It was merely an exhibition, but the Jazz largely treated it as if it were part of the regular season.Jazz forward Carlos Boozer lays the ball softly in the basket in Thursday night's win over Portland. Boozer led Utah with 23 points.Carlos Boozer scored a game-high 23 points, Mehmet Okur posted a 13-point, 12-rebound double-double and Deron Williams dished eight assists to go with his nine points as Utah rolled to a 104-90 win over Portland in its preseason opener Thursday night at the Delta Center.
When a comfy fourth-quarter lead was nipped from nine points to three, coach Jerry Sloan even reinserted his regulars.
The most telling sign that the Nov. 1 start of the regular season is fast approaching, however, came in the form of one Andrei Kirilenko.
Back in the lineup after missing two earlier exhibitions and several practices due to a sore lower back, Kirilenko played 27 minutes and still managed to post one of his classic midseason lines: 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field, seven assists, six rebounds and an eye-popping six blocks.
But it wasn't just the numbers that made it seem like the holidays. Instead, Kirilenko took things one step further and delivered prime-for-print quotes to ready and willing reporters.
Discussing the tight body belt he is wearing under his jersey to aid his back, Kirilenko said he can't wait to shed it after another five games or so.
And then he added this:
"I hate to play with anything on me," Kirilenko said. "Bandage. Like, wrist band. Like, knee pads. It's killing me. Like, uniforms — I would rather get naked.
"Ha, ha, ha," he added with a grin. "I know tomorrow it will be in the newspaper — but that's all right."
Teammates and coach Jerry Sloan judged a fully clothed Kirilenko to be more than just all right after watching him work Thursday, a return that followed a weeklong layoff to rest the oft-troublesome back.
"Terrific," said Boozer, the beneficiary of one rather impressive fastbreak pass in which Kirilenko intentionally tapped the ball back to him. "He had six blocks, a hundred assists — you know, he was all over the court."
"He looked great," Williams added. "Offensively he gave us a spark, and you've got to love that."
If nothing else, Sloan — knowing full well that Kirilenko had only one full-fledged practice under his belt this week — was appreciative.
"Andrei was fresh, had lots of bounce in his step — looked like he was ready to go," said the Jazz coach, whose club plays the fifth of its eight preseason games tonight at Sacramento.
"He's like Hornacek in a lot of ways," Sloan said, invoking the name of Jazz retiree Jeff Hornacek, who played his last NBA game way back in 2000. "He's a lively guy, he's got quite a bit of endurance for as much as he does. And Jeff could walk out there in the gym right now and play on this team and probably get 10, 12 points — not working out."
Not that Sloan endorses such a preparation plan.
Nor, for that matter, does Kirilenko, who chalked off his four turnovers to an effort to be as active and as involved as he could.
"Game shape — I need to get it back," he said. "That's why like every second I was trying to run."