Portland, Ore. • There’s always an expectation that Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will carry the Jazz.
But when the team is getting big contributions from the likes of Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Dante Exum, and Ricky Rubio, there’s not much opponents can do.
A dominant stretch from Utah’s bench unit spanning the late first and early second quarters, an incendiary third period from Rubio, and another lockdown defensive effort all proved equally pivotal on Friday night, paving the way for a 120-90 victory over Northwest Division rival Portland.
The win was Utah’s second in a row, and bumped the team’s record to 16-17 on the season.
Mitchell, who had another rough night offensively, scoring three points on 1-for-10 shooting, said the team’s efforts on the other end of the court set the tone.
“Defensively, we’re locked in,” he said. “… It’s been continuous, and we’ve been locked in on the defensive end the past two games, and we’ve got to keep it up.”
Not that the offense was unimportant. After a ragged, poor-shooting, turnover-filed start from both the Jazz’s and Blazers’ starting lineups, Utah’s second unit got things going late in the opening quarter.
Korver checked in and was as aggressive shooting the ball as he was efficient, firing up four attempts and hitting three of them for seven quick points. Crowder proved to be equally without remorse, nailing a pair from deep himself. Utah’s 17-8 advantage in bench points spanning the opening 12 minutes extended its advantage to 33-26 at the quarter mark.
The Jazz kept it up.
Dante Exum, in particular, was especially effective. His court vision was perhaps as good as it has ever been, as he racked up six assists in an eight-minute stretch, and was a plus-16 on the court.
“The first half, defensively, Derrick [Favors] just had a real presence, and so did Dante,” said coach Quin Snyder. “Obviously, Kyle gave that group a big lift. That group played very well in the second quarter.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, when the Jazz went back to their starting five, the offense sputtered a bit. Mitchell, Gobert, and Rubio shot a combined 3 for 15 in the first half, totaling nine points between them (vs. seven turnovers), as the team settled for a 55-49 lead at the break.
Rubio’s three-point, four-turnover first half was quickly forgotten, though, based on what he did post-halftime.
He came out early looking for shots — and was having zero problem making them. He started off with a layup. A minute later, he buried a 3-pointer. A minute after that, he found a seam baseline, raced under the hoop, and flipped in a beautiful reverse layup.
He didn’t stop there. A driving finger-roll, a fadeaway jumper, another 3, and another layup later, and he had 16 points in the period.
Asked what helped him flip the switch, point guard was succinct.
“I tried to be more aggressive,” Rubio said. “Shots were falling. I had a couple easy ones at the beginning of the third quarter, and that got me going.”
Gobert, though, chalked up his teammate’s offensive outburst to something else entirely.
“He was pissed. Ricky was pissed. I don’t know what happened, but when he plays like that, it’s a big plus,” he said. “All his shots were good shots. It was just being aggressive, and then the ball came back to him, and he made shots. It was great for us.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz defense continued its strong run — frustrating and disorienting the Blazers’ attack to the point that Damian Lillard threw a cross-court pass from the corner to Jusuf Nurkic, who was checked out of the game, standing on the sideline, trying to put his warmup jacket on. Lillard, who averaged 33.0 points in four matchups with the Jazz a season ago, was held to just 19 this time.
The combination of Rubio’s pyrotechnics and Utah’s suffocating defense extended the lead to as high as 21 points, and the Jazz went into the fourth up 15. It was never really close after that. A deep Lillard 3 did momentarily draw Portland within 12 — but five more consecutive points from Rubio ended Portland’s last gasp.
Rubio finished with a team-high 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting, while adding eight assists. Meanwhile, Korver totaled 18 points and Crowder contributed 15, as Utah’s bench outscored Portland’s 57-40 for the game.
While a Saturday game against the Thunder awaits and could change the narrative, Gobert said he feels like the Jazz are finally approaching where they ought to be.
“I think it’s coming. The energy in the locker room is not the same,” he said. “… We’re more focused on the same thing — not that we weren’t before, but … I’ve got the same vibe I had last year at the end of the season, when we had the [29-6] winning streak, and I feel like we figured out how to win. That’s the most important thing.”
JAZZ 120, BLAZERS 90
• Ricky Rubio overcomes a sloppy opening half, scoring 16 of his 24 points in the third quarter, while adding eight assists for Utah.
• after leading by just six points at halftime, the Jazz outscore Portland 65-41 in the second half of play.
• Weber State product Damian Lillard, who averaged 33.0 points in four games against Utah last season, leads the Blazers with 19 points.