SALT LAKE CITY — The Western Conference’s winningest team took the court at EnergySolutions Arena on Monday night and (spoiler alert!) it wasn’t the Jazz.
It’s been a long time since things were otherwise. But the visiting Portland Trail Blazers showed up looking a lot like the team the Jazz want to be. They are a cool blend of youth and experience, with a couple of hoary veterans to keep the kids from spinning into space.
Both teams have a top-10 draft pick at point guard (Trey Burke, Damian Lillard). Neither has a player so prominent that non-basketball fans would know him.
But the big difference is that Portland’s core has grown into adulthood, with all of its starters ready for prime time.
The Jazz have four wins in 23 games.
So Monday’s outcome only underscored what Jazz fans have known since Day One: Their team doesn’t have all the working parts.
As if a 32-point defeat in Portland — and now a 105-94 loss at ESA — weren’t enough evidence.
There are reminders everywhere that the Blazers and their 18-4 record are what the Jazz desperately want. Portland Rookie the Year Damian Lillard played just up the road at Weber State. He hasn’t let up this year, averaging 21 points and six assists. His 3-point shot down the stretch put Monday’s game out of reach for Utah.
“I haven’t accomplished much. I mean, I won Rookie of the Year, which is something I wanted to do, but right now I’m happy with how much we’re winning,” Lillard said.
When Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook reportedly talked trash about Lillard being afraid of him, Lillard tweeted back: “never been scared OF NOBODY.”
Certainly not the Jazz.
The Jazz loved Lillard but didn’t have a 2012 first-round pick. Guard Wesley Matthews left Utah as a restricted free agent.
Mo Williams and Earl Watson played for last year’s Jazz but weren’t part of the youth push. Now they’re in a place where their leadership and experience complement the younger stars, and the goodwill is flowing.
It’s not like the Jazz lack goodwill. Enes Kanter has enough of it for the entire Western Hemisphere. Monday morning he took on the role of “Kanter Klaus” and helped load gifts that had been donated by Jazz fans to the Toys for Tots program.
Just wondering, Santa, is there anything in that bag that says “No. 1 draft pick 2014?”
It has to be hard for the Jazz. Portland, like Salt Lake, is a smaller market, stuck in the vastness between the West Coast and Chicago. Both have urged their fan bases to be patient; better days are coming.
Last season, when the Jazz still had Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, they salvaged 10 more games than the 33-win Blazers. But with an improved bench and growing maturity, Portland has come on strong this year. It has defeated Golden State, Indiana and Oklahoma City — three of the more intriguing teams in the league — each having handled the Jazz (Golden State by 14 and 11, Oklahoma City by 22 and three, and Indiana by nine).
The killer for the Jazz is that in the comparison game, Portland is running ahead. Though Utah’s Burke had similar stats to Lillard on Monday, there was no disputing the score. Portland has young, tough players who already know how to win. The Jazz are waiting for someone to save them.
This lent an air of wistfulness when the team announced between quarters that a banner would be hung at ESA to honor Jerry Sloan. After a standing ovation, followed by a highlight video and a second standing O, he rose and waved.
That was the biggest cheer the Jazz heard.
Though they hung close early, things began sliding when Portland fashioned an 8-2 run to start the second half. Soon the difference was 15.
Though Jazz starters Marvin Williams and Derrick Favors were out with injuries, the game was still a fine display of what the Jazz envision next year or the next ... or the next.
There’s not as much in common as the Jazz would like.
“It’s hard to compare, because they’re two different situations,” said Watson. “The Jazz are surrounded by young guys. We have a unique mix and we’re positive in the right amounts.”
“Their core talent is amazing,” Watson said. “What those core guys have is one of the top young groups in the NBA. I’ve been around those core guys, they’re great people and the character in those guys always gives you the opportunity to win, especially a bit later in their careers.”
Right now in their careers, they can only look at the Blazers and dream.
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