PORTLAND, Ore. — Suddenly, a visit from the Utah Jazz qualifies as “big game” material for the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night at Moda Center.
Three weeks ago, the Jazz were 19-28 and buried in the lower rungs of the Western Conference.
Now they’re the hottest team in the NBA, riding an eight-game winning streak with a chance to get to .500 and continue a climb toward the playoff picture in the West.
“It’s all about how you respond, and the guys have responded,” Coach Quin Snyder told the Salt Lake Tribune. “They never stopped competing, and it has made a difference.”
With center Rudy Gobert back and recovered from a knee injury, and point guard Ricky Rubio playing some of the best ball of his career, Utah (27-28) has turned things around. The Jazz are 9-2 since Gobert’s return to the lineup.
Then there is shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, who leads rookies at 19.2 points per game.
For the first time since Gobert went down, the Jazz have life.
“We’re in the playoff hunt, so everybody is focused,” power forward Derrick Favors said. “We’re playing great basketball, sharing the ball, moving the ball. On the defensive end, we’re communicating and helping each other out. Hopefully, we can keep it up.”
The Jazz are expected to have small forward Jae Crowder — acquired in the trade that sent guard Rodney Hood to Cleveland — available for duty Sunday.
Rubio, though, is questionable with a sore hip. He played only four minutes in the second half of Utah’s 106-94 victory over Charlotte on Friday, during which he scored six points and dished out seven assists.
Rubio has averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 assists and shot .542 from 3-point range during the win streak.
The Jazz have brought up guard Naz Mitrou-Long from the G-League Salt Lake City Stars. Mitrio-Long averaged 16.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Stars.
If Utah can win Sunday, it will move within 2 1/2 games of Portland (31-25), which is coming off a 118-100 win at Sacramento on Friday. In that game, point guard Damian Lillard scored a season-high 50 points in just 29 minutes, sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Lillard was 16 for 26 from the field, including 8 of 13 from 3-point territory.
“It’s time to go — time to take control of the situation,” said Lillard, who owns the franchise single-game scoring record of 59 points. “We need wins, and I need to play well. That’s what you have to do sometimes — take control of the situation and take it upon yourself.”
Lillard has been on one of the best rolls of his career, scoring at least 20 points in 14 of the 16 games since he returned to duty following a couple leg injuries. He said he is being paid $26 million this season to do such things.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” he said. “I’m not a three-time All-Star in six years for no reason, no matter how you want to slice it. This is what I signed up for.”