SALT LAKE CITY — With all of the intriguing storylines bouncing around the repainted Larry H. Miller Court on Thursday night, this one sure didn't feel like a meaningless preseason game.
Heck, confetti even rained down on the EnergySolutions Arena crowd after the Utah Jazz's entertaining and down-to-the-wire 100-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan enjoyed it, to boot.
"I thought it was a good exhibition game for us," Sloan said.
Besides the exciting ending, which included a strong defensive stand and two clinching free throws by Earl Watson with 7.2 seconds remaining, the Jazz came away from the preseason opener with plenty of positives.
For one, the Jazz were quite pleased with the debut of offseason acquisition Al Jefferson, who scored six points on 2-for-4 shooting to go with six boards and a blocked shot.
It wasn't an overwhelming offensive 26 minutes for the Jazz's starting center, but that was on purpose.
"I thought he played well," said Jazz point guard Deron Williams, who had a team-best 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. "He stayed within the offense, didn't force anything. I thought he played good defense. When he was out there he was very effective."
Jefferson started at center — his likely spot for the time being with Mehmet Okur rehabbing his Achilles heel surgery — but didn't try to put up All-Star offensive numbers in his first game alongside fellow starters Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko, Raja Bell and Williams.
"It takes time," Sloan added. "I appreciate the way he's worked. He's worked very hard."
Jefferson is still trying to get into prime conditioning while absorbing the Jazz's system.
"I was really trying to just run the plays the right way and focus on defense," Jefferson said. "I felt good, I really did, especially on the defense."
The Jazz certainly didn't need his offensive scoring punch, which he showed he's capable of providing on a couple of inside buckets. Utah jumped all over Portland, taking a 27-9 lead late in the first quarter — mostly thanks to the starting five.
"I thought the first group came out and set the tone that first quarter," Williams said.
That tone went quite flat over time, though, as Sloan brought players in off the bench. Portland rallied to tie the score 51-all at halftime thanks in part to a strong showing by the Jazz's former beloved undrafted rookie, Wesley Matthews, along with struggles by the backup Utah combo of Ronnie Price, Gordon Hayward, C.J. Miles, Jeremy Evans and Kyrylo Fesenko.
Not that the Jazz were too worried about that setback. This game was all about getting experience and seeing where improvements need to be made for newcomers and young guys.
"The second group came in and struggled a little bit," Williams said, "but it was a lot of new faces out there, a lot of young guys, but it's good for them."
The Jazz starters re-established themselves and a double-digit lead in the third quarter, and a group of mostly reserve players — along with Jefferson for a while — were left to fend off Matthews and the Blazers down the stretch.
Matthews finished with a game-high 21 points off the bench for Portland, though he struggled from the field by hitting just 6 of 15 shots.
Utah's two rookies of the drafted variety — Hayward and Evans — both showed promise in scoring nine points in their NBA playing debuts.
"I felt good," said Hayward, the Jazz's No. 9 overall pick in June's NBA Draft. "I think I took a lot from this game, and it was a good first game for me. I'm looking forward to the next one (and) with each game it will get better."
The Jazz also got some strong outings by two guys hoping to re-win spots on the roster as sparkplug Sundiata Gaines had eight points and energizing Othyus Jeffers had seven points.
Interestingly, Price was the first point guard off the bench to spell Williams. Veteran Earl Watson didn't even play until the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Millsap looked like he's more than ready to assume the power forward role he's been groomed for behind Carlos Boozer the past four seasons. He had 14 points with several of his trademark hustle plays and eight rebounds in 22 minutes.
"(It) went OK," Millsap said. "Still trying to get a feel of it, get a flow going, get a rhythm going. But overall I felt we did a good job."29 comments on this story
GAME NOTES: Miles, who sprained his wrist in Saturday's scrimmage, was the Jazz's first player off the bench and had four first-half fouls and seven points. ... Attendance for the non-televised game was 19,492. ... Roster hopefuls Ryan Thompson and Demetris Nichols were the only two non-injured players who didn't see court time for the Jazz. ... Center Francisco Elson didn't play due to a strained right hamstring. ... Portland's Jeff Pendergraph left the game with an injured right knee in the first half and did not return.