Utah at Portland
Time: 9 PM CT (NBA LP)
Spread: POR -2.5
Odds c/o 5dimes
The Utah Jazz maintain a one-game lead over the L.A. Clippers for possession of the No. 4 seed and home court advantage in its first round showdown.
The Jazz have won its past two, and six of its past 10, and will travel to face the 39-40, No. 8 seeded Portland Trail Blazers Saturday night at 9 PM (Central) on NBA League pass. NBA oddsmakers have set the line a slight 2.5 points in favor of the hosting Blazers, and Portland has won seven of its past 10.
Even so, The Blazers have just a one-game lead over the Denver Nuggets and have yet to clinch the postseason. For that reason, it would be expected that Damian Lillard and company come out tonight playing like all is on the line: since it is. Lillard has been on a tear since his second-consecutive All-Star snub, clearly playing like a player with plenty to prove and plenty of statements still to be made.
The Blazers have outfitted him with a solid supporting cast, not the least of which are his starting backcourt mate C.J. McCollum and newly-acquired center Josef Nurkic. Nurkic has been nursing a leg injury, which is a big scare to a franchise that has already lost three major players at the 5-position in its history, but Nurkic could be ready for the start of the postseason. If he is not, the Blazers have even less of a chance than it already did against the vaunted Golden State Warriors in its first round draw.
Portland was able to win 105-98 over the Minnesota Timberwolves last outing, even without Nurkic there to matchup against one Karl-Anthony Towns. While Towns did have a big game (24 points, 16 rebounds and four assists), Allen Crabbe caught fire off the Portland bench in hitting 8 of 10 from three-point range en route to 25 points in 32 minutes. Lillard and McCollum combined for another 40 points, but collectively shot just 15 of 40 in the game. The Blazers were just 43.2 percent from the floor in the game, and it called from a 14-point first quarter deficit to fight back for the ‘W.’
Portland has had the look of a postseason team, but that means little when it faces the Warriors, who will be at full-strength with Kevin Durant due to return from injury tonight. The Warriors have been red-hot anyway, so getting another former league MVP back will only revive a team that once stood at 40-9 this season, as Durant tactfully pointed out. While the Blazers are a good up-and-coming team, it stands little chance against one of the most stacked rosters in NBA history.
That said, it will all mean little if Portland cannot secure victory tonight against the Jazz, who are tuning up for their postseason appearance, as well. Utah could potentially have the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, a center whose emergence has accelerated Utah’s rebuild to the point that we must wonder if there had been any rebuilding phase whatsoever.
Gobert is a stalwart in the paint and anchors the league’s toughest defense, something that should keep Utah in the “dark horse” category when it comes to predicting any potential 2017 playoff upsets. The Jazz allow just 96.7 points per game, which makes its 100.8 per game scoring average quite palatable (+4.2 point differential). Some may be surprised by Utah’s success, but for those who have gauged the career development of Gobert—and swingman Gordon Hayward— this is hardly surprising.
Hayward will be a free agent this summer, and re-signing him is Utah’s No. 1 priority to preserve its masterful rebuild following the exodus of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson (And does that not seem like literal ages ago?). For all that is made of the San Antonio Spurs’ sustained brilliance, the Jazz have had few down periods in the past three decades itself, and while many had attributed that to Jerry Sloan, that narrative has proven largely false with the team excelling so well in the post-Sloan era.
And the guy that ran Sloan out of Salt Lake City seems to have his career cursed for it at any rate (Deron Williams barely is NBA caliber at this juncture of his career).
Utah has had several fortunate breaks, and has rebuilt without any high lottery picks (save Dante Exum, who has yet to really pan out), mainly due to screwed managerial decisions of acquiring first round picks in exchange for taking on bad contracts.
For all that is made of small market teams being so heavily disadvantaged, the Jazz have built a culture of winning that can only be considered impressive.