Jazz-Trail Blazers preview

Oh, you again.

When the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers get together tonight at EnergySolutions Arena, it’ll kick off a two-game, back-to-back, home-and-home series between the two Northwest Division foes.

The NBA schedule maker is having some fun, obviously. But it’s not unheard of to see teams play back-to-back games against each other. Earlier in the season the Jazz and Sacramento Kings split a similar series with each team winning on its home floor.

The Jazz (25-21) are just ahead of the Blazers (23-22) in the division standings and they’re both battling to stay in the playoff picture.

Utah has won eight of its last nine games at ESA. The Jazz are fighting to stay ahead of Portland and Houston for the final two spots in the Western Conference playoffs.

“We meet back-to-back, right above and below each other in the standings (and) we’ve still ¬†got to play each other two more times after this weekend,” Jazzman-turned-Blazer Wesley Matthews said. “It’s going to be a grudge match. I’m excited for it.”

The Blazers are led by All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who averages 20.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard (18.1 points, 6.5 assists) is well known around Utah. He dominated the Big Sky Conference during his four years at Weber State.

Lillard and Aldridge are potential matchup challenges for the Jazz.

At the power forward, the Jazz will counter with Paul Millsap (14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds), who is smaller than Aldridge.

The Jazz are missing starting point guard Mo Williams, who continues to recover from surgery on his right thumb. They will counter Lillard with veterans Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson, who have much more experience but are at least a decade older.

“He’s still 6-10,” Millsap said of Aldridge. “He likes to turn around and shoot over the top of you. You just try to make it hard for him to post up and try to keep him outside (the paint) as much as possible.”

The Jazz are coming off a 104-99 victory over New Orleans. Before that, they suffered a 45-point spanking at home to the Rockets.

Jazz players insist they’ve put the game behind them but they’re still trying to restore the swagger they once had on their home floor. They’ll be playing their third straight game without shooting guard/small forward Gordon Hayward, who is dealing with a sprained right shoulder.

Hayward has averaged 13.5 points off the bench for the Jazz and they have missed the spark he brings to the second unit. Without him, Utah is lacking in depth, which could be an issue against the Blazers.

The Jazz are averaging 101.2 points per game at home. The Blazers are averaging 94.7 points per game on the road.

“I think it’ll be tough, just because of what the crowd brings (and) how well (the Jazz) play at home,” Lillard said. “But we’re fighting for that playoff spot, we’re kind of in the same position so it’s big for both teams.”

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About Jim Burton

Jim Burton has worked for the Standard-Examiner since 1991. He has covered everything from the preps to Utah, BYU, Weber State and the Ogden Raptors. Currently he is the Standard's Utah Jazz beatwriter and its sports columnist.
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