For the first time this season, I made the trek down I-5 on Monday to see the Portland Trail Blazers take on the Utah Jazz in a preseason tilt. Monday marked the second consecutive year that Portland returned to its original home at the Memorial Coliseum, right next door to the Rose Garden, for a preseason game. The Jazz won, but in the preseason the outcome is far less important than how various individuals performed. With that in mind, the traditional five thoughts from the game.
During the preseason, it is impossible to analyze the outcome of a game without considering the respective goals of the coaches. Nate McMillan and Jerry Sloan entered Monday night's game with very different mindsets. While Sloan wanted to take a look at everyone on his roster--all 15 players who are healthy saw action--McMillan auditioned his regular-season rotation after two games where the Blazers' key players were limited. McMillan went to the bench late in the game, but through the first three and a half quarters he used a tight nine-man rotation.
As a result, we got two quarters of both teams' top players matching up. During the third quarter in particular, the intensity ratcheted up to regular-season level. Portland put Wesley Matthews at point guard and asked him to defend Deron Williams, his teammate with Utah last season. Neither of the friends wanted to give an inch to the other, battling on both ends of the floor. Williams delivered a pull-up three-pointer and a gorgeous three-point play off glass, but Matthews forced him into three turnovers. The quarter ended with Brandon Roy beating the buzzer with a jumper. Squint hard enough and you could have imagined the shot coming in front of one of the sellout crowds that were a nightly feature when the Blazers called the Memorial Coliseum home.
2. Matthews Comfortable at the Point
Taking away his familiarity with Williams, it was an impressive run for Matthews in his stint as a point guard. The Blazers have run lineups without a true point guard at times in the past, typically pairing Roy with Rudy Fernandez. In that case, Roy was the team's primary ballhandler. In this lineup, Matthews initiated the offense most of the time, with Roy there to assist with ballhandling duties as needed.
Matthews looked like he had been handling the ball throughout his career. In fact, Portland enjoyed its best offensive success with the bigger lineup on the floor, scoring 28 points in the final nine minutes of the third quarter. Matthews gives the team more shooting at the point, as well as the size to exploit various mismatches. Few teams will be able to match up with both the 6'6" Roy and the 6'5" Matthews. Playing Matthews at the point has the benefit of creating more minutes for him and Fernandez, who have both had strong preseasons.
3. Big Fes Makes Big Plays
From Utah's perspective, the story of Monday's game was the play of center Kyrylo Fesenko, who led the team with 18 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes of action. Fesenko's performance needs to be tempered by matchups. Because the Blazers are so thin at center right now, 6'8" Dante Cunningham manned the position much of the fourth quarter. Still, that Fesenko was able to take advantage of the mismatch qualifies as progress. He played with more poise than he did during his first three NBA seasons, when he was prone to rushing and making mistakes. Fesenko also did a good job of contesting shots without fouling before committing a series of fouls late in the game.
The Jazz doesn't need Fesenko to be a great player. All Utah requires is for him to provide 15-20 competent minutes a night before Mehmet Okur returns to the lineup. The Fesenko we saw Monday is capable of doing just that, if not more. Now it is a matter of playing at that level on a consistent basis.
4. Gordon Hayward's Brand of Toughness
I spent the evening with the Jazz's radio broadcast crew, keeping stats for my old friend David Locke. During the game, Locke and color analyst Ron Boone had an interesting discussion about Utah rookie Gordon Hayward. Boone wondered aloud about Haywood's toughness and Locke replied that, based on the tape he watched of Hayward at Butler, it would not be an issue. Certainly, Hayward looks out of place in an NBA game. Throughout the game, a fan behind the scorer's table kept making Justin Bieber jokes about Hayward's cherubic appearance.
Hayward needs to add strength. As it is, he is sure to get pushed around at times during his rookie season. That happened in the second quarter, when he picked up three quick fouls and hit the bench. Hayward looked downcast and frustrated when he left the game, but it was telling that his approach was no different when he returned after halftime. Boone mused at one point that he'd like to see Hayward in a fight to demonstrate his toughness. That seems unlikely. Instead, Hayward is more likely to get knocked down and pick himself back up without saying a word. That's his answer for the physical nature of the NBA.
5. Other Observations on the Newcomers
Training-camp invitee Ryan Thompson got the start for Utah at shooting guard. For the most part, Thompson did not stand out, which has to be considered a solid result for an undrafted rookie. Roy got going against Thompson during the second half, but Thompson generally held his own defensively. His polished game is reminiscent of last year's training-camp find for the Jazz, Matthews, but the big difference is that Thompson is not in Matthews' class as a shooter. … Utah's second-round pick, Jeremy Evans, got extended minutes at power forward. Evans is listed at just 196 pounds, so he's going to give up size at the position, but his leaping ability helps him make up for it. He continually played above the rim. Whether Evans has enough skill to hang at this level remains to be seen. … Portland's trio of rookies played only the last six minutes of the game, so it was tougher to get a read on where they are at. One thing that stood out was Armon Johnson playing off the ball when he teamed up with Jerryd Bayless in the backcourt. That is problematic because Johnson is a total non-shooter, meaning the Jazz could safely ignore him.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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