The best gifts at Christmas are the surprises; the things you don’t expect. And while no one is expecting the Portland Trail Blazers vs the Utah Jazz to be the game of the day based on their records so far this season, it could actually be the little cracker that gives you the most entertainment.
When the NBA was making the schedule at the start of the season, it made sense to put these two teams up against each other after surprisingly good shows in 2017-2018.
Donovan Mitchell ended up being in the fight for Rookie Of The Year with the Utah Jazz after he led the team to 48 wins with limited offensive support. The team had a worrying hole on that end of the floor: Gordon Hayward had bolted to the Boston Celtics, and the second leading scorer finished the season in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform after Rodney Hood was traded at the deadline. In return, however, Utah ended up with Jae Crowder, who returned to his top defensive form from a few years earlier and shored up a stingy unit that stopped any opposition and supported the young but talented Mitchell.
Many picked the Jazz to do well this season after losing 4-1 to the elite Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. The franchise didn’t make many changes over the summer and relied on player development of its young star, and the good health of its starting point guard in Ricky Rubio.
Things haven’t exactly gone to plan record-wise, but in a stacked Western Conference, the Jazz are still well within reach of a top-four seed by the time this year’s playoffs begin, and a win-loss decider against their rivals at Christmas could end up deciding the team’s seed.
Their opponents were the third seed going into last season’s playoffs, surprising a lot of #NBATwitter. And while Portland was swept out of the first series in an embarrassing fashion, the Trail Blazers faced severe match-up issues and were given the benefit of doubt after being unceremoniously dismissed by the New Orleans Pelicans.
This meant that hopes weren’t high during the summer, especially for another team that didn’t make any big off-season moves, but they kicked off the season with a bang and spent time at the top of the Western Conference Portland has since returned to the middle of a strong pack that will swap spots and change opinions daily.
The team still has one of the best leaders in team sports behind Damian Lillard, and his pairing with CJ McCollum is one of the most exciting in the league. Fans are also appreciating the back-up multi-positional role that Evan Turner has settled into this season to give this team one of the best backcourts in the NBA (and this is one that includes the lesser Curry brother).
This game is likely to be a tight one between a team that has a fun, high-scoring offense and one that is known for playing tough, unrelenting defense. Whoever wins the Christmas Day game between these two under-achieving conference rivals could end up relying on this victory to either secure a place in the playoffs, or home-court advantage in the post-season – that’s the way the Western Conference is working out at the moment. Going forward, both teams need to start focusing hard as the race to play beyond the regular season is only going to get more intense from the start of 2019.