There’s a time honored theatre tradition that you hope that your dress rehearsal goes disastrously wrong, that way when opening night arrives you are focused and not feeling too big for your britches. Well, if that’s true, Utah might have one hell of an opening night. In what could be their final dress rehearsal for their starters for the season, the Utah Jazz’s main rotation players got SON’D—ALL CAPS— by the Portland Trail Blazers. The Utah Jazz may have won this game (Utah 123 - Portland 112) by their superior depth because of the play of their 12th-16th best bench players, but they were not even close to the best team in tonight’s matchup.
In what should be an evergreen synopsis of any game between the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum lit up the Jazz’s starters. Ricky Rubio was a +/- -21 in this game with Rudy Gobert not far behind him at a +/- -20. The Jazz’s starters were torched through backdoor cuts, off-ball action that free PDX’s deadly shooters, and—I can’t believe I’m typing this—Jusif Nurkic’s long range shooting from three. If Rudy Gobert is the defensive cheat code to the NBA’s small ball era, the Portland Trail Blazers are the Game Genie to Rudy Gobert.
The Utah Jazz stuck with Portland for the first 5-7 minutes of this game then it just started getting out of hand. While Rubio was hitting about a 40% clip from three, his shooting woes from the rest of the field have continued. He’s now a combined 12 of 37 from the field. Tonight against real NBA competition he was out of sorts. If tonight was a dress rehearsal, Ricky Rubio was out of character and still using falling back into the play from last December.
Donovan Mitchell struggled early in the game as well. He tried to do too much and seemed to be going at one speed: ludicrous. Donovan slowed his pace in the second and got the Jazz back into the game a little bit in the third. Unfortunately, every single time Utah was able to land a punch, Portland had an equal counter measure.
Rudy Gobert had an uncharacteristically bad game. Utah’s defense did not look like it was in its peak form. Communication and speed on defensive switches off screens was a step too slow. This allowed Portland’s role players of Aminu and Nurkic to capitalize inside as well as on the perimeter while Utah was scrambling to chase down McCollum and Lillard. Frequently due to switching Nurkic was left being guarded by Rubio or Joe Ingles. Nurkic suddenly shooting threes is a development that bears a double take. He didn’t take one 3 pointer last year, yet made two tonight against Utah.
Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors are probably the only starters that can hang their hat on not being part of the overall problem—though Joe Ingles left some Jazz defenders hung out to dry on a few switches. During their minutes with the Jazz’s bench mob, they were able to fuel some runs and provide a spark. Joe Ingles still had a couple wide open 3 point attempts that he gave up tonight. One of which he put the ball on the floor to drive to the hoop, got in the weeds in traffic, passed the ball to Jae Crowder (20% 3pt shooter in preseason) in the corner who took a contested long three and missed.
We did say that Utah’s bench mob provided a spark. In our preview we talked about wanting to see if Dante Exum could fend off Grayson Allen and Alec Burks charge for their minutes. And ... well ... he did. Dante Exum ended the game with the best +/- of the team—excluding garbage time in the 4th—with a +/- of +16. He defended well, got to the rim at will, and even made a three. He looked like Utah’s best player off the bench. Royce O’Neale also played well in those minutes.
Alec Burks was the first player off the bench for Utah. He played well in those minutes going 2-4 from the field in the first half. It does appear that he has the confidence of the coaching staff going into the regular season. I don’t think we’ll see any Burks-DNP games to start the year.
Through four games now we have some things we can extrapolate. The first one is a bad omen for a Jazz team that plays a tough schedule right out of the gate. The Utah Jazz starters of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert have not a positive +/- in any game this preseason in which they have played NBA competition. Take out the games against the Aussies and Utah’s nightmare lineup for opposing teams is now their own worst nightmare. The Jazz have played two really good playoff teams, but who in the West other than the Kings are going to give the Jazz a night off?
Ricky Rubio, apart from his outside shooting, looks like the Ricky Rubio of October through mid-January. Ricky can be too into the game. That’s what it looks like right now. If last year was any indication, once he gets settled, things will be fine. Unlike last year, the Jazz can’t afford to wait half a season for him to get settled.
Last season, I thought Exum—if he had a healthy season—could push Rubio for minutes because of his defensive ability and potential. While I’m not making that same prediction this season, I will say Rubio doesn’t have the luxury of the long leash that he had last year due to his expiring contract and increased competition at the guard spot.
Ricky Rubio most likely puts things together, but last season was an anomaly as far as some of his production goes. Can he make it two years in a row? We’ll see.
Jae Crowder had a better game tonight, but his trigger from behind the arc is still pretty happy. He is currently averaging 4.0 three pointers a game while only making one. He has the worst three point shooting percentage in preseason at 25%. His competition, Thabo Sefolosha, was out tonight due to planned rest. His other darkhorse competitor, Georges Niang, is shooting 54.5% from three. Like I said, he’s a darkhorse, but we’ve seen that Quin doesn’t care about the pedigree of the players on his depth chart, he just cares about the production. That’s how guys like Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale have found a place in Utah.
The rumors of Portland’s demise are unfounded. This team is still dangerous. Still a nightmare to play on any given night because of their two headed monster of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Western Conference is going to be a gauntlet this next season. Utah better get used to playing with a target on their back rather than as an underdog or they could be one of those teams with a winning record on the outside looking in.
Utah plays their final game of the 2018 NBA Preseason in Sacramento against the Kings on Thursday at 8:00PM MT.