The regular season road schedule comes to an end tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers (51-28) travel to take on the Utah Jazz (24-54). This fourth and final meeting could end up being historic for the Trail Blazers as they have NEVER swept the Utah Jazz. The Trail Blazers enter on a two game winning streak and sit 1 1/2 games behind Houston for the four-seed. The Jazz own the Western Conference’s worst record and have lost 18 of their last 21.
The Trail Blazers were provided some aid by fellow Northwest Division foe Denver Nuggets last night as the Nuggets beat the Warriors 100-99. That win gave Portland a 2 1/2 game cushion over Golden State for the five-seed. The Trail Blazers could possibly rest their starters in the remaining three games without helping or harming their playoff positioning. However, I’ve always been in favor of playing out the regular season just as your started it.
Winning close games has been a problem for the Trail Blazers throughout the season. Wednesday, they were able to sneak out a 100-99 victory over the Kings. Dorell Wright hit a big time three-pointer with eight seconds remaining to put the Trail Blazers on top. If the Trail Blazers want to compete in the playoffs, winning close games will need to be automatic. Nearly every game will be played close and they know they need improvement. Coach Stotts mentioned after Wednesday’s game that he doesn’t know if they would have won a playoff game with their performance against the Kings. “We did a lot of good things. My biggest concern going into the playoffs is sustaining the quality of play for basically the whole game,” Stotts said.
The Utah Jazz struggles are all over the place. They struggle to close out games. They struggle to score. When the Jazz score less than 100 points, they are 1-29 against Western Conference opponents on the season. Yikes, that is a painful stat to read. With all that being said, they are very effective in other categories. Prime example would be their most recent loss to the Dallas Mavericks. In that game, the Jazz won the offensive glass battle 23-6 and outscored the Mavericks 52-34 in the paint. If those numbers were the only ones you looked at in the box score, you probably would have given the win to the Jazz. Unfortunately, it’s just been that kind of season.
Portland Trail Blazers:
- Joel Freeland is out with an MCL sprain. Freeland is still targeting Sunday’s game against the Warriors for his return.
- Mo Williams sat out Wednesday’s game against the Kings. He was a late scratch and it seems the move was precautionary as Williams has battled knee issues for the past month. He should be considered probable for tonight’s game.
- Marvin Williams sat out yesterday’s practice and is doubtful for tonight’s game. He is dealing with a bruised left knee.
- Brandon Rush entered the season coming off ACL surgery. He has played very few minutes and probably won’t see the floor tonight.
Keys To The Game
Wesley Matthews vs. Gordon Hayward. Matthews recorded 19 points on 58.3 percent shooting on Wednesday. Both are up from his season averages of 16.3 and 44.1 percent. Just another solid outing from a solid starter. Matthews is probably one of the most underrated players in the league and I’m sure happy he’s on this Trail Blazers team. Matthews played his first year in Utah before signing a nice contract with Portland. He is definitely grateful that the Jazz took a chance on him but he sure does like playing against them. Matthews is averaging 21.3 points on 59.0 percent shooting versus the Jazz. 59.0 percent! Talk about pay back for not keeping him around. Gordon Hayward has had an impressive start to his NBA career. The third year player out of Butler is leading the Jazz in scoring at 16.0 points per game. He has scored in double figures in the last 12 games and has only not achieved double figures in 14 games this season. Hayward can shoot from the outside and take you off the dribble which makes him a difficult match-up. It should be fun to see these two shooting guards go at it tonight.
Defense. It has been mentioned that Utah doesn’t have a good record when scoring less than 100 points. Portland has held Utah to an average of 95.3 points this season. That is the lowest opponent average for any team the Trail Blazers have faced more than twice this year. Even though Utah struggles to score, Portland has made it difficult on them by ramping up the defensive pressure. With three games remaining, the Trail Blazers should focus on areas that have been shaky all season. Defense is definitely one of their major weaknesses but we’ve seen what they can do when they execute properly.
Finish Strong. This key can be used in a couple of different ways. The first would be to finish the game strong. Unlike what happened against Sacramento on Wednesday, the Trail Blazers need to prove to themselves they can finish off an opponent. Step on their throats. There is no such thing as a mercy rule in the NBA. The second way this can apply is to finish the season strong. Three game remaining with two versus playoff teams. I would like to see the Trail Blazers play hard until the very last second of the regular season. The games against the Warriors and Clippers will serve as great preparation for the playoffs. Rest comes in the off-season, not a second sooner.