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The Triple Team: Blazers beat Jazz, bumping Utah down to 5th seed

By Andy Larsen, | Posted - Apr 12th, 2018 @ 12:37am

PORTLAND — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 102-93 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers from's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.

1. Portland's physical, smart defense shuts Utah's offense down

In a game to determine the Northwest Division winner, Portland head coach Terry Stotts used a smart, physical defense to shut the Jazz's ball-movement oriented offense down.

The first thing that they did reliably was sink the big defending, the pick and roll, way down in the paint, begging the Jazz to take mid-range shots. The Jazz obliged, taking 30 shots from between the restricted area and the 3-point line. They only made five, so that's just 16 percent.

The truth is that the Jazz only have two players who can reliably make those shots: Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio. On Wednesday night, neither player could reliably hit those shots. And honestly, it was understandable: Portland played physical defense, staying attached at the hip. Mitchell is beyond Damian Lillard here, but that Lillard is still touching him makes it much harder to rise and fire than normally. Notice Lillard is on Mitchell's right, bumping him left... and the shot misses left.

Lillard's not typically a great screen navigator, but what makes this play relatively easy for him is that Jusuf Nurkic can focus on Mitchell for so long. In my opinion, Rudy Gobert needed to either cheat a little bit on the screen (giving Mitchell more separation) or roll much more quickly, making Nurkic choose between staying in front of Mitchell or staying attached to Gobert.

But that was a pretty consistent theme. Generally, the Jazz's offense is good at making the defense make tough decisions. The Blazers' physicality made it so that the Jazz looked like they were running in mud. It was like a blender with the blades rotating at the speed of a clock.

"They were just being physical. I haven't played... I don't think a lot of us have played against that level of physicality ever," Mitchell said. "It's a little taste of playoff basketball. It took me about thee and a half quarters to figure out what that is."

And here's where it's going to get tricky for the Jazz: the Oklahoma City Thunder can play a similar style of defense. Perhaps no other team plays more physically on the defensive end, especially Steven Adams. It's going to be difficult.

"The physicality, getting hit, that's what we're going to get when we get to OKC," Gobert said. "I think it was a good way to get acclimated to what we're going to get."

2. Jazz's defense on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum

I think this was a telling game for the Jazz for another reason. Like Oklahoma City, Portland has two stars who can take over a game with their offensive ability. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are both assassins with their shot and it showed repeatedly on Wednesday.

There were times when I thought the Jazz could have defended the pair better, but for the most part, I thought both just had stellar games despite good defensive attention. Lillard, in particular, finished with 36 points and 10 assists, shooting 13-25 from the field. Only one of those makes was a layup.

This kind of thing happened over and over again: the Jazz played really quite good man-on-man defense, and Lillard and McCollum just made shots over the top, the kind of shots you probably want them taking.

Here's the good news for the Jazz: Lillard and Westbrook are in different hemispheres as shooters. Here's their shot percentages broken down by how close a defender is to them while they're shooting. Lillard is first, Westbrook second.

So that the Jazz were able to stop Lillard from getting to the rim is a good sign for their matchup. Now, Russel Westbrook is in a different atmosphere physically and it's possible he'll be able to get to the rim where Lillard wasn't. But overall, it's promising.

3. Handling adversity well

Wednesday night's game wasn't as close as the final score: the Jazz had a deficit of as many as 24 points before closing it in the game's final quarter when both teams hgad clearly switched off the intensity somewhat.

So on one hand, it's good that the Jazz responded to a big deficit with a run. But I thought the Jazz sometimes struggled with handling adversity well when the Blazers made a tough play, or the referees made a call against them. That helped a single-digit lead balloon to a 14-point deficit by halftime.

Both the Jazz's young and old players were to blame. I thought both Mitchell and Dante Exum responded to not scoring early with just putting their head down and trying to score harder. Unfortunately, playing smarter, not harder, was probably the right approach. Like on this play, Exum can't attack this with such gusto so early in the shot clock, given the tough hook shot that resulted.

Likewise, Joe Ingles can't be trying to force this into Derrick Favors like this. First of all, this isn't even a mismatch. Secondly, even if this pass was completed, it doesn't give the Jazz an advantage. Thirdly, it's just an awful pass.

There are going to be times in this series where the Jazz face real adversity in this upcoming playoff series. How they respond is going to be key. Staying heady with smart plays, avoiding turnovers, and taking good shots has been the name of the game for the Jazz's offense all season long, and they need to keep that up when it matters most. They did that last season in a tough matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, and now they'll need it against a similarly star-laden lineup in OKC.

Andy Larsen

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Updated: Tuesday September 18, 2018 6:56 pm