x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Portland blazing a surprising trail at 14-3

Early-season success defying all pre-season expectations

LeMarcus Aldridge, right, is the only holdover from the last time the Trail Blazers had a winning streak similar to their current run. Paul Buck / EPA
LeMarcus Aldridge, right, is the only holdover from the last time the Trail Blazers had a winning streak similar to their current run. Paul Buck / EPA

They were a bad team two seasons ago and a worse one last season. There really was not much reason to believe the Portland Trail Blazers would be much different this time, either.

Their recent pedigree was all bad. They went 33-49 last season. They added some veteran players in the off-season, but no game-changers. They drafted the point guard CJ McCollum with the 10th overall pick, and then he broke his ankle during practice in October and has yet to make an appearance.

Nothing indicated a major turnaround. Nothing that would lead the Blazers to a 14-3 start, tying them for the second-best record in the NBA.

Yet here they are, fresh off an 11-game winning streak, leaders of the Northwest Division and the NBA’s early surprise team for 2013/14.

They are pulling it off by developing their own Big Three in LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. By getting strong role play from Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, and help off the bench from veteran newcomers Mo Williams and Dorell Wright.

“We’re playing hard and we’re playing together and it just feels like we’re playing the right way,” Matthews said.

They are second in the league in shots taken from 15 feet and beyond and are hitting 41.5 per cent of their three-point attempts. They play like a little guy with a chip on his shoulder.

“I think the most important part is that we’re playing like we have something to prove, and we need to continue that,” coach Terry Stotts said.

They beat the Lakers 114-108 on Sunday in Los Angeles for their 12th victory in 13 games.

“This level of success is usually not very easy,” Lopez said. “But we’ve stayed consistent and we’ve stayed focused. I think we’ve earned it.”

Some remain sceptical. They have yet to really be matched up against the league’s elite. During their 11-game winning streak, they beat only one team (Golden State) with a winning record.

Tough tests are now in store. They faced the Indiana Pacers on Monday and play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.

“It’s a big stretch for us,” Batum said.

The Blazers play solid defence and have their big trio all chip in on offence.

It has all worked well enough for now, though nothing is assured. The 2007/08 Blazers had a stretch where they won 17 of 18 but failed to make the play-offs.

Aldridge is the only remaining player from that team.

“We blend better,” Aldridge said. “This team is so selfless. Everybody makes the extra pass. Guys know where the ball should be in the fourth quarter. Guys play their roles. They don’t try to do more than they should. This team feels different. It feels good right now.”

sports@thenational.ae