Jazz Fall to Blazers, Lose Home Court to OKC

April 12th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Ricky Rubio (3) and the Utah Jazz could do nothing to slow down Damian Lillard (0), who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the third spot in the Western Conference playoff seeding, knocking the Jazz to fifth and costing them home court. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Story of the Game

When this game tipped off, the Utah Jazz knew they would play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. What wasn’t known is where game one would be played, as a Jazz victory over the Portland Trail Blazers would have won the third seed in the West and home court advantage over the Thunder.

Despite both their opponent – the New Orleans Pelicans – and home court decided in advance, the Trail Blazers thoroughly outplayed Utah, reminding one of the league’s hottest teams that victories against quality western opponents playing their best ball come hard.

Where Utah’s defense is typically the story of Jazz games, tonight it was Portland’s forceful, paint-swarming D that commanded the game. Not only did Terry Stotts not rest his key players as many thought prudent (Damian Lillard played 37 minutes, CJ McCollum 35), he devised a fantastic defensive scheme that put Utah’s offense out of sorts all night.

Through three quarters Portland totally dictated to Utah’s offense, which shot a tepid 33 percent from the floor and a horrid 25 percent from three. Meanwhile, the Blazers’s elite scoring back court lit up the Jazz for 45 points with 12 minute yet to play.

The Jazz showed some mental toughness, down big on the rough side of a back-to-back, yet made several runs to make a contest out of what had to that point been total domination by the Blazers. Donovan Mitchell, who had a tragic six of 23 night from the field, showed once more that no matter how out of sorts he is through most of a game, down the stretch he can flip a switch and put on an offensive blitz to change a game. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter on three of six shooting, including making his only three in the game despite eight attempts.

Yet the Blazers have the player Mitchell is modeled after (though Dwayne Wade is often mentioned as well), and the rookie’s mentor demonstrated what true closing power looks like. When the Jazz cut what was once a 24-point deficit to 14 with eight minutes to play, Stotts re-inserted Lillard into the game. He then closed out the game with nine points on six shots, ending the night with a stellar 36-point, 10-assist cap to his greatest NBA season.

And leaving the Jazz, the sixth seed in the West, with a road date with the Thunder and the only player in league history to average a triple double in multiple seasons, Russell Westbrook.   

Stars of the Game

Superstar: None

The only candidate in this game for this status is Lillard. He utterly dominated the action and no combination of Jazz players or Quin Snyder’s defensive schemes could resist him. He was brilliant.

Secondary Star: Derrick Favors (10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks)

There’s a good argument to be made that no Jazz player deserved even this billing. That’s how thoroughly outplayed they were tonight. But Favors at least played physically and energetically, and for much of the night was the only Jazz player of whom that could be said. If there was a highlight on the receiving end of such a thumping, it was his block of a Jusuf Nurkic dunk.

Secret Star: Jonus Jerebko (5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block)

Though Jerebko played only 10 minutes, most of them when the game was out of reach, his energy fueled one of Utah’s late come back attempts, enabling a 10 to one Jazz run to reach single digits. He made his only three attempt on the night and two of three shots in total, making him one of only three Jazz players to shoot 50 percent or better from the field1

Stats of the Game

92.5 – Utah’s offensive rating, 12th lowest this season. Not surprisingly, they lost all but one of those games.

20 – Jazz second chance points to Portland’s seven, which kept the final tally from being even worse.

18 – Assists by Utah, their fewest since the home debacle against Atlanta.

41.6 – Utah’s effective field goal percentage, seventh lowest this season.

Sundries

  • The Jazz got out-hustled, out-schemed, out-muscled, and just plain outplayed. The question, then, is this just one of those thankfully uncommon outliers where the team’s offense fails them, such as against the Hawks or Boston? Or was Portland’s defensive success re-creatable? I think it is, and so it’s worth taking a look at what Snyder will need to counter now that they’ll be facing a quality defensive team in the Thunder with time to game plan.
  • The Blazers’s defensive strategy did a host of things right, starting with making Mitchell play in a crowd. They picked him up far beyond the three point line and when he came off screens always had a least two defenders within arm’s reach of him. When he got near the paint, that was typically at least three. It’s a strategy other top coaches have used against Mitchell, committing multiple defenders to him and risking leaving other Jazz players open. Mitchell’s six of 23 shooting night shows how well it worked, though he did miss several open threes that worsened his efficiency. It was a rough way to end his phenomenal rookie season, but honesty demands acknowledging that this is a contest he shot his team out of, much the way Rodney Hood sometimes did.
  • Another strategy Stotts employed was having Nurkic completely ignore Gobert anywhere other than right under the hoop or rolling off of picks. When Gobert received the ball at the elbow extended Nurkic often had his feet in the restricted area. Portland didn’t even pretend to pay attention to the Jazz center. This meant that all dribble penetration funneled right to Portland’s defensive anchor, who had four blocks in the game. Gobert’s 13 points and 13 rebounds looks solid, but Nurkic (13 points, nine rebounds, three assists) simply outplayed him.
  • The Blazers did two other, less noticeable things that completely gummed up Utah’s offensive gears: eliminating Joe Ingles as a distributor and Ricky Rubio’s open threes. It’s amazing to say, but those two elements of Utah’s offense – Ingles’s passing and Rubio’s three point shooting – are vital grease in the cogs of the Jazz’s motion offense. The Blazers took away both. When Ingles would drive, using his crafty, old-man shift of pace, Portland’s defenders didn’t fall for any tricks. They simply bodied him up and dug at the ball. Ingles isn’t fast enough to escape a defender doing that, and he ended the night with only one assist and three turnovers. Meanwhile, Rubio has feasted on more open three point shots than perhaps any other player in the league. He didn’t get them tonight as the Blazers refused to help off him too much to recover, and as a result he took (and made) his only three attempt with less than four minutes left in the game.
  • It was a perfect scheme. Taking away Gobert’s rolls to the hoop and making him an offensive liability anywhere outside the paint. Giving Rubio no chance to lift Utah’s offense with his new-found shooting and Ingles no opportunity to create for his teammates. In that context, it was painfully obvious that Mitchell is the only Jazz player who can create for himself, and tonight he had to try to do that against two and three defenders constantly. If a positive can be taken from this loss, other than perhaps punctured over-confidence, it is a chance to adjust to these defensive measures before the first game of the playoffs rather than after, as I expect the Thunder to use a similar scheme against this Jazz offense.  

Without question this is not how the Jazz thought their regular season would end. They have quietly been targeting the number three seed for longer than most would have considered within reason. But neither should this loss shake their confidence, nor is it likely to. Occasionally this team simply can’t hit better than one in four of their three point shots, which is what happened throughout most of this game. When that happens, they usually lose.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. This is still a team that ended the regular season winning 28 of 34 games, including 15 of 17 on the road. The Thunder may have won three of four meetings this year, but all those games were played before the end of the December, a stretch where Utah was at absolute rock bottom and with Gobert typically out of the lineup. The Thunder haven’t faced this Jazz team, and the Jazz haven’t faced a Thunder team without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Andre Roberson.

Utah will take the sixth seed, and the Thunder, and Russell Westbrook the triple double machine. They’ll take the challenge of stealing away home court. It isn’t what they hoped and planned for, but they’ll take it.

And if I had to put down money right now, I’d wager it on the Jazz winning the series. The playoffs start Saturday! 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

2 Comments

  1. Spencer says:

    Great analysis. I wonder if The Exum/Mitchel should get more time in the playoffs when things start to screech to a halt. I do believe that Exum can create his own shot, just not in as many ways as Mitchell, but as a secondary playmaker he can be pretty lethal I hope. (Plus he can guard 3-4 positions, so he can play with any other guard or wing and Mitchel)

  2. John Jenkins says:

    Nice notes Clint! Have a feeling Quin will have the adjustments in place by the 15th. Read a lot of posts with just negatives on the Jazz and Mitchell. What a joke! Who would have figured the Jazz in 5th place when Hayward left us so poorly? This should be a joyful time and win or lose vs OKC will still be a humongous step ahead doe the Jazz!

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