Portland Trail Blazers vs Utah Jazz / Feb. 3, 2010
Energy Solutions Arena 7:00 PM MDT
(Note: Changed from previous 8:30 PM start time)
by Clint Peterson / Special to Salt City Hoops
Salt Lake City, UT - Don’t let anybody try and tell you that games this time of year don’t matter. The Jazz are riding the West’s best win streak and have a chance to clinch a second straight season series versus a Western postseason contender in as many games when Portland limps into Salt Lake City for Wednesday night’s divisional duel. Holding the advantage in tiebreakers in the West is paramount to postseason success in a conference with so many solid teams. Two of the Blazers’ three divisional losses have been to the Jazz. With Portland’s Brandon Roy joining the long list of Blazer wounded, Utah has a chance to kick the Trail Blazers while they’re down. A win for the Jazz locks in a third season-series win over a Western Conference contender (Dallas, San Antonio), so this one matters. It matters a lot. Despite the injuries, Portland never quits, as shown by the way they fought back last week after the Jazz opened the game with a 21-4 run.
And how ’bout this Jazz? Smack dab in the middle of a 12-game West-heavy schedule, with seven of the next eight against Western Conference playoff contenders, the Utah Jazz are as hot as they’ve been since their epic run to the conference finals in 2007. The current core is playing its best ball ever, and more importantly, they’re having more fun than they’ve had in recent memory. It’s been a shocking turnaround for a team that seemed to have lost all aptitude for offense just a month or two ago. Now they have that ever-important defensive trust and intensity that was lacking before. The new Jazz have shown that they can rely on tough D to put games away, rather than squander leads. For a while there I thought this team’s inverse relationship between offensive and defensive effort would mean I’d have to be satisfied with one or the other — like Kelly Bundy and her finite capacity for knowledge. But this team is having its cake and eating it too, dropping a C-note in 8 straight games now while holding teams far below their averages.
What to watch for:
In the last week’s win (the Jazz’s first in Portland in nearly four years), Utah came out swinging, winning the first quarter 37-16 with an anything-but-anemic offensive onslaught, giving them the luxury of coasting home. Thurl Bailey called it the best quarter of Jazz basketball he’d seen in years. A similar effort from the Jazz at home would put the game away very early. Deron Williams cautioned against the guys getting “cocky” or “too confident,” and with Carlos Boozer almost certainly not playing until Saturday’s game against the Nuggets, I expect the team to come out hungry for the win.
Speaking of Booz, he has been upgraded to “Doubtful” for the game, which always means “No Chance” in Boozer parlance. This lets Paul Millsap get in there and abuse LaMarcus Aldridge, who tends to shy away from the contact paint-game. While Aldridge is 9th in scoring among power forwards (“power” being a relative term here, as you’ll see shortly), and 10th in rebounding, he is only 18th in free throw attempts-per-game among PF’s. Oddly enough, he also happens to be 18th in FT%, too. Aldridge likes to “pick and pop,” rather than roll, and is actually quite a nice shooter doing so, at 47% from the floor. He’s smooth, so Millsap will need to disrupt his rhythm.
The Jazz must control the pace, not letting themselves get drawn into that slowest-of-the-slow paced Portland game. The Jazz won the two previous meetings with the Blazers by a combined 27 points, due largely to the fact that Utah got ‘em out of their game, taking smart shots, while forcing Portland to take not-so-good ones. In the last week’s game the Jazz took 63 field goal attempts to the Blazers 92.
Utah also won both previous rebounding battles, holding Portland to less than their season average on the glass. Since losing Joel “Vanilla Gorilla” Przybilla and the Odenator they have fallen from the 12th place rebounding team to the 26th. When Utah out-rebounds their opponent, they win more often than not.
And then there’s Andre Miller and his fifty-two cents’ worth. With Brandon Roy OUT, he’s led the team in scoring four of nine times, but…and it’s a big but, he struggles head-to-head with D Will. In the three previous games before that improbable career high against the Mavs, Miller scored only a total of 15 points in three games. Three games! He’s now averaging 15 in Roy’s absence, which is two above his season average. At least he was. That one 52 point game alone bumped his average a full four points, to 19 a game.
Dre tends to plays defense on his heels, always has, so there’s a very good chance we’ll hear, “Is there a medic in the house?” as Deron licks his fingers in preparation for a little of his patented Shake ‘n Break.
So long as the fellas come ready to play all 48, and Sloan keeps finding the hot hand, as he has, there’s no reason why this won’t be lucky number 7.
Clint Peterson is a new contributor to Salt City Hoops. Follow him on Twitter @clintonite33