This game, both in on-court and off-court contexts, was all about paper-thin margins.
Generally speaking, the Jazz have done a good job playing without their All-Star backcourt in Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. With Bojan Bogdanović having one of the best stretches in his entire career, Jordan Clarkson playing like, well, Jordan Clarkson, and Joe Ingles stepping up as a starting point-guard, Utah’s been able keep control of the first seed over the Phoenix Suns. With that said, as the time without those two players grows, Utah’s margin of error edges closer and closer to zero. In a game against a team determined to keep themselves out of the Play-In, having even one or two things not swing Utah’s way makes it tough for them to win.
Tonight, that’s exactly what happened.
For one, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum torched every one of Utah’s perimeter defenders. Combined, they scored 56 points on over 50% shooting. While it’s no surprise to anyone who’s ever watched NBA basketball that these two guys played well, it’s not a great sign to see Royce O’Neale get blasted by opposing guards so close to the playoffs. He obviously wasn’t the only guy guarding Portland’s perimeter players tonight, but as Utah’s primary defender, it’s hard to not notice this. You have to hope that Mike Conley’s hamstring will be fully healthy in the playoffs because otherwise, the Jazz are going to have such a difficult time defending quick guards.
It also doesn’t help when your leading shot-takers, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic, are a -16 and -8, respectfully. Clarkson ended the night with 29 points on surprisingly good efficiency, but was a traffic cone on defense and destroyed the flow of the offense numerous times. This, in part, is a result of overuse. Luckily, with Mitchell and Conley back in the lineup, Clarkson won’t have to eat as many positions and will differ to the two of them.
To make matters worse, it really, really didn’t help when Utah played 4-on-5 for twenty minutes tonight with Trent Forrest on the floor. You can’t pin a loss on a two-way player who is filling in for a couple All-NBA guys. However, you can be concerned for his viability as an NBA player in the future when an opposing defense completely ignores him as any kind of offensive threat. Forest had moments throughout he game where he played solid defense and gave great effort. While those things are great, he (1) didn’t do them consistently all game, and (2) was a -17 in plus-minus tonight because Portland didn’t care to stand in the same zip code as him on defense.
I don’t want to harp on him too much because that wouldn’t be entirely fair to him given the circumstances. However, I do think nights like tonight make you wonder if he can truly have an impact as a bench player in meaningful games.
Finally, tonights loss means that, assuming Phoenix wins their remaining games, Utah has to win out to stay in the first-seed. Given the fact that Utah will be facing Sacramento and Oklahoma City in their final bouts, I’m not too concerned. Still, anything can happen so the pressure is slightly on.