We’ve finally made it. The dusty barren wasteland of the NBA offseason is behind us and the new-look Utah Jazz are ready to take the court. Well, most of them anyways. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Utah before the season even started and we will be missing a few pretty key players right off the bat.
Gordon Hayward will miss this game and many others to start the season with that broken finger. Combine that with Rodney Hood’s hand injury that will probably bother him all year and I’m thinking we may want to start playing shirts and skins. These jerseys are a problem. But I digress. Derrick Favors was declared out this morning with a knee issue as well, but the hopes are he will return soon. Alec Burks will be out too as he continues rehab for his offseason surgery. Festus Ezeli is out for the Blazers. The edge in health is pretty clearly pointed toward Portland for this game.
Our guys will start the season going into one of the most hostile environments in the league: The Portland Trail Blazers’ Moda Center. The Blazers are plenty comfortable playing at home as they totaled a 28-13 record there in the 2015-16 season. The Jazz went 0-2 in Portland last year and the crowd there is always nuts, which may play a big role against a Utah team that is still trying to integrate some new parts.
The aforementioned new parts will be another reason Utah will be facing an uphill battle in this game. Thanks to injuries, the Jazz will have three starters in this game that weren’t with the team last year. On the flip side, Portland returns all five starters as well as most of their roster from last year. At the beginning of the season that is huge for cohesiveness.
- Point Guard: Damian Lillard vs. George Hill
- Shooting Guard: C.J. McCollum vs. Rodney Hood
- Small Forward: Maurice Harkless vs. Joe Johnson
- Power Forward: Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Boris Diaw
- Center: Mason Plumlee vs. Rudy Gobert
How big are the new acquisitions looking now? Lyles could also conceivably start for Favors, but I’m going with Diaw based on the fact that he started in Favors’ absence through the preseason. There’s also the fact that with Johnson in the starting lineup, Utah’s going to really need a scoring punch off the bench, which leads us to our x-factor....
X-Factor: Trey Lyles
If Utah has any hope of winning this game, they’ll need some offensive output from the sophomore. His defense is going to be a work in progress (for the Jazz’ sake, let’s hope it’s not a finished product) but we’ve seen that he is capable of catching fire when given the opportunity. This will be something to track all year, but with the injuries the Jazz are facing right off the bat, it will be crucial for the first stretch of schedule.
Marquee Match-Up: Lillard vs. Hill
I’m not saying George Hill is on the same level as Lillard as a player. Lillard is good enough to be in the MVP discussion this season. What I am saying is that if the Jazz are going to break the trend of Lillard torching them every time out, it will start with Hill. It’s not often that you look to your starting point guard to be a 3 and D guy, but that’s precisely what Utah needs from Hill, and that’s what he’s done basically his entire NBA career with success.
George Hill hit 45% of all corner 3s last year and 46% from angle right 3— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) October 25, 2016
If Hill can force Lillard into some bad shots, lower his shooting percentage and hit a few 3s, I would count that as a success in this matchup.
Prediction: A close loss
Our dream of going 82-0 will be dashed early this year. Look, even at full strength the Blazers are a bad matchup for the Jazz. We’ve seen it time and time again. It begins and ends with Damian Lillard feeling some kind of Weber State inspiration to burn his college home state whenever he gets the chance. Our improved backcourt defense should be able to get in his way a little more than in the past, but missing Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors is too much for this new squad to overcome in the opener. 96-90 Blazers. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.