Blazers regroup following time away

Players tried to make most of time duirng break

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — When Victor Claver boarded a plane for Las Vegas last weekend, he needed an escape from Portland. A reprieve from basketball.

Just like the rest of his teammates.

Last week as the Trail Blazers concluded a five-game losing streak and caught separate flights to fulfill their various All-Star break itineraries, Claver decided to recharge his batteries around the Vegas pools and parties with traveling mate and teammate Joel Freeland.

"I just wanted to get out of Portland and (not) think too much about basketball," Claver said after the team's Monday night practice.

So when the Trail Blazers gathered again as a team for the first time in five days, Claver returned a little more relaxed, a little more assertive and much more prepared moving forward as the No. 1 option to replace bruised-up starter Wesley Matthews.

"I feel like I'm (getting) better, with more confidence in what I'm doing," said Claver, who averages 2.5 points in just a little more than 13 minutes a game. "I think it's an important thing in the first season. We talked in the beginning; it's a process to adapt. I feel like I'm doing the steps to grow."

Matthews — no Vegas for him, he returned home to Wisconsin — did not participate in a lick of basketball during his break and continued to rest on Monday.

Matthews has lingering ailments up and down the left side of his body, from the elbow, hip and the sprained ankle sustained during the team's fatigued showing in New Orleans last Wednesday.

Although Matthews expressed optimism in returning for the Phoenix Suns game tonight, he will be a game-time decision.

The one thing not up in the air, however, will be his possible replacement.

"We'll see how he goes," coach Terry Stotts said about Matthews. "I'm hopeful that he'll play, but if he doesn't play, Victor will probably start and we'll go from there."

What a difference a few months make. Last December when Matthews endured his first setback with a left hip flexor injury, Stotts rattled off nearly every two-guard and wing player on the roster as choices to step up in the rotation.

And Claver, the 24-year-old rookie from Spain, might have won the Least Likely To Start poll.

Claver was the quintessential 15th man, the one who had not played in nine consecutive games and the guy fresh from an NBA Developmental League assignment with the Idaho Stampede. However, for that Dec. 10 game against the Toronto Raptors, Stotts picked Claver.

From Boise to the Blazers' starting five. And interestingly enough, the team has actually excelled with Claver as a starter, winning five of seven games.

"There's no question that Victor's improved," Stotts said. "We have a good record when he starts, there's some confidence in that."

That confidence started on a low simmer. Claver had not been a starter in a while, his days as an "important player" on his former Valencia of Spain's ACB League team long over. And so, his first steps on the court were understandably shaky.

"Yeah, the first time. I'll tell you the truth," Claver said, admitting to nerves before the Raptors game when he made only two of 12 shots. "I think it's normal the first minute that you play (and) you're in a different situation than you're used to."

Although Claver has shown some timidity on offense — never attempting more than six shots in his subsequent starts — he has progressed on the court in other areas.

"I think the game has kind of slowed down for him," Stotts said. "I think his shot selection is a little bit better. Defensively, he's been able to guard some good players with his length and his IQ. I think the speed of the game has slowed down, so some of his passes, some of his decisions have been better because he understands the competition a little bit better."

When Matthews went down again in New Orleans and the Blazers laid an egg in the 99-63 loss, Claver stepped in and supplied the lone bright spot. Claver played a season-high 36 minutes and made five of 10 shots for 11 points, also a personal NBA best.

Although Claver did not celebrate his career achievements in the "terrible" game, as he described it, the effort showed his improvement.

"The good thing I take from the game was that I was fighting the whole game. I didn't look at the score. I was trying to play," Claver said. "For me the most important (thing) was to try to be myself. Not to be a rookie who plays in the NBA (but) try to do the things that I do in practice. I can do more things when I have more (chances)."