Any Utah Jazz fan who followed the team in the late 1980s and early 1990s can most likely recall clearly those painful battles with the Portland Trail Blazers. It felt like every 3-point shot Terry Porter. Clyde Drexler or Danny Ainge attempted was going in. It similarly felt like Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey grabbed every crucial rebound and Kevin Duckworth nailed every 15-footer. The Jazz managed to eke out a few wins, but the difficult losses often hung in the air seemingly for days.
Although it is 25 years since those days, Sunday’s tilt between the Portland and Utah’s 2015-16 iterations brought back those vivid memories for some Jazz faithful. Instead of Porter and Drexler, it was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum bombing away from downtown. Mason Plumlee and Maurice Harkless, among many others, were making all the big hustle plays. And for the third time this season, Utah suffered a 115-111 loss to their division rivals.
It was a hard-fought affair, with both teams giving optimal effort. While Portland pounced early with an 8-0 start, the Jazz battled back with a 17-0 run of their own. The rest of the game was a seesaw battle full of runs, heroics and star performances. Utah’s swingman pair of Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood once again came up with big shots down the stretch. But in the end, the incredible firepower of the Trail Blazers’ back court was simply too potent to deal with. Portland now owns a very important tiebreak. Yes, there is a lot of basketball to be played, but this game could have ramifications come April.
Shelvin Mack’s Attack
When the Shelvin Mack transaction came across people’s Twitter feeds, most thought it was a solid, but unspectacular move — a lot like some would describe Mack’s game. On Sunday, there were times when Mack was the Jazz’s best player.
In fact, the 17-0 run came all under Mack’s watch. He repeatedly made play after play, keeping Utah ahead for much of the game. While he slowed down a touch in the fourth quarter, his Jazz debut was stellar. When it was said and done, the 6’3″ point guard finished with 16 points on 11 shots, while adding a team-high six assists and three rebounds. The sturdy guard gave Lillard some fits in the first half, using his physicality and solid lateral quickness to his favor. He even had an impressive blocked shot on a Lillard jumper in the second quarter. Mack’s surprising outburst elicited the following from Portland’s official Twitter account:
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 22, 2016
High praise, indeed. Mack brought much-needed life to the Jazz. He did not try to do too much and all his shots were within the context of the offense. He gave a spirited effort on defense and to his credit, much of Lillard’s points came against others in the Jazz back court. Mack played with a calm confidence, never rushing his shot or the pass. All in all, it was one of the best point guard performances for Utah.
Of course, one must remember the perils of Small Sample Size Theater. One game does not a season make. But the early returns are positive. He was the third best point guard for the Atlanta Hawks, but at least for one night, he was the Jazz’s best. It will be interesting to see how things shake out moving forward. With both Raul Neto and Trey Burke having had their moments this season, the next handful of games will be ones to watch in regards to the point guard rotations.
Mack did an excellent job making a wonderful first impression.
As he is prone to do, Lillard did Lillard things. In a matter of 1:37, he poured in four treys, with two of them be aptly described as simply ridiculous. The All-Star snub and his partner-in-crime, McCollum, combined for eight triples. In each of Utah’s losses, the duo has propelled the Portland offense. Few players have the ability to take over a game offensively as Lillard does. The fact that he has only made the All-Star game once — and he was an injury replacement at that — is appalling. It also speaks to the incredible individual talent in the Western Conference.
Not enough can be said about the job Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and company have done. When LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews changed zip codes, most pundits prognosticated a down season for Rip City. Behind a star in Lillard, a breakout performer in McCollum and a bunch of hungry, mostly under-appreciated role players, Stotts has led his team into the postseason fray. They are long, athletic and unselfish. They work hard. The now and the future are both bright for Portland.
23: Portland managed to snare 23 offensive rebounds. That in itself is impressive, but that is only magnified that they did so against Utah’s imposing front court of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.
7: Back-up center Jeff Withey has seven DNP-CDs to his name over the past three weeks. In the two games he has made it on the court during that same span, Withey has played a total of nine minutes. While Gobert and Favors understandably are getting the lion’s share of the playing time, Withey was as important a player for the Jazz during their absence.
+8: Despite missing 13 free throws, the Trail Blazers managed to outscore the Jazz by eight from the charity stripe. Portland had fifteen more attempts. Five Blazers shot six or more.