Utah Jazz strive for more 3s, improved defense in season-opening 120-100 win over Portland

Team gets off to good start against the host Trail Blazers, clamping down on Damian Lillard.

(Steve Dipaola| The Associated Press) Portland Trail Blazers forward Derrick Jones Jr., right, and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, middle, vie for a rebound as Trail Blazers forward Robert Covington, left, watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

For all of training camp and through their three preseason games, the Utah Jazz stressed two key areas that ultimately will be crucial to their success in 2020-21: Launching a higher volumes of 3s, and getting their defense back among the league’s elite.

While it’s important to remember that Wednesday’s season opener in Portland was just Game 1 of 72, it’s hard to ignore what an awfully good start the Jazz got off to in both areas.

The first half saw them both bury a franchise-record 13 shots from behind the arc and hold Damian Lillard scoreless in building a 21-point advantage. Nothing done post-halftime was enough to reverse the damage done from that, as the Jazz rolled to a 120-100 victory at the Moda Center.

“We see what we can do on the offensive end, but what [good is that] offense if we’re giving up so many points on the other end?” Donovan Mitchell said afterward. “The biggest thing [is] just containing the ball. I’m not saying we’re going to go out there and keep guys like Dame and Steph [Curry] and [Devin Booker] and all those guys to nine points in a game or whatever, but it’s about making it tough, and being able to stay solid, and then also trusting you have each other’s backs.”

Fresh off of signing a five-year, $205 million extension, Rudy Gobert dominated inside, racking up 20 points and 17 rebounds. Mitchell, in a somewhat subdued performance, added 20 points and five assists. Joe Ingles contributed 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds off the bench.

Seven Jazz players wound up scoring in double figures, and the team finished 19 of 50 from beyond the arc.

A 13-2 run midway through the second period — driven by a 3-point barrage, of course — enabled Utah to stretch a seven-point advantage to a 47-29 lead.

Mitchell, after a slow start in the opening quarter, found his rhythm in the second, where he dropped in a dozen points.

Still, while social media was going nuts about the team’s voluminous and efficient efforts from beyond the arc, it was the job they did on Lillard that was the real highlight.

Those pick-and-roll 3s he typically loves were sniffed out and cut off. He only had five attempts from the field in the opening 24 minutes, and he missed all of them. He also missed his only free throw attempt.

He would not get his first basket until the 10:23 mark of the third quarter, and finished the game with just nine points (all in one third-quarter binge) on 4-for-12 shooting.

Of course, given Lillard’s history of torching the Jazz, they were reluctant to take too much credit for his off-night, with Gobert’s explanation that “we tried to make him uncomfortable, we tried to get a little physical with him” about as braggadocious as they dared get.

“Well, he’s terrific and he’s entitled to a tough night. He’s had so many big nights against us, and sometimes the law of averages catches up to you,” said coach Quin Snyder. “He’s as good as there is in the league — everything we did, we have to do collectively when you play a player of that caliber. I thought we executed pretty well, and then you need to have a little luck on your side.”

Luckily for the Jazz, Portland wound up making just 40.2% from the field for the game.

Utah, on the other hand, had four players who made at least three 3-pointers apiece before the break — Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, and even the sometimes-reluctant-to-shoot Ingles.

Snyder’s group would continue feast on a Blazers team that was, as Portland coach Terry Stotts noted pregame, not very good thus far in executing the massive defensive scheme changes he’s implementing.

As Portland came out of halftime having adjusted to Utah’s outside shooting by keeping their perimeter defenders more at home, the Jazz countered with the two-man game, attacking the Blazers’ drop-big scheme with force, as Gobert continuously attacked Jusuf Nurkic off of pick-and-rolls and capitalized on his teammates’ pinpoint feeds.

As Mitchell threaded a pass to his big man, Gobert elevated and finished through contact, throwing down a dunk and converting the and-one free throw — giving him 10 points in the first five minutes after halftime. All told, the Frenchman would tally 12 points in the third period alone.

“We just kept playing the right way, kept moving the ball. And when we do that, it’s pretty tough to guard,” Gobert said. “We play in a very unselfish way — we make the right reads, and also we score off our defense. And it’s unguardable when we’re able to do that.”

Mitchell marveled at Gobert’s ability to keep himself involved and be productive mostly by woking to put himself in position to do work on the glass.

“We didn’t run one play for him and he still got 20 and [17],” Mitchell said.

The fourth quarter was mostly academic, as the Jazz ballooned their lead to as much as 31 points, though a 14-2 Blazers run did briefly get them as close at 17.