky Rubio matched his backcourt mate’s team-high point total, and Rudy Gobert had 13 points and 13 rebounds, but didn’t make the type of impact normally reserved for Defensive Player of the Year candidates – let alone frontrunners.
The Blazers, to be sure, had something to do with that. Lillard played a step ahead in the pick-and-roll game, routinely finding Nurkic with early pocket passes for scores and pulling up from deep a bit farther out than normal. Portland swarmed Mitchell with well-timed help whenever he was able to crease the paint, and frustrated Joe Ingles – who was a major problem at times when these teams met this season – into five points on 2-of-7 shooting. The home team, in a welcome change from recent games, played with the relentless activity, emotion and engagement on both ends of the floor that’s proven all too fleeting of late.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the outcome of this game as inconsequential, and not just because the Blazers are on Golden State’s side of the bracket rather than the Houston Rockets’. Portland needed a victory to feel good about itself entering the postseason, and got one against a very good team that had every motivation to pull off a victory on the road despite tired legs. Considering the quality of their opponent and their control of the game from its very beginning, this is one of the Blazers’ most impressive wins of 2017-18.
Will they build on it against the Pelicans, living up to the lofty reputation established during that season-changing winning streak that seems so, so long ago ? We’ll find out this weekend, when the real games finally begin.