NW Division Foes: The Portland Trail Blazers

October 10th, 2018 | by Tyler Crandall

Utah’s success vs. Portland will hinge on their ability to contain Lillard. (Photo via blazers.com)

Editor’s Note: Tyler Crandall is ramping up for the 2018-19 season by taking a look at Utah’s divisional opponents. Last season, all five Northwest Division teams won between 46 and 49 games, and four of the five made the playoffs. Tyler will preview what may be the league’s toughest division from top to bottom, including a look at how good they might be on the whole and a preview of the four-game Jazz season series. Last week, he examined the Jazz-Thunder rivalry, and this week he continues by checking in on the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland Trail Blazers, 49-33, 2-2 vs. Utah

When the Utah Jazz lost the final game of the 2017-18 regular season in Portland, they also lost a chance to secure a 3-1 series win, a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and homecourt advantage in the playoffs, And yet, it almost feels as though the Jazz were lucky to walk away with a 2-2 tie. Or maybe it just feels that way after watching the Jazz starters get absolutely dismantled by the Trail Blazers in Sunday’s preseason game.

Looking back at the year, though, the Jazz were honestly lucky to win the first game against All-Star Damian Lillard’s team, a 9-point overtime victory back in November. It took 30 points from the Spanish Samurai Ricky Rubio to pull out the win in overtime. That game was really a toss-up that went Utah’s way in the end.  

During Utah’s hot streak over the second half of the season, the Jazz also had a great win against the Blazers where everything went right and then a disorienting home loss where everything the Jazz did was futile. Game four of the series on April 11 felt much the same way. If you then include the preseason game, the Jazz have lost the last three games against Portland and all of them felt like Lillard and his backcourt mate C.J. McCollum just had their way. In fact, Dame put up point totals of 39, 24, 36, and 33 in his four regular season contests against the Jazz last season.

Dame going off — or even just being Dame — isn’t even the real reason the Jazz struggled to contain. There’s a lot more to the story than just “star power”, and a lot of it has to do with Terry Stotts, who happens to be very underrated as a coach.

Lineups and Match-ups

Stotts is a phenomenal coach with an interesting set of personnel problems. His Blazers have enough talent at the guard spot in Lillard and McCollum to run nearly any team off the floor. Where they are lacking is in wing and big depth, especially after losing three of their top eight minute-getters (Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis) in the off-season, and with multipositional starter Mo Harkless fighting his way back from injury.

Jusuf Nurkic is a solid rim protector to round out the big three, but beyond that they are lacking depth this season, and that may be putting it softly.

With the firepower he does have, Stotts is able to run a really strong defensive scheme, good for a top ten defense in the league last season, and their guard scoring plus the Nurkic punch gives them enough to be exactly average on offensive.

With the offensive power of the guard duo and a big who can finish and hit from distance, it spells trouble for the Jazz, who have struggled to contain the pair. Portland’s guards force Utah’s Rudy Gobert to leave the paint, which we saw a lot of in the preseason game. That leaves the middle of the floor clear for the taking. The team relies so much on Rudy that if he leaves the paint, other players often forget to look to help, especially when not locked in — and players are often prone to play that way in preseason.

What to Watch

The defensive scheme should be interesting to Jazz fans, because Portland is one of the handful of teams to run something similar to Quin Snyder’s defensive system. Portland, like the Jazz, runs a “drop big” defense, which is quite different to the trending “switch everything” tactic you hear about with teams like Golden State.

While the scheme does really well at protecting the rim1, their defense wasn’t nearly as good overall as the Jazz’s. This is where the Gobert factor comes into play. Quin is just lucky enough to also have the best rim protector and defensive anchor in the league.

This scheme excels at two things specifically: protecting the rim and also allowing more aggression in covering the three point line. This ends up forcing players into the mid-range and the least efficient spots on the floor. The Blazers can overcome this because Lillard and McCollum are just so good that they can still get good looks off despite that pressure. 

Another important thing to watch as it relates to the Utah-Portland series this season will be the depth and bench play. Last season, Stotts would stagger Lillard and McCollum, but in the preseason game he played them together for all their minutes2.

Perhaps the bigger story to track as we keep an eye on the Blazers throughout the season will be the adjustments opposing coaches, including Snyder in the four head-to-head games, put into play against the Blazers. In the playoffs, Alvin Gentry was able to counter them into oblivion and a first round upset and sweep. If other coaches can mimic that strategy, the Blazers may have some trouble ahead. Granted, New Orleans has a top-five guy in Anthony Davis that few of the Blazers’ other opponents will have. So there’s that.

As for Jazz-Blazers specifically, this is a tough matchup for Utah. The Jazz are likely a better team this year, but they’ll need to execute their defensive plans better in order to contain Portland’s star guards. This year’s season series between the two will be compressed into about a six week period, with two games in late December — including the highly anticipated Christmas Day games in Salt Lake City — and two more at the end of January.

Portland didn’t really get better this season, and many believe they backslid with multiple rotation players leaving. But it’s still also possible that many are simply writing them off too early and counting them out. That said, I trust that the Jazz will adjust for the regular season and that the lack of depth will be too much for Portland.

Prediction: Jazz win 3-1

Tyler Crandall

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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