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Jazz forward Paul Millsap does not sit around and wait for Wesley Matthews to suddenly return. Utah guard Ronnie Price said that the current Portland Trail Blazers guard is still a personal friend, but now an on-the-court enemy. And Utah forward C.J. Miles believes that his team is doing perfectly fine without Matthews, an undrafted player whom the Jazz discovered, helped raise, and then were forced to watch unceremoniously leave.
Thirty games into the 2010-11 season, Utah is living life without Matthews. And while the former Jazzman is putting up All-Star-caliber numbers for the Blazers, his old team is not just adapting it is excelling. Utah (21-9) leads the Northwest Division by a half game over Oklahoma City and is tied for third place in the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Lakers.
To Millsap, the fact that the Jazz have been able to successfully replace Matthews with a varied assortment of trusted veterans, one-time castoffs and unproven rookies is a tribute to the intelligence of Utah's front office.
"That's a good choice that the executives made bringing guys in to fill that spot," Millsap said Sunday prior to practice. "Everything happens for a reason. We're our team, and that's the team that we've got to live with for the rest of the year."
Some believe, though, that the Jazz as currently constructed are good but not great. And if Utah is lacking anything, it is a dangerous wing player who can consistently knock down outside shots drawing pressure off of the Jazz's big three of Deron Williams, Millsap and Al Jefferson and provide lock-down defense.
Matthews initially appears to be the perfect missing piece. The best traits of his game perimeter shooting, ballhandling, dribble penetration, running the fast break, defense were clearly evident last season, when he averaged 9.4 points and 2.3 rebounds as a rookie for the Jazz.
But when asked whether Utah needs to add one more star athlete to the team's 13-player roster, Price and Miles insisted that the Jazz are strong enough as currently constructed.
"I'm content and very happy with everyone that we have on this team, and I think that we're more than capable to be a championship, competitive-type team in this league," Price said. "It's just a matter of us hooking it up and doing the things that we need to do on the floor and in practice to make ourselves get to that level."
Miles had his own missing-piece theory, pointing directly at center Mehmet Okur when Matthews' name came up. Miles conceded that having Matthews on the roster would clearly not hurt Utah's chances, adding that he was well-liked by his former Jazz teammates. But when comparing Okur's expected added value to Matthews', Miles said the numbers are a wash.
"I think we have a roster and we're fine. We're going to keep welding, keep putting everything together and we're going to keep getting better," Miles said. "Everything that was talked about [before the season], we've silenced it. We've gotten over it."
Meanwhile, Blazers general manager Rich Cho said that Matthews has been an excellent addition, aiding a Portland team that has initially struggled to meet expectations while battling continual injury issues.
With Blazers guard Brandon Roy (knees) facing an uncertain future, Matthews has rivaled forward LaMarcus Aldridge as Portland's early season MVP. Matthews has started 17 of the Blazers' 30 games, averaging 15.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals, while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 36.5 percent behind the 3-point line. And with Roy out, the once-undrafted rookie out of Marquette has played his best ball when Portland has needed him the most.
Matthews is averaging 19.6 points during the past five games, and poured in a team-high 25 Saturday during a road defeat to Golden State.
"He can play both wing positions and is a team player he is willing to do whatever the team needs to win," Cho said.
Matthews has blended in perfectly while adjusting to a new team, head coach and system. But he was already familiar with Utah's intricate offensive and defensive systems. And sources said that Matthews, who was a restricted free agent last summer, would have accepted $3-4 million per season from the Jazz if the team that he initially preferred to sign with had made him an offer.
A front-loaded, toxic deal from the Blazers followed, though, and Utah refused to match the offer sheet. Matthews eventually left Salt Lake City after striking a bonanza $34 million for five years, including a $9.2 million signing bonus.
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor would not comment Sunday about any questions relating to Matthews.Either way, Utah is winning games. The Jazz are one of the early-season surprise teams in the NBA, posting a four-victory improvement when compared with their record 30 contests into the 2009-10 campaign. And Utah coach Jerry Sloan does not believe in looking backward.
"You can't play that way," Sloan said. "It's like if you let something that's happened in the past get under your skin, it's probably going to stay under there. Only thing you can do is go play and wish him well. That's the way we've always looked at it. And we liked him, and that's the way it is."
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Trail Blazers at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Blazers 15-15, Jazz 21-9
Last meeting • Jazz, 103-94 (Nov. 20)
About the Blazers • Guard Brandon Roy (knee) is not with the team due to injury issues.
About the Jazz • Center Mehmet Okur is expected play tonight after missing Utah's last two games due to a right ankle sprain.
Wesley Matthews played his rookie season with the Jazz last year before accepting a five-year deal with Portland. The Jazz signed veteran guards Raja Bell and Earl Watson during the offseason:
Pts Reb Ast FG FT
15.7 3.1 1.5 48.3 38.2
2010-11 Portland record • 15-5
2009-10 • 18-12
Pts Reb Ast FG FT
8.5 2.7 1.3 42.1 37.7
Pts Reb Ast FG FT
2.6 1.6 2.5 42.5 23.8
2010-11 Utah record • 21-9
2009-10 • 17-13