Game Details: Rose Garden, Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM)
Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6′2″, Utah), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6′5″, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6′8″, France), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6′11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6′11″, UMass)
Projected Utah Starting Lineup: PG Deron Williams (#8, 6’3″, Illinois), SG Raja Bell (#19, 6’5″, Florida International), SF Andrei Kirilenko (#47, 6’9″, Russia), PF Paul Millsap (#24, 6’8″, Lousiana Tech), C Al Jefferson (#25, 6’10”, Prentiss High School)
The Blazers have won their last two games playing without Brandon Roy, relying on strong play from interim starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews. Tonight, Matthews faces his former team for the first time, and the Blazers play their second consecutive game against a tough division rival. This may well be the toughest game of the season thus far: the Blazers and Jazz may have the same number of wins, but Utah’s have been hard-earned against far better teams. The high point of their season has been their thrilling overtime win over the Miami Heat, but they have also beaten the Magic, Thunder, and Hawks. They’ve also more or less had Portland’s number the last few years–they won all four games in last year’s season series.
Initially, it looked as though Utah had gotten weaker this offseason, with Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver defecting to Chicago and Portland signing undrafted second-year guard Matthews to a massive offer sheet the Jazz chose not to match. But the trade for Al Jefferson and signing of Raja Bell filled some of these holes, and Utah has gotten off to a strong start. Jefferson initially struggled to fit with Jerry Sloan’s coaching style, but he has found his stride the last few weeks. Paul Millsap is breaking out in a big way without Boozer to compete with for power-forward minutes, and Deron Williams is still very much in the conversation for best point guard in the NBA. Add in solid play from Bell, C.J. Miles, and Andrei Kirilenko, and this is a tough matchup for most teams.
The Blazers will once again be without Roy, and will need Matthews to continue his stellar play on both ends of the floor. Their last two wins have very much been team accomplishments, not relying on one player to carry the day, and this seems to be a good approach. Another big scoring night from Matthews alone won’t be enough to win–Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge need to keep up with Jefferson and Millsap on the boards at both ends of the floor. Williams doesn’t turn the ball over very often, so Andre Miller needs to be similarly focused. Look for Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez to put up points if the Blazers want to come away with a win. And most importantly, the team needs to make its damn free throws. It’s so basic, but there’s no way the Blazers should have only beaten the Nuggets by three points on Thursday. The game was that close because they shot an abysmal 11 for 22 from the stripe. Against a team like Utah that the Blazers have historically struggled against, that kind of performance will be unacceptable. It’s not unthinkable that Portland will come away with a win tonight, but it will take everything they’ve got. Given all that’s happened this week, it would certainly be nice to go into the upcoming five-day layoff on a three-game winning streak. Their next game is against New Orleans, a team that blew them out last week. Not only is Roy expected to return then, but so is Joel Przybilla, and closing out this stretch of the season on a high note will only help the Blazers’ morale.