Amidst the steady stream of self-deprecation and sarcasm on Twitter and the lack of people in the actual world with whom to discuss it, one would be forgiven for having a moment of personal crisis and asking why he or she is digging around the Internet or on some obscure cable channel to watch mere preseason basketball. But though the outcome of these games may not matter, we watch preseason basketball because it offers the opportunity to see glimpses—or what we can believe are glimpses—of our hopes, yet without the imminent fear of disappointment that will plague us later, since it’s only preseason, after all. We watch preseason basketball for moments like the 1st quarter of the Trail Blazers’ 99-92 win over the Jazz in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, when Damian Lillard was running the pick and roll with LaMarcus Aldridge to near perfection, turning the corner like a Formula One car, then finding Aldridge with an exquisite drop pass for a lay-up, or finding him back at the top of the key for an open jumper, or rotating the ball out to the wing to swing around for an open three-pointer.
For those 3 or 4 minutes, everything finally looked in his right place. Dorrell Wright, playing his first game in Trail Blazer black, was putting the I (as in, “I F***ing Rain Threes”) in “stretch 4” and the offense looked like a perfectly assembled 5-piece puzzle of tulips or a sunset or something beautiful, as they created and found space with the shameless ease of a gerrymanderer. Squint, and it wouldn’t be difficult to see these Blazers carving up the Spurs or the Clippers or the Thunder sometime around late spring. But open those eyes too wide or too long, and see Utah’s Enes Kanter looking unstoppable en route to 23 points, Gordon Hayward finishing with 20 points, Derrick Favors reflecting Blazer fans’ hopes for their own Thomas Robinson with 10 points and 17 rebounds, and Portland falling behind by as many as 12 in the third quarter. Good thing then that preseason is a place free from that fear of disappointment.
After Utah peaked at a 64-52 lead with 6:09 remaining in the third, the Blazers surged back with a 21-8 run to take a 73-72 lead heading into the fourth, led by strong performances in the backcourt from Lillard, Wes Matthews, Mo Williams, and Will Barton – all of whom finished with double-digit points totals. While Lillard’s 24 points led all scorers, it was Mo Williams’s play and his seemingly natural companionship with the young star from Utah’s own Weber State University that stood out. In the fourth quarter especially, the two guards appeared in perfect symbiosis, each vacillating effortlessly between on-ball responsibility and off-ball freedom and sometimes blurring the line between them, as when Sweet Mo slowed up on a fast break to lay off a perfectly weighted around-the-back pass to Wes Matthews for an open three-pointer, which Wessy Wes promptly knocked down in rhythm.
Although rookie C.J. McCollum’s recent decision to opt for non-surgical treatment on his wounded walker may quicken his return, to expect a young player who hasn’t played games that “count” since Patriot League action almost a full calendar year ago to contribute to a playoff hopeful team right away in such a nuanced role as Lillard’s sidekick or clone or both would be unwise, even without coming off the foot injury. Despite how automatic Lillard’s game can often seem, Damian Lillards are not just churned off some mid-major production line, nor are players who can so easily compliment them like Mo Williams did on Wednesday night — to the tune of 17 points. But if the glimpse of that partnership can become regular season reality, then having to squint to envision them in late spring may not even be necessary. Plus, Gordon Hayward was quoted in the pre-game as saying that Earl Watson’s wisdom helped Hayward become a better person, as well as a basketball player. So we have that too, which is nice.