Donovan Mitchell Leads Balanced Jazz to Easy Win vs. Damian Lillard, Blazers

Rob Goldberg@TheRobGoldbergFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2018

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) defends against Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The Utah Jazz earned their second win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the last five days, this time with a 117-96 home victory on Christmas Day.

Donovan Mitchell broke out of his slump with 19 points in Tuesday's game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, while Rudy Gobert came through with 18 points, 14 rebounds and a season-high seven blocks.

The Jazz are in the midst of a difficult stretch of games but have been navigating it well with three wins in four games to improve to 17-18 on the season.

The Trail Blazers fell to 19-15 despite 20 points from Damian Lillard.

      

Efficient Donovan Mitchell Will Help Jazz Shoot Up Standings

Mitchell is scoring at a near-identical rate as last season, but poor shooting has made this season a bit of a disappointment for the second-year player.

The guard has especially struggled as of late, entering the day shooting 35.9 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three-point range in 11 December games. The Jazz have felt the consequences while going 5-6 in this stretch.

In the last three games, Mitchell had 40 total points and 53 field-goal attempts.

He was much better Tuesday, shooting 8-of-18 from the field on his way to 19 points. He found a lot of ways to get his 14 points in the first half, which led to a 12-point lead:

The guard was also responsible for one of the biggest dunks of the season on an alley-oop from Jae Crowder:

We have seen bigger games from Mitchell in his NBA career, but for the first time in a while, he wasn't forcing shots and made the looks he should.

The Jazz showed over the past couple of weeks the ability to beat good teams even without Mitchell at his best. However, his struggles are a reason this team has been so inconsistent through the first couple of months of the year.

After reaching the Western Conference Semifinals the last two years, Utah wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

If Mitchell can play like he did on Christmas, the standings would flip in a hurry. The Jazz have enough talent on both ends of the court to start winning at a much higher rate and eventually become a top-five team in the conference once again.

          

Bench Play, Not Damian Lillard, Will Define Blazers' Season

Damian Lillard is one of the best guards in the NBA and will undoubtedly once again be on MVP lists this season. He didn't have his best performance against the Jazz but still showed his skill set in this one while finishing with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists.

The problem is the rest of the team didn't give him much help, especially in the first half:

The bench was much better in the second half, helping the Blazers remain competitive into the fourth quarter before the Jazz pulled away down the stretch.

With Lillard and CJ McCollum combining to shoot 13-of-35 from the field, the bench was the reason this game stayed close until about seven minutes were left. The play of this unit will remain the most important factor for Portland throughout the season.

Everyone knows what Lillard and McCollum can provide, but their play hasn't corresponded with team success in 2018-19. The team is only 7-9 when either Lillard or McCollum scores 30 points, including a loss in the one game when both of them hit that mark.

The team is surprisingly 12-6 when neither of them reach 30 points in a game.

There is more pressure on the bench this season with the coaching staff seemingly committed to playing and benching Lillard and McCollum at the same time. This means players like Evan Turner (12 points) and Seth Curry (eight points) will have to step up to keep the team afloat with the stars off the court.

If they can perform as they did Tuesday and the starting backcourt plays to its ability, the Blazers will be one of the top teams in the West all season. Without the bench, it won't matter how many points Lillard and McCollum score each night.

       

What's Next?

Portland will now have to gear up for a pair of home-and-home games against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday and Saturday. Utah will host the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

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