PORTLAND — For the best indications on what occurred during the Trail Blazers’ first game inside the Rose Garden in six months, just know that the opening question in head coach Terry Stotts’ pregame press conference focused on Nolan Smith.
Also, in the third quarter, the Blazers’ other backup point guard-turned-unexpected protagonist got an in-game feature shown on the scoreboard entitled “Getting to Know Coby Karl.”
On Wednesday, injuries had depleted the Blazer backcourt.
Rookie starter Damian Lillard (bruised left foot) never unbuttoned his warm-up jacket while Ronnie Price (right ankle) dressed as if he were one of the 17,856 fans inside the arena.
That left Portland’s offense in the hands of point guards Smith and Karl. Both players made the most of their preseason spotlight as the Blazers upended the Denver Nuggets, 97-80.
“Playing the point guard spot, I used this as an opportunity to show coach that I could lead the team,” said Smith who contributed nine points and eight assists in 31 minutes of play, the most of the Blazers starters. “Coaches want to see somebody who’s not hesitant and when I got going, after that first sub and came back in, I just wanted to be aggressive for myself and my teammates.”
Stotts unleashed Karl for his most productive time of the preseason, playing 21 minutes in front of his father, Nuggets coach George Karl. Still, Coby Karl pleased the one coach that mattered on Wednesday —his own.
“I thought it was a terrific performance,” Stotts said of Karl’s line: 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting and five assists. “I was happy for him. He’s a good player and he’s an NBA player. He showed that tonight.”
Although Karl guessed that he would get more time as an understudy, Smith had known since Tuesday that he needed to step up.
His directive was simple.
“I’m looking for (Smith) to run the team,” Stotts said before the game.
However, the fine print would kick in after tip-off.
Start the offense. Swing the ball to where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. Slide on defense and make the Denver ballhandlers sweat every time they push the ball up court.
And, of course…
“Make the most of his minutes,” Stotts concluded.
On Denver’s first possession, Smith could not stay with the bigger, wiser Andre Miller of the Denver Nuggets.
Miller, 36, was so open in the middle of the lane that he pump faked against an imaginary defender. Then, retrieved his own missed shot as Smith watched.
“Just fell asleep,” Smith said. “To start the game, you can’t do that. Hopefully, coach doesn’t show that first play in film (session).”
On his turn to combat old-man basketball, Smith hesitated around the perimeter. He often made only one pass to start the offense then floated back.
This led to the Blazers attempting seven jump shots — nothing inside — while falling behind the freewheeling Nuggets 12-8.
With 2:49 remaining in the quarter, Karl checked in for Smith. And Karl did not waste his time — during stretches of his play, he drained a corner 3-pointer and absorbed the foul for the four-point play and lobbed a pass that rookie center Meyers Leonard handled for a forceful one-hand dunk.
With Karl at the point, the Blazers ignited on a 12-4 run to close the first quarter. Portland never trailed again.
“It was just fun to get out there,” Karl said. “All these guys who have been watching and not getting an opportunity, it’s a unique situation when you get an opportunity to play like that.”
The rest on the bench moved Smith to once again realize his chance. Upon returning to the game in the second quarter, Smith’s energy matched that of his backups.
“One of the coaches told me, once I get back out there, ‘Attack! Attack! Attack!’ ” Smith said. “As I got going, I was more sure at what I was going to do and got a couple buckets, just because I was confident.”