The Utah Jazz lose 124-134 to the Portland Trail Blazers as Damian Lillard posts a near career-high 60 point night. Here are a few thoughts on the game:
Damian Lillard’s unstoppable performance
Damian Lillard had an all-time game. He scored a near career-high 60 points, shooting a mind-boggling 21-29 from the field and 9-15 from three. He also managed to chip in 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals in 39 minutes of play.
In the wake of the Trail Blazers mediocracy, it’s easy to forget the magic of the Weber State alum. He’s arguably playing the best basketball of his career right now, averaging 30.1 points per game, 7.4 assists, and shooting 46.2% from the field. Tonight, he displayed every tool in his arsenal. Just look at his shot plot from the game, courtesy of NBA.com:
I mean seriously, how do you defend some of those shots? Sure, Lillard has lost a bit of the quick first-step he had when he entered the league, but that’s completely nulled by his ability to knock down shots from 30+ feet. While the Jazz’s defense wasn’t particularly amazing (Mike Conley really showed some of his regression in that department tonight), Lillard simply made difficult shots.
Like many, I feel bad for him. At 32 years old, he’s doesn’t have droves of time to continue playing on mid-tier level teams for much longer. While the Trail Blazers pulled out a win, it took Lillard going nuclear for them to surmount a relatively sloppy performance by Utah.
Walker Kessler’s back-and-forth night
To start the game, Walker Kessler made an impressive impact. He absolutely dominated Jusuf Nurkic in the opening minutes, setting great screens, grabbing a few rebounds, and swarming any shot that came near the basket. Honestly, he looked better than Nurkic in just about every way.
But as the game drew on, Nurkic responded much better. He got more physical and used his size to play-make for the red-hot Lillard. Multiple times, Kessler got caught dropping too far on Nurkic screens, giving Lilliard broad daylight to shoot from range. Frankly, Nurkic isn’t a very great finisher or shooter this season, so dropping so far on those screens didn’t defend much at all. He finished the night with only 20 minutes, the fewest he’s played in about 10 games.
I may sound like I’m picking on his play a little (admittedly, I probably am), but I think this was a very valuable experience for him. For the most part, Kessler has done a fine job defending in space thus far. If he wants to elevate his game to the next rung, learning when to use his size to close space on high screen-and-roll actions will serve him well in the future.
The oddity of the Western Conference playoff race continues
After tonight’s loss, the Jazz fall to the 10th seed in the Western Conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, and Los Angeles Lakers are each within a game back of Utah’s play-in spot.
Of course, there are a multitude of games left to play this season. With this level of parity, each win and loss results in a significant shift in the standings. Similar to the teams behind them, the Jazz are within a game of reaching the sixth seed and evading the play-in totally. But with the Lakers, Clippers, and Timberwolves all getting healthy in the immediate future, I can’t help but think that the field is going to spread over the last stretch of the season.
In my eyes, I think the next 12 games could be telling of Utah’s direction. With a few more losses, the Jazz are easily in the hunt for a top-8 pick in the draft. That’s not to say they should sell games purposefully, since playing competitive basketball serves a benefit to the players, organization, and fans. But we’re reaching a critical inflection point in the season. Dealing one or two of Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Malik Beasley, or Jared Vanderbilt could be enough to push them down the standings, while still keeping them relatively competitive.
Whatever direction they choose, I’m excited for this season’s deadline.