NBA: Jazz, Blazers square off for Western Conference lead


The Utah Jazz don’t have much time to celebrate a thrilling 134-133 home win on Friday over the Phoenix Suns, a team that many consider to be the Western Conference favorite this season.

A night after overcoming a 49-point performance by the Suns’ Devin Booker, the Jazz visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night for another showdown with a team atop the early conference standings.

The winner between the Blazers (10-5) and the Jazz (11-6) will own the best record in the West, for whatever that’s worth at this point in the season.

That’s especially surprising, considering the two teams are winning at a higher rate than expected. As noted by The Oregonian, the Blazers’ over/under for wins was 40.5 coming into the season. Utah, which traded away Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, had much lower outside expectations, including an over/under of 23.5 victories.

Utah’s chances of winning will be much greater if Lauri Markkanen, the surprising team’s surprising All-Star candidate, has another outing like the one he produced Friday, when he scored a career-high 38 points.

Markkanen’s big night included the game-winning points off a tough 20-point turnaround jumper with 37.9 seconds left, capping his 15-for-18 performance from the field. It was his fourth 30-point game since he joined the Jazz from the Cleveland Cavaliers in September as part of the Mitchell trade.

“His teammates know how good he is and how good he can be and they are probably empowering him more than I am,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said.

Utah improved to 10-0 when Markkanen scores at least 18 points. Teammate Jarred Vanderbilt tweeted after the game, “Lauri Markkanen is an All-star. That’s it.”

Hardy said, “I don’t know what the ceiling is on Lauri. I don’t think any of us do based on what we are watching night in and night out.”

The Jazz also received big performances from Malik Beasley, who had seven 3-pointers in a 27-point showing; Jordan Clarkson, who scored 20 points; and Mike Conley, who registered 13 points and 10 assists. It was all needed to outpace the Suns and allow Utah to snap a three-game skid.

“With all the emotions from our losing streak, we just wanted to try to figure out a way to win, and you just do whatever it takes in a game like this,” Conley said.

The Blazers have their own All-Star who can light up the scoreboard on any night. Damian Lillard had 25 points and 11 assists in Portland’s most recent outing, a tough 109-107 loss to the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. It was Lillard’s third double-double in a row.

“I thought tonight we just didn’t do enough,” Lillard said after the Blazers lost to the Nets on a last-second tip-in by Royce O’Neale. “They played harder than us in situations and they made the plays that we didn’t.”

Anfernee Simons added 24 points and Shaedon Sharpe chipped in with a career-best 20 points off the bench, but the Blazers shot just 38.7 percent en route to their second loss in three games.

“We really never got a flow in the fourth quarter,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. “The end of the third quarter really hurt us. We had an 11-point lead with 2:40 to go, they go on a 14-0 run that turned the tide on us. From there we were in scramble mode.”

Blazers forward Nassir Little, who has yet to miss a game this season, is listed as questionable for Saturday due to a left calf injury.

–Field Level Media

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