Jazz, Blazers meet twice with playoff implications
SALT LAKE CITY — No other NBA teams have their playoff fates so fully intertwined as the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers do down the stretch.
Utah and Portland meet twice this week, first in Salt Lake City on Tuesday followed by a rematch in Oregon on Saturday. Plenty is at stake for both teams, especially with each one trying to bounce back from a loss. The Jazz fell to the San Antonio Spurs 109-103 on Sunday, and the Minnesota Timberwolves edged the Blazers 110-109 on Monday.
Wins over Portland would put Utah a step closer to clinching a top-four seed. The Jazz (47-30) are currently fourth in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers.
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The Blazers (38-39) likely need at least one win over the Jazz to stay a step ahead of the Denver Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the West. Portland has a 1 1/2-game lead over Denver at the moment.
The Jazz own a six-game home winning streak and have held opponents to 96.2 points per game during that stretch. That is in line with what Utah has done in its home arena all season. Jazz opponents shoot just 43.4 percent from the field — including 36.8 percent from long distance — when they come to Salt Lake City.
“You know that is who we want to be,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “We want to be a defensive team. If we do that, we always have a chance to win.”
The desire is one reason why Utah has held opponents under 90 points a league-best 24 times this season. The defensive consistency has also helped the Jazz stay afloat through injuries.
Patching together lineups has been a season-long concern for Utah. Most recently, the Jazz have been without point guards George Hill and Raul Neto. Both players have missed three consecutive games with groin strains.
“The timing isn’t great because we’re competing for seeding and all those things and home court,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “But this team’s been able to sustain through that type of adversity all year, so I expect the same (now).”
Portland will offer a stiff challenge to Utah. The Blazers are arguably the hottest team in the NBA right now. They have won nine of 11 games and are 14-4 since the start of March — although the loss to the Timberwolves snapped a six-game winning streak.
Going on this run has transformed Portland. The Blazers have gone from a seemingly lottery-bound team to a dangerous first-round opponent if they make the playoffs.
Other NBA teams have taken notice. Damian Lillard was named the NBA Western Conference Player of the Month for March after averaging 29.1 points, 6.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 16 games during that stretch.
Lillard had a shot at a game-winning basket against the Timberwolves in the final seconds, but the ball glanced off the rim. He knows the Blazers can’t afford any more missteps with the Nuggets breathing down their neck.
“You just want to win this game,” Lillard said. “We’ve been on a roll. Coming in against a team that doesn’t really have anything to play for, you want to come in here and take advantage of that.”
Utah and Portland split their previous two meetings this season. The Jazz won the most recent game in Salt Lake City, beating the Blazers 111-88 on February 15. Gordon Hayward led Utah with 22 points and seven assists to fuel the rout.