Opening with three straight wins is an impressive enough accomplishment. That the Utah Jazz have done it with one of the league's best point guards sidelined bodes very well for their fortunes in 2008-09.
The Jazz could have Deron Williams in the lineup for the first time this season as they seek their second 4-0 start in three years Wednesday night against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers.
Utah's biggest strength last season on its way to a second straight Northwest Division title was the combination of Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer. While Williams ranked third in the NBA in assists (10.5), Boozer led the team in scoring (21.1) and was eighth in the league in rebounding (10.4).
With Williams nursing a sprained left ankle, it would have been understandable if the Jazz (3-0) struggled early this season without their floor leader. Instead, they opened with a win over Denver before sweeping a home-and-home set from the Los Angeles Clippers.
If Williams does not return Wednesday, he could make his season debut Friday against Oklahoma City. The Jazz, though, have no reason to rush their star guard with five players averaging in double figures, and a defense holding opponents to a league-best 82.0 points per game.
In Monday's 89-73 win over the Clippers, it was third-year forward Paul Millsap that stepped up, scoring 15 straight Utah points in a span of 4 minutes, 10 seconds of the fourth quarter. He finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and one blocked shot.
"Is that what it was?'' Millsap responded with a smile when told of his scoring surge. "I don't know what to say about it. Once you get in that zone, things start going your way."
Mehmet Okur scored 16 points and Andrei Kirilenko had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Jazz (3-0), who outrebounded the Clippers 44-38 and went 25-of-31 from the foul line.
"He has that ability if things go his way,'' Utah coach Jerry Sloan said of Millsap, who averaged 8.1 points last season. "He is really quick for as big as he is. I did not feel like the rest of us wore down the Clippers tonight, but Paul Millsap did. He appreciated playing more minutes, he took advantage of it, and those aspects that make him better should make our team better."
Sloan is two wins away from becoming the first coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games with one team. Sloan, who also coached the Chicago Bulls for 2 1/2 seasons, has guided the Jazz since early in the 1988-89 season.
Portland (1-2) seeks its first road win of the season after losing 107-96 at Phoenix on Saturday.
Brandon Roy and rookie Rudy Fernandez scored 20 apiece for the Trail Blazers, who were coming off a 100-99 home victory over San Antonio on Friday.
In need of defensive help with his team yielding 100.7 ppg, Portland coach Nate McMillan is expected to insert rookie forward Nicolas Batum into Travis Outlaw's spot in the starting lineup Wednesday.
"(Batum) has done a nice job of just guarding his man and weakside help," McMillan told the Blazers official Web site. "I think he's got three games - not a lot of games - but defensively, see if he can come in and give us some of that dirty work on the defensive end."
Although Utah breezed to the Northwest title last season, it lost three of four meetings with Portland. The Jazz have lost five of seven to the Trail Blazers after winning five straight in the series.
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