SALT LAKE CITY — More than halfway through the 2012-13 season, the Utah Jazz have faced all but four NBA teams.
Their home-and-away series with the New York Knicks comes in March, and they'll take on the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls for the first time next week at home.
After this weekend, they'll know all they want to about the only other team they've yet to take on this year.
Utah hosts Portland tonight at EnergySolutions Arena. The Jazz and Blazers then travel to Rip City for a Saturday night showdown in different uniforms.
And, yes, the two teams will fly in separate planes. Gotta avoid any potential run-ins by the lavatory.
"It's weird," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said, "because you're playing the same opponent (on) back-to-back nights — one home, one away."
If you think the players get tired of going at each other by the fourth quarter, just wait until they've gone at each other for 90 or so minutes in a 24-hour span.
"It's like being in a playoff game," Jazz guard Randy Foye said.
Though two-plus months remain to be played, that's just about the case. The Jazz (25-21) and Blazers (23-22) are among the contenders for the final spots in the Western Conference playoff race. Utah is currently in the seventh spot, but Portland is only 1.5 games behind as the two teams have traded places in the past month.
Considering they have four games left against each other, that flip-flopping could happen again.
Or the Jazz could help put Portland out of contention.
"You can't look at it and say, 'Hey, we've got to beat Portland because they're close,'" Foye said. "I wouldn’t say no game is a must-win, but I think every game we have to go out there and give 120 percent on both ends of the floor."
The Jazz are especially concerned about a Portland team that comes into this weekend mini-series with a familiar-looking star-in-the-making point guard (ex-Weber State star Damian Lillard), an All-Star power forward (LaMarcus Aldridge), a familiar-looking dangerous scorer and defender (Wesley Matthews), a scary-good Most Improved Candidate (Nicolas Batum) and a competent complementary player (J.J. Hickson).
"They're explosive," Corbin said. "With Aldridge and Damian at point guard, they can put the pressure on you. They're a pretty strong team. We've got to be ready to compete against them for 48 minutes."
The youngest of the key Blazers — and the one who knows how to get around the Wasatch Front the best — might be the one that worries them most.
The 6-3 Lillard has played like the leading Rookie of the Year candidate since leaving Weber State and being drafted sixth overall by the Blazers last June. The quick and versatile point guard is averaging 18.1 points, 6.5 assists (vs. 3.0 turnovers) and 3.3 rebounds a game during his first NBA campaign.
"I'm surprised at how smart he is for a young point guard, understanding who he is in this league and playing his game from college to where he is in this league and that transition not taking long," Corbin said. "He's a really good player."
Having an All-Star big man like Aldridge (20.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) to play off of only makes Lillard tougher to contain. Corbin said they "embrace each other" to the Blazers' benefit.
"When both of those guys are going, they have a great chance of winning," Corbin said. "Those two are very talented guys. The more they play together, the better they'll be together."
Corbin has known about Lillard for years.
Not only did the point guard tear it up with the Wildcats and catch NBA front-offices' attention, but Lillard also used to play pick-up hoops with the Jazz coach's son, 2011 Mr. Basketball Tyrell Corbin of West High.
"We talked about it together how talented he was and (former Jazzman/current Blazer) Ronnie Price was always a big fan of his, going up to play against him in the summer," Corbin added. "He's a talent. He can really score the ball."
The Jazz will try to force Lillard, a 42 percent shooter, to stay outside and deny him driving and dishing opportunities.
Try, at least.
They know that will be a tough task even against this 22-year-old who's just 45 games into his professional career. Despite that, Corbin considers Lillard "one of the top guards in the league."
The thought brought a smile to Corbin's face.
"I'm happy for the kid. I'm happy for Weber State to (receive) recruiting help that they will get to have a guy like him to do well (in the NBA)," he said. "He's certainly shown himself well in this league."
Jazz starting guard Jamaal Tinsley knows he'll have a challenge keeping up with the young speedster. Lillard scored 21 points and dished out eight assists in a preseason win for his team at Portland. Two nights later in Utah, however, he struggled while hitting 4 of 14 shots for 12 points in a loss to the Jazz at ESA. But Lillard is more polished as a pro than he was in the preseason.
"Good. Real talented point guard, a scoring point guard," Tinsley said, while describing Lillard. "Passing the ball, getting everybody involved, just having good chemistry in leading the team."
Foye credited Lillard's Weber State career for helping him develop maturity and leadership skills that are paying off.
"I think that has something to do with playing four years in college, but he's a really good player," Foye said. "As a team, as a unit, we understand what he can do."
After the next two nights are over, they'll understand even more.
EMAIL: [email protected]