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Warriors game dry run for Blazers' real season

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nicolas Batum (right) snares a rebound next to Trail Blazers teammate Wesley Matthews during Sunday night's NBA exhibition victory at home over Sacramento.When the Trail Blazers go through their final dress rehearsal Thursday at Golden State before the Oct. 30 regular-season opener at Phoenix, Terry Stotts should have a full complement of players on hand for the first time in the preseason.

That makes the last exhibition game against the Warriors an important one for the second-year Portland coach, who must decide on the rotation he'll use in the opener versus the Suns.

"I'm not sure who I'm going to use off the bench," Stotts said after his team's 109-105 victory over Sacramento Sunday night at the Moda Center. "It looks like we'll have everybody available (against Golden State). It will be good to have everybody together so we can see what we have."

The starting five -- LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum at forward, Robin Lopez at center and Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews at guard -- is no mystery. Lopez might have played his best game of the preseason against the Kings, sinking 7 of 11 shots from the field and contributing 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 31 minutes.

That's about the playing time Stotts envisions the 7-foot Lopez to command in the early regular season.

"He's going to have a real impact for us," Stotts said, "and I want to see if I can get him about 30 minutes a game."

Aldridge, who has played only three preseason games due to a sore knee, told me after Thursday's game he intends to play at Golden State. That's a good thing. And Batum -- while too reluctant to shoot at times Sunday night -- nevertheless displayed his value, going for 14 points, 11 rebounds and five assists while sinking 5 of 8 shots, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range.

"Nic plays the game easy," Stotts said. "He did a lot of good things tonight. That's what we need from Nic at the offensive end, though he could have been a little more aggressive at times. We have a lot of playmakers. We need him to continue to be one and not just rely on Mo (Williams) and Damian."

After a slow start -- he missed his first five shots -- Lillard was effective, scoring a game-high 28 points to go with four rebounds and three assists in 34 minutes. The second-year point guard made 4 of 9 3-pointers and 8 of 9 at the foul line.

"I was glad to see Damian make some 3's," Stotts said. "Our 3-point shooters haven't really had a night yet."

Lillard, Mathews and Williams -- who had 17 points, five rebounds and five assists in 28 minutes off the bench -- will eat up most of the minutes in the backcourt once the regular season begins. The real question is how Stotts will divide minutes in the frontcourt.

Behind the starting trio, power forward Thomas Robinson -- who came through with his best performance of the preseason with 14 points (6-of-8 shooting) and eight boards in 24 minutes -- and volume shooter Dorell Wright are assured of minutes. Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland will probably battle for the remaining time.

"Joel has been really good," Stotts said of the second-year center/forward, who contributed seven points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes. "Nic called him the MVP of training camp."

The preseason has been a mixed bag for the Blazers.

Among the good:

• The team defense has been excellent for the most part. Opponents are shooting .395 from the field and averaging 93.3 points.

"We're a lot better than we were last year, that's for sure," Matthews said. "I feel like we're stepping up to the challenge."

Portland held Sacramento to .412 shooting -- .348 in the first half.

"We were aggressive," Wright said. "We made the game ugly. We got stops in a row. That's what it's all about, making it hard for (opponents)."

"We're doing a good job defending," Lillard said. "We're making some mistakes, but we continue to play every possession. We're contesting shots and fighting for rebounds. As long as we keep doing that, we'll be ready for opening night."

"We're probably ahead of where I anticipated," Stotts said. "In terms of protecting the rim, forcing mid-range jump shots, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding, it's been good. The players have executed what we've changed, particularly in defending the pick-and-roll. If you look at the whole preseason, we're going in the right direction."

• The Blazers should be an improved rebounding team. In six exhibitions, they're outboarding opponents by an average of 10.5 per game. Lopez and Robinson, in particular, will help there.

"We're a better rebounding team because we're a better defensive team," Matthews contended. "If we keep forcing shots that we want (opponents to take), we'll be in better position to rebound and to prevent them from getting into transition."

• The bench will be much stronger, even with rookie guard C.J. McCollum starting the season on the injured list. Veterans Williams and Wright will be counted upon for big things, and Robinson, Leonard and Freeland will get their chances up front.

"We have a lot of good young talent coming off the bench, plus some guys who have been around," Wright said.

"All those guys are really going to help us," Aldridge said. "Our depth should be good."

• The Blazers have showed a competitive spirit in winning four of six preseason games. On Sunday night, they lost all of a 19-point third-quarter lead, falling behind 92-90 with four minutes to play. They made enough plays down the stretch to win.

"That was a good sign," Stotts said. "I know it wasn't a regular-season game, but it had a kind of regular-season feel to it. Both teams were trying to win."

• There seems to be a team-first attitude on offense. The Blazers had 14 assists on 22 baskets in the first half against Sacramento.

"That's when we're at our best, when we're moving the ball," Lillard said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays, a lot of guys who can shoot. We should get quality shots, and that could limit (opponents') transition."

Among the bad:

• The Blazers are averaging 21.8 turnovers a game. They had 19 giveaways Sunday night, though only seven in the first half. Stotts doesn't seem overly concerned.

"Part of it is it's the (nature of the) preseason," he said. "There are a lot of turnovers around the league. The first half tonight was encouraging. We were very efficient with our offense. Having LaMarcus out there will help as well."

• Portland is shooting only .313 from 3-point range. Some of that is Matthews and Wright have missed games due to minor injuries. The Blazers shot .353 from beyond the stripe last season, and the hope is they will be even better this season.

It's 10 days until the regular-season opener and counting.

"We're getting there," Stotts said. "We'll be ready. I had a meeting with my staff today to talk about things we need to accomplish the last week (of the preseason), both offensively and defensively. We'll tinker with the offense a little bit, put in some defensive coverages we need to have in our pocket, and (implement) our zone. We're on track to being where we need to be."

The players are anxious for Thursday's date with the Warriors.

"We need to play a complete game with everybody," Batum said. "It will be good to play one game where everybody's in the lineup."

"Once we all get together and play," Wright offered, "we'll be good. Sky's the limit for this team."

"We're right there," Aldridge said. "We'll play it Thursday like it's a real game and go from there."

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