December 22, 2018, 2:04 pm
The Utah Jazz beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-90 on Friday night, subjecting the home team to its worst loss at Moda Center in almost 14 years. A golden opportunity for Portland to sustain some much-needed momentum gleaned from a three-game winning streak while picking up a head-to-head victory against another team scratching for position in the Western Conference playoff race was squandered, too. A loss would have been more of the same for Utah, another troubling sign that the inconsistencies plaguing Quin Snyder’s team over the first two months of the season were likely to linger during a particularly difficult stretch of schedule. Instead, the Jazz are 2-1 halfway through a six-game run that pits them against teams that made the playoffs last year, beating the Blazers and Golden State Warriors, near full-strength, less than 48 hours apart.
Such is life out west, where the only rational expectation is unpredictability – except with regard to the Blazers’ inability to defend the three-point line, of course. Utah shot 16-of-31 from deep on Friday night, building an early double-digit lead by making nine of its first 12 tries, then pulling away for good after intermission with shutdown defense supplemented by more timely three-point shooting. It marked the sixth time this season the Jazz have made at least 16 triples, and only the second time they’ve reached that threshold while shooting better than 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“Well, sometimes it was miscommunication – we lost [Kyle] Korver a few times,” Terry Stotts said after the game when asked to explain his team’s porous three-point defense. “Some was tough shot-making.”
Korver might be the league’s most dangerous shooter sprinting off screens. On one fourth-quarter three, he went under a flare screen with C.J. McCollum on his hip, caught the ball on the move, immediately received another pick going the other direction, then launched from long-range while fading to his right after a single dribble. There’s simply not much more McCollum, six inches shorter than Korver, could have done to affect the shot.
Portland can live with difficult makes like that, just like it can with Ricky Rubio splashing pull-up threes in transition and contested spot-up attempts early in the shot clock. The same logic applies to off-dribble tries by Joe Ingles in ball-screen action, and catch-and-shoot triples from Jae Crowder, provided a hand is in his face. It’s not like the Jazz are the Milwaukee Bucks; they entered Friday’s action ranking 26th in three-point percentage and 12th in three-point rate, acceptable numbers for a modern-day NBA offense, but hardly those that suggest they produce open looks for worthwhile shooters at will. The Blazers, by design, were always going to allow Utah some possibility of success from deep, focusing on limiting Rudy Gobert during rolls to the rim, keeping Donovan Mitchell away from the rim, and navigating an incessant maze of off-ball screens and cuts.
Mission accomplished there, at least for the most part. Gobert, bothered by the size and activity of Jusuf Nurkic, scored just 11 points on nine shots, and Mitchell failed to break out of his horrendous shooting slump, scoring a season-low three points on just 1-of-10 from the field. But the Jazz put up a 123.7 offensive rating and doled out 35 assists, their second-highest total of the season, regardless, exploiting Portland’s nagging penchant for inattentiveness and lack of discipline defensively again and again and again.
On many occasions Friday night, the Blazers just didn’t matchup correctly, ceding open looks from three as a defender frantically and hopelessly tried to manage effective contests at the last minute.
Portland made similarly frustrating errors over-helping away from the ball. Briefly leaving Rubio as Lillard does in the first clip below, while an utterly fruitless effort to disrupt the action, isn’t necessarily an imminent death-knell. But abandoning Korver, one pass away in the strong-side corner, certainly applies as such. Affording Crowder some extra breathing room to offer Lillard help on a stymied Rubio drive doesn’t make much more sense, either.
Even more damning defensively than waning engagement is waning execution, and the Blazers suffered from that affliction against the Jazz, as well. Crowder’s wide-open corner three below is the result of Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas‘ abject confusion on how to defend Korver slipping ball screens. A few minutes later, the same uncertainty leads to one of the easiest half-court baskets Exum will score all season long.
Three straight wins over quality foes like the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies obscured the caveat accompanying Portland’s success, which happens to be the same one that’s plagued this team all season long. The Blazers got those victories despite allowing a combined 45.1 percent three-point, per Cleaning the Glass, comfortably worst in the league over each team’s previous three games. They’re now 29th in opponent’s three-point percentage overall, less than half a point from dipping below the lowly Atlanta Hawks’ last-ranked mark.
“For whatever reason,” Stotts said, “teams are really shooting well from three against us, so we have to take ownership of that.”
Portland’s next chance to do so, finally, comes on Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks.