Portland, Ore. • The Memphis Grizzlies. The Los Angeles Lakers, twice. A Los Angeles Clippers group that surrendered on a playoff race before they’d actually been eliminated.
For a little over a week, the Utah Jazz had been feasting on teams with little incentive of winning games, teams more concerned with lottery balls than basketball.
It could go a ways toward explaining a 102-93 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in Wednesday night’s regular-season finale at the Moda Center. In a game where the Jazz were required to play tough and physical playoff-style basketball, they were unable to flip a switch.
Portland played each possession with vigor and hunger. The Jazz played like a team on the second night of a back-to-back. The Trail Blazers were confident and poised, shot the ball well and defended with energy. The Jazz threw up airballs and bricks all night, and couldn’t stay in front of star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as their trademark defense was shredded.
“The physicality bothered us a little bit,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “They came out playing physical and it took some time for us to get ready mentally. It was a great game for us to have before playoff basketball. We needed something like this.”
It all resulted in a game that was never close. The Jazz led once, at 2-0, before Portland scored eight consecutive points to take control. In a game where Utah had a chance to win the Northwest Division and secure the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, the Jazz played their worst game in months.
And now, instead of opening the postseason at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the fifth-seeded Jazz will head to fourth-seeded Oklahoma City and one of the most lively atmospheres in the league. Facing Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder will be no picnic, and the task of advancing became that much more difficult with Wednesday night’s loss.
Still, earning the fifth seed is a remarkable accomplishment this season, given where the franchise was in July when Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics. The Jazz finish the regular season 48-34, having won 29 of their final 35 games.
If there is a positive to take from Wednesday night, the Jazz’s more inexperienced players got a glimpse of what playoff basketball will be as an early learning experience. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell looked rattled early against Portland and missed a bunch of shots he normally makes in one of the biggest games of his young career, though he did finish with 17 points.
Ricky Rubio also scored 17 points, while Rudy Gobert scored 13 points and added 13 rebounds
The Jazz trailed by as many as 21 points in the second half as the Moda Center was in a festive mood, with Jazz coach Quin Snyder clearing his bench near the end of the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it (the physical play) shocked us, but we needed to adjust to it,” Snyder said. “Portland is a veteran team and that group has been in a lot of important games and they came out and played like that tonight. When you don’t make shots, the energy level can go down and we can’t have that. We have to play through adversity no matter what shots you get.”
Even with reserves finishing the game, Utah didn’t quit and whittled the deficit down to nine points late in the fourth quarter. But Lillard has reached a zone this season only the great ones seem to get to and showed that again on Wednesday, scoring a game-high 36 points with 10 assists and beating every defensive scheme the Jazz threw at him with ridiculous shot-making.