Blazers’ time to shine?

Since the 2010-11 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are four-time Northwest Division champions, but thanks to early injuries to superstars Kevin Durant (fractured foot) and Russell Westbrook (small fracture in right hand), it seems the title is open for the Blazers’ taking.

As of Thursday, Portland sat at 8-3, first in the division, and were riding a five-game win streak. OKC’s issues are clear without its leaders as the Thunder are 3-9 and on a three-game losing streak. It’s ironic to see a team have big health issues, and have it not be Portland, as everyone here knows the Blazers’ depressing injury-riddled past.

This year’s Portland team is already on a hot start. Earlier this month the Blazers had big wins, including smacking the LeBron James-led Cavaliers by 19 (101-82) and two days later thumping the Western Conference-contending Dallas Mavericks by 21 (108-87). Even though the Denver Nuggets are not contenders this year in the West, Portland had an impressive showing on the road, embarrassing Denver, 130-113, and scoring 84 points in the first half. The Blazers had six different players in double-digit scoring in that game.

I like this year’s team. Adding point guard Steve Blake and center Chris Kaman, both veterans, has made the Portland bench a lot better than last year and it seems like Blake is a better fit in the Portland system than current Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Mo Williams, who filled that Blazers roster spot last year.

Statistically as a team, Portland has been doing well, as it’s currently first in the league in rebounds per game at 46.8, sixth in assists per game at 23.8, and eighth in points per game scored and points allowed, at 104.4 and 95.9. Portland’s starting five has always been consistent but now the bench is starting to actually contribute. Kaman averages 10 points per game off the bench, and both Blake and shooting guard C.J. McCollum average five points. Unfortunately, it was announced this week that McCollum will be sidelined for an estimated month with a fractured finger.

Eleven games into the fresh season, Blazer fans have to be excited with what they’ve seen, although the team has lost some winnable games,  including a 95-90 loss to the Warriors on Nov. 2. That was close all game long, but Portland collapsed late, then also lost Nov. 8 to the Los Angeles Clippers by four (106-102). That loss was tougher, considering the Blazers were up the entire game and blew it late in the fourth quarter. The other Portland loss was to the Sacramento Kings on Halloween, which was its first road game, when they struggled to contain Kings forward Rudy Gay as he finished with 40 points.

Besides those three games, the Blazers have looked impressive and even showed resilience as they have come back from big deficits. They battled back to beat the Charlotte Hornets, 102-100, after being down 23 at one point, and again this past Monday they came back on the New Orleans Pelicans after they trailed by 16 in the third quarter, winning 102-93.

I predict that Portland will win the Northwest Division as long as they consistently keep a legit lead over OKC while they’re missing their star players.

Overall, I see Portland as a top-four team in the West. As long as they win the division they will clinch a home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. I’m still cautious about the bench continuing to play at this level because later in the season, the starting five will wear down somewhat and you can’t depend on the starters like the Blazers did last season – finishing 54-28 and fifth in the West. Once Durant and Westbrook come back, it will be intriguing to see how the division turns out.

Tonight at 7:30 (televised on ESPN), the Chicago Bulls come to the Moda Center for a good battle as even though they’ve only had Derrick Rose for five games so far. The Bulls, too, sit 8-3 in the Eastern Conference and are first in the Central Division. Ironically, it was last year in Portland on Nov. 23 when Rose tore his meniscus, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season.

This fall is Portland’s opportunity to really make an impact. As long as the Blazers don’t choke down the road, us fans will enjoy watching them, come April, in the playoffs again.

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