The Scouting Report: at Utah Jazz

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Projected starting line-up: Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Trey Lyles, Jeff Withey

Injuries: Derrick Favors (back) is questionable, Rudy Gobert (knee) out until mid-January, Alec Burks (fibula) out for the season

The Utah Jazz were a popular choice to snatch a Western Conference playoff spot before the season began thanks to a host of young players and an excellent finish to last season where they posted the NBA’s-best defensive rating after the All-Star break. But of course, the path to more success in the NBA often isn’t a straight line.

The Jazz still find themselves in the playoff race but are fighting to stay in the top-8 of the Western Conference while they wait for defensive anchor Rudy Gobert to return to the floor. Gobert has been out since early December and isn’t expected to be back until the middle of next month. Without Gobert and with Derrick Favors constantly in and out of the line-up, the Jazz are struggling to hold on to the spot that many assumed would be theirs.

The Jazz are also without Alec Burks, a key rotation player off the bench and talented scorer, possibly for the whole season. They fell last night to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 94-80, but the absence of Gobert has been plaguing them for a while now and it shows in the standings. At 13-17, the Jazz are only one game ahead of the Blazers in the standings.

The Jazz are 5-9 in December, all games in which they were without Gobert. When they have Favors, they’re a reasonable facsimile of themselves. If Favors doesn’t play, the Blazers will catch another break by getting to deal with neither of Utah’s excellent rim protectors. Defensively, the Jazz can try to stay close and stick to their scheme, but the extra something special that makes their defense just isn’t there.

This is excellent news for Portland’s ball-handlers, especially CJ McCollum. Jeff Withey has shot-blocking talent, but is not the all-over disruptive force that Gobert is. Damian Lillard has missed the last five games with plantar fasciitis and while he is traveling with the team, it’s unlikely that he’ll actually suit up. After racking up three straight wins without him, the Blazers are basically playing with house money. Lillard told reporters asking him whether he’ll play tomorrow that it was “a good question,” but he’s been pretty clear that the more the Blazers can win, the more time he can take to recover. If I were a betting man, I guess he doesn’t play.

But for the players in the Blazers locker room that have hopes of making the playoffs and proving themselves to the league, this game is one they should get if they want their playoff hopes to be taken seriously.

The Jazz start Raul Neto at point guard, but the battle we’ll see for most of the game will be between McCollum and his fellow 2013-draftee Trey Burke. McCollum made some big shots down the stretch to put the finishing touches on a 108-92 win in Salt Lake City.

The Jazz like to try and impose their tempo on you and play at the slowest pace in the league. Even with a fully healthy team, they were torched by Lillard and McCollum. With Burke guarding one or the other, the Blazers always found an advantage. Without Gobert, the weaknesses in the Utah defense are easier to find. Without key players, the Jazz will try to slow the Blazers down. But if Portland can continue their excellent ball movement triggered by the creation of McCollum.

Erik Gundersen

Erik Gundersen

Erik Gundersen is the Trail Blazers beat reporter for The Columbian. He's a graduate of the Allen School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in addition earning a degree in Spanish. He's covered the NBA for four seasons. You can also occasionally find his work on's NBA section for their TrueCities series. He also fist-bumped with Kanye West once. Follow @BlazerBanter on twitter for more Blazers and NBA news.

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