After fifteen minutes, the Portland Trail Blazers brought the necessary energy to defeat the Utah Jazz; after two quarters it looked like they would be competing. But in the end, the firepower of the NBA’s top-ranked strike proved too much. In a dominant attempt from behind the arc and in the paint Utah rode to a 129-107 win, pushing the Blazers’ recurring nightmares to a 1-10 start to the year.
The stars aligned for Utah, with Donovan Mitchell freeing himself from his shooting with a 30-point performance, the headliner of a Jazz team with six different double-digit scorers. On the Blazers side, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic contributed 24 each as the Blazers struggled with nagging injuries.
The loss drops Portland to 10-11, good for the number 10 spot in the Western Conference. Here’s a quarter-by-quarter view of tonight’s loss.
You certainly wouldn’t have assumed Utah and Portland were number 1 and number 4 respectively on offense if you had tuned in exclusively for the first three minutes. Portland’s defense effort, combined with achievable misses from the Jazz, led to mutual drought, though it wasn’t long before the levee burst. Utah found a hole, literal, in defense of Portland, with Rudy Gobert screen-and-roll in the middle of the lane, cutting untouched on multiple possessions. That’s even more difficult when you consider that Gobert had only scored seven shots in his last two games, but that he nearly topped that in the first quarter alone tonight.
Norman Powell’s absence left 21 possessions undetected, something Portland’s strong backcourt rose to the challenge. Lillard and McCollum scored the Blazers’ first 11, then came the second unit reinforcements. Defensively, they were able to spur Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson into a “who can make the heavier shot” competition, which mostly proved fruitless. In boxing terms, Portland controlled the first “round,” but allowed Utah to get the hits needed to stay close to the scorecard. Portland led only 23-21 after one.
This is certainly a summary aimed at Blazers, but it would be remiss not to take note of Gobert’s tangible impact. Utah’s defense goes like their 7-foot-1 Frenchman goes, but he had the Blazers’ defense on a string too. His deceptively fast cut forced Portland’s weak side tagger and helped into a bind, resulting in 3-point shots for teammates. And if they missed, he was there to clear misses, gobble up alleys and watch for corner shooters.
Bottom Line: All-Star Weekend is February 20, 2022 in Cleveland; the Slam Dunk Contest took place tonight in Utah, Gobert as headliner. He hung on the edge so often.
Perhaps out of inspiration, the other Jazz players followed suit, seeing the Blazers’ twos and hitting three-pointers in response. Anfernee Simons had some remarkable minutes and stepped in as Portland’s tertiary scoring option. When the starters returned, the offense was balanced, with Lillard working off-ball, chasing mismatch or Portland looking for drive-and-kicks. Jusuf Nurkic had a brilliant end to the quarter, using his competitiveness and audacity to match Gobert’s production. That—and a little strategizing, pulling out Gobert—helped Portland creep back into the fray, taking just 53-49 on the half.
Schematically, it looked like Portland had put itself in a position to compete. They chose to start Nassir Little ahead of Tony Snell and kept the Jazz stars out, Gobert on the defensive and Mitchell on the attack. The end result? A 10-1 from the Jazz to open the quarter. Mitchell – having the worst 3-point shooting season yet in his career – certainly picked an opportune time and team to start his sizzle. His attack lifted the lead to 13, endangering the game’s viewability.
Also notable were a few separate occasions where Lillard had a slight limp. Attributed to their leader’s allegiance they continued to fight and claw, but in the end they were rendered unanswerable against Rudy Gay and Rudy Gobert…Rudy Tomjanovich wasn’t in the arena tonight, but they wouldn’t have had a defense plan for him either. Portland always seemed to have the three-pointer it took to keep them in the game. In the end, they finished third behind 94-84.
Amid all the negativity surrounding the Blazers’ performance tonight, how about an appreciation phrase for Anfernee Simons? From the six minutes of the third quarter to the six minutes of the fourth, he scored 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Sadly it all turned out to be for naught as the Jazz put the finishing touches on the finish and proved effective on both sides. In the end, Portland could never push the lead to double digits again as Utah rode to a convincing win and added extra cushion to their No. 3 seed at this point in the season.
Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s comprehensive recap.
There’s no better place than home, and the Blazers head back against the Detroit Pistons tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. PT.