Jazz put 11-game win streak on line vs. Blazers
SALT LAKE CITY -- An 11-game winning streak put Utah back on the fringes of the playoff picture. The Jazz still have plenty of work to do before they close the gap that remains.
It starts with facing Portland for a second time in February when the Trail Blazers visit Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
Utah was the league's hottest team before the NBA All-Star break. The Jazz have strung together their longest winning streak since the 2008-09 season and the remaining schedule is conducive to even more upward mobility.
"I wouldn't say it's a new season," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "But it's a new segment to the season. We want to continue to do the thing we've done well. We want to continue to improve. There isn't anything magical about the next game other than it's the next game."
Defense continues to be a critical catalyst in Utah's success. During the last 11 games, the Jazz have allowed 98 points per game and have held eight opponents below 45 percent shooting from the field. Their 106.2 defensive rating ranks fifth among NBA teams.
Portland knows firsthand how tough Utah has been to play for the past few weeks.
The Jazz won both previous meetings with the Trail Blazers this season, including their most recent victory on Feb. 11.
Utah won 115-96 after outscoring Portland 38-19 in the third quarter to pull away. Donovan Mitchell paced the Jazz with 27 points and Damian Lillard scored a game-high 39 points to lead the Trail Blazers.
"They're going to want payback obviously, so it will be interesting to see how we respond," Mitchell said. "But I think we're in good shape."
One thing is certain. Mitchell and Lillard will be the X factors in this matchup. The duo have put on a fun show in both games.
In the previous two meetings, Mitchell is averaging 27.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. He shifted over to starting point guard in the second game against Portland after Ricky Rubio became sidelined with a hip injury.
Rubio has missed three straight games and his availability for Friday is still in doubt.
Lillard scored 30-plus points in those games. In five of his last seven games against the Jazz, the point guard has averaged 32.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
It offers a snapshot of what Lillard has done all season. The three-time all-star ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring (26.1 points) and ninth in assists (6.6). He is one of only five NBA players averaging at least 25 points, four rebounds and six assists this season.
Lillard has helped the Trail Blazers enjoy a hot streak of their own. Portland won three of its last four games before the all-star break, punctuated by scoring 44 points a 123-117 win over Golden State.
"I just know he's a pretty determined player," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He is in a really good rhythm right now."
In his last three games, Lillard has averaged an eye-popping 41 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting from the field. He has also made 46 consecutive free throws in his last six contests.
Updated February 23, 2018