Written by: Josh Gutbrod
Image: Jaime Valdez – USA TODAY Sports
Just a month ago the Portland Trail Blazers were arguably the best team in basketball. The team was enjoying a lengthy 13 game winning streak including two wins over the Warriors and Damian Lillard was flying up MVP charts. The Blazers grabbed a hold on the 3 seed in the Western Conference, a clear path to locking up home court in the first round, and were looking at capturing a second division title in four years.
It now seems that the Utah Jazz, led by star rookie Donovan Mitchell, had other plans for the Northwest Division. The Jazz have dominated the league since the return of defensive anchor Rudy Gobert and arrival of swingman Jae Crowder. The two have had tremendous impacts alongside Mitchell. The difference is evident in the team’s 16-3 record since March 1st. With Portland losing 6 of its last 10 games the Jazz have erased the gap and taken hold of the division lead with one game remaining.
That final game comes tonight when the two divisional rivals will face off for the fourth and final team this season. Utah leads the season series 2-1 with both teams earning a win on the other’s court through the first three games of the season series. The ice-cold Trail Blazers will hold the home court advantage tonight in what may be the only advantage the team has prior to tip-off.
Both teams have already clinched playoff spots and the Jazz hold the tiebreakers to ensure even with a loss tonight they will hold home court throughout the first round. Portland, on the other hand, has a chance to drop out of the top half of the West. With a loss and a San Antonio win Portland would see themselves fall from 3rd to 5th over the final week of the season. A 4 vs. 5 match up against LaMarcus Aldridge in the Spurs after coughing up home court would surely spell an early playoff exit for Portland.
Lillard and Mitchell will surely be aggressive early and look to set the tone for their teams. With such talented guard play on both sides, look for the key match up in the contest to come on the interior. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic has been on a tear since the All-Star break (15 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 1.7 blocks on 57.4% shooting). Gobert has been even better for Utah since the break (15 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.3 blocks on 68.8% shooting). While Nurkic certainly has a wider arsenal of moves on offense, Gobert may very well be the best defensive center in the entire league. The match up, sure to be incredibly physical, will likely dictate the flow of the game.
Given the recent shooting woes of the Blazers I have to give the edge to Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. A defensive stalwart such as Utah is a hellish match up for a team in a shooting slump. If the worst is to happen, Portland may not score 80 points tonight. That being said, the Blazers do still have Damian Lillard. The potential for Lillard to explode offensively gives Portland a fair chance despite the many recent struggles.