- Portland's defense has fallen off recently—and it showed—while Utah's picked up just in time for the final Christmas Day game.
Let’s preface this post about the final NBA game of this particular Christmas by noting that the last game of the day is often forgettable, and certainly forgotten. It is the last gulp of egg nog, the lump of coal at the bottom of the stocking and the one reindeer who happens to be dragging it and making deliveries run late. When the food coma sets in at the end of the night, you run out of holiday metaphors and realize you’re mindlessly staring at basketball and everyone else has gone to sleep (depending on your time zone).
That did not keep the Jazz (who donned all green) and Trail Blazers (who arguably should have been wearing all red for festive purposes) from playing basketball Tuesday night. For context, Utah blew Portland out by 30 on Friday in their first meeting of the season. This time was less drastic but still rather effective, a 117–96 Jazz win at home that included double-figure contributions from seven players, including Rudy Gobert, who came in with 18 points, 14 rebounds and ended up just three blocks short of a triple double. It was tied through one quarter, with Utah leaving points on the board in the form of six missed free throws and eight missed threes despite limiting Portland to 36% shooting. By halftime, the gap widened, and the Jazz kept things at arm’s length the rest of the way with timely shooting from a variety of contributors.
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If that sounds exactly like the way people expected Utah to win games coming into the season, that’s because it is. The win brought the Jazz a win below .500, hanging around toward the back of the Western Conference morass as the season approaches its official midway point. This was a better matchup on paper coming into the season, as the Blazers have also settled back into the pack after a hot start. But seeing Utah pick things up, particularly on a night where Donovan Mitchell battled foul trouble, can only be a positive sign moving forward. This may not be a 50-win club, but it’s still a playoff-caliber one, and it looked the part on Christmas.
Granted, the Jazz have been tough to peg all season. Utah’s defense again sits near the league’s best in efficiency. But a slight dropoff there, coupled with what’s been a bottom-third offense hasn’t been the best recipe. The Jazz have struggled defending home court, and Mitchell has come back to earth more often than not, as his shooting percentages have taken a slightly worrisome dip in year two. Their offensive ceiling is tied to him, and though he remains quite the long-term building block, his play has not been remarkably efficient (8–18 shooting on Tuesday), and he has looked something closer to where his expectations lay coming out of Louisville. Fortunately, the Jazz are equipped to win and weather his ups and downs, but there will need to be more nights like this, where Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder and Dante Exum put in quality minutes, and the defense plugs away.
The Blazers have had opposite issues, with their defense having fallen off and leveled them off around the .500 mark. Portland has won at home but struggled on the road, and after a hot start to the season is back to dealing with the questions surrounding its structural ceiling, and the pros and cons of pairing Damian Lillard with C.J. McCollum. Terry Stotts continues trying to rest his two stars together, relying on Evan Turner and Seth Curry to prop up bench units to mixed results. They just haven’t been cohesive defensively or potent enough shooting the ball to prop themselves up. Another loss to the Jazz further underscored the issues, and a brutal stretch of games to end the year would be tough sailing. (Portland gets Golden State twice, then Philadelphia and Sacramento in a four-game, six-day stretch that could drop them closer to .500 than is comfortable.)
Anyway, if you’re full of holiday cheer and skimmed all the way to the bottom: nobody scored 40 points, no superstar injured his groin, nobody had a clutch overtime performance and none of your relatives will ask what happened in this game tomorrow morning. The NBA continues to own Christmas, unopposed. And yes, there are games again on Wednesday. Happy holidays.