Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-105 win over the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Punishing small ball
By necessity, the Blazers played small on Wednesday, starting Larry Nance at center. That meant that they tried to switch 1-5 — but the Jazz just punished it over and over again, from the opening tip.
We should note that this is very different than the Clippers’ small-ball attack that worked so well in last year’s playoffs. For one, the Clippers small-ball lineup was actually pretty big: with Paul George, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Nic Batum, sometimes Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers could actually switch and not just get ran over.
But this? Anfernee Simons is too small to guard Hassan Whiteside.
Damian Lillard is too small to guard Bojan Bogdanovic.
So what is it that is translatable against better defenses, like those that the Jazz will see in the playoffs? Quick ball movement to get the ball down low to take advantage of the in-between moments.
Is this beautiful defense from Tony Snell? It’s not amazing, but, really, what does Batum do better? I’m not sure there’s a defender that’s realistically intercepting that pass from Ingles when it’s delivered that quickly, and while Gobert is holding him off. I think Gobert’s improved at that: he’s keeping his defender at bay, his body is balanced, and he understands the angles of when he has to turn to prevent Snell from getting where he wants to go.
The Jazz outscored the Blazers in the paint by a margin of 74-30. That’s gonna win you a lot of games.
Now, I don’t think destroying a shorthanded defense that, when it is actually healthy, ranks 28th in the league is enough to ensure playoff success. But I do think that the comfort level in how the Jazz did it was a good sign. It’s like the Jazz were playing a video game on the Rookie difficulty level — winning big doesn’t necessarily mean that the wins will come when the difficulty level moves to All-Star, but it’s good they dominated anyway.
2. Joe Ingles’ transition defense
I wrote about Ingles’ defense just two games ago. Writing on it again feels a little bit like beating a dead horse.
But man, it’s starting to get really glaring — and moving him to the starting lineup in Donovan Mitchell’s absence isn’t helping. There’s just no resistance at all to letting Simons past him here:
Now, at least he didn’t foul! And at least Rudy Gobert was leaving Reggie Perry, a guy you haven’t heard of before, open for three, not one of the Blazers’ more capable shooters. But the competition level is dreadful.
Statistically, the more jarring issue is in transition defense. The Jazz give up 19.6 more points per play when Ingles is in the game in transition, according to Cleaning The Glass. And it’s easy to see why: Ingles just does not try to defend when he’s playing transition defense.
He’s good at Eurofouling in transition to stop the break, and good at not fouling to give up and-ones, but... well, I think that’s a skill that essentially anyone can have. That’s essentially how I would play transition defense, and there’s a reason I’m a writer.
Look at this play: Ingles is actually in really good position here! He’s in the paint, outside of the restricted area, against a guy who is also 6-8 and has yet to score an NBA point this season. If he moves his feet, he has a decent chance, but instead does a miss of a double-handed swipe down for some reason?
This is after a missed free throw, believe it or not. I think he’s misidentified who he should be guarding on the play, but as a result, he’s scrambling to get back across the court — and then gives up. Gobert’s little “Huh?” reaction with his hands matched mine.
These moments are just really deflating. I’ll never forget this play in Game 5 against the Clippers last year, when Ingles just didn’t go after a loose ball in the playoffs.
Like, this is what happens as people age, right? They get slower and they care less. Ultimately, Ingles is still very useful: he can shoot, he can run pick-and-roll, and he can be a connector on offense, making plays like the one he made in point one. But there are moments on the other end of the floor when he’s holding them back from being as good as they could otherwise be.
3. Let’s talk Blazers
With 4:59 left and down 20 points, Damian Lillard got a tech, and immediately walked up to Blazers acting coach Scott Brooks and asked to leave the game.
He had a very good game: 32 points on 10-23 shooting. But ultimately, it wasn’t close to enough for a victory. And it’s fair to say that he’s frustrated by that; frustrated by his team’s 13-21 record, frustrated by their position of 12th in the NBA’s Western Conference.
The Blazers have been through a lot this season. Their GM was fired, partially due to harassment allegations. They got a new coach, who got COVID. They have five players in COVID protocols right now; C.J. McCollum has a collapsed lung for goodness sakes.
Even if they’re healthy, are they any good?
Eh, no. That they can’t defend anyone is the biggest issue. Lillard and McCollum are defensive liabilities. Robert Covington and Larry Nance are good at some things on defense but not all the things. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t ever an amazing defensive center, but it appears injuries have sapped him of his ability to move well enough.
But honestly, their offense has been pretty boring as well. Teams know that Nance, RoCo, Snell and so forth aren’t really threats to beat them, so why not just crowd Lillard and make his life difficult?
It’s just a bummer of a situation, and one that’s hard to figure out what to do next. Improving around the fringes doesn’t feel like the right move: it’s not like they’re one role player away from contending. It’s a star-level reconfiguration they need.
The obvious move would be to trade McCollum, but he still has $100 million on his contract. A Ben Simmons/Lillard backcourt partnership might make some sense in the offense/defense sort of way, but Simmons’ lack of shooting doesn’t exactly give Lillard more space, but less of it.
Trading Lillard sucks. The guy honestly loves Portland, loves the idea of playing for one team for his whole career. His entire brand as a player is based on loyalty. And who could give up enough trade assets and picks to make a trade worth it? It’d have to be a good team to want Lillard, but that means those picks would be low first rounders. (And, no, I can’t even imagine a package for the Jazz that makes any sense at all for the Blazers that doesn’t involve Donovan Mitchell. Why would the Blazers want Bojan Bogdanovic and 2026 late firsts?)
Portland just deserves better. It’s a really passionate fanbase that the Blazers have, probably reminding me more of Jazz fans than any other team in the league. They show up, they get loud, they love their small-market franchise that’s the only big game in town. After visiting the town twice in the last couple of months, I think the downturn of Portland as a city has been greatly exaggerated — it’s still a great place to be.
But tonight’s atmosphere at the Moda Center was the deadest I’ve ever felt it... it made me sad, honestly.
They need a jolt. But I don’t know when, or how, they’re going to get it.