Phoenix and Dallas each notched 17-game winning streaks last season, the longest for any team since the 1999-2000 L.A. Lakers, winner of the first of three consecutive titles. The Portland Trail Blazers likely won't reach that figure, but if they continue their current level of play, they should end the week with 13 consecutive wins.
At the Rose Garden, where they're 12-3, against Seattle, Minnesota and Philadelphia, a combined 10-29 on the road, you have to like their chances. As it is, the 10-game streak the Blazers take into the week is already this season's longest and undeniably impressive, even if seven of the 10 have come at home.
|LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 18.5 ppg for the Trail Blazers. (Getty Images)|
As far as this season goes, though, this is the high point. Enjoy it if you're a Portland fan and prepare to familiarize yourself with a trivia question: What team had the longest winning streak in a season and failed to make the playoffs?
Courtesy of the invaluable folks at the Elias Sports Bureau, the Blazers would already share the mark if they fail the Western Conference's final eight, joining the 1970-71 Boston Celtics and the 1977-78 New Orleans Jazz.
If the Blazers beat the Supersonics on Christmas night, the call here is that Portland is going to be the sole owner of that dubious distinction.
This is to take nothing away from what they've done. Brandon Roy should rightfully be mentioned in preliminary MVP discussions and merits a roster spot in the All-Star Game. LaMarcus Aldridge is my leading candidate for Most Improved Player honors. McMillan for Coach of the Year? At this point, why not?
That said, look at where the Blazers were when this streak began. San Antonio handed them a 100-79 beating, their ninth loss in 10 games. Roy told The Oregonian, "this is the lowest point of the season, definitely the lowest point."
McMillan put the ball in his best player's hands, giving him a role similar to the one LeBron James had in Cleveland and Dwyane James had in Miami during their second seasons. Roy has responded with incredible numbers, shooting over 50 percent from the field (89-for-179), averaging 23.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists, production similar to them. But to ask him to continue doing that, even if he can, is completely unfair.
And to say a team that is still the NBA's youngest, with a collective average of age of 24.3, is going to withstand the charge of veteran teams like Houston and Utah -- currently on the outside looking in as far as the postseason is concerned -- is awfully optimistic.
The last upstart in the Western Conference, the 2005-06 New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, got to 29-23 at the All-Star break before having a rocky ride down the stretch and ultimately surrendering their spot to Sacramento. Those Kings might have been on their last legs, but they had veterans. In fairness to the Hornets, they did suffer their share of injuries late, but they felt the sting of what basketball down the stretch is like. It proved to be too much.
The Blazers are growing up. Fast, too. You can see the increased confidence every time Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw release a shot these days. Even opponents remark on the difference. That said, they haven't been there before. Among players on their current roster, only James Jones, Steve Blake, Joel Przybilla and Raef LaFrentz have playoff experience.
If age or inexperience are reasons you dismiss, how about the schedule? Only three wins on this current streak have come away from home, and those happen to be the only ones the Blazers have all year. They started 0-9 on the road, and 10 of the next 12 games following this week's action will be there.
Make no mistake, this streak has been great and should get even better. Portland has learned how to win, from relying on Roy to rallying and trusting each other to have big games down the stretch. McMillan's team can draw upon this later. That includes Oden, who has been studiously watching and learning where he'll fit in during next season's playoff push, where Portland will be looking to end a postseason drought that will reach five years in spite of this current run.
|Tuesday||Miami at Cleveland|
|Tuesday||Phoenix at L.A. Lakers|
|Wednesday||Chicago at San Antonio|
|Wednesday||Dallas at Utah|
|Thursday||Cleveland at Dallas|
|Friday||Indiana at Detroit|
|Friday||Utah at L.A. Lakers|
|Saturday||Cleveland at New Orleans|
|Saturday||Boston at Utah|
|Sunday||Golden State at Denver|
|Sunday||Boston at L.A. Lakers|
Team of the week: Boston, which got over losing at home for the first time by flexing its muscles in double-digit wins over Chicago and Orlando, now has a new hill to climb. Finally, the Celtics are going on the road for an extended period. Finally, they're heeding Horace Greeley's message and heading west. The competition might not include any of the opposing conference's elite teams but does present some hurdles. Visits to Sacramento and Seattle will help them warm up for weekend stops in Salt Lake City and L.A. The Jazz game gives Garnett a chance to go at Carlos Boozer, while Ray Allen will get reacquainted with old pal Kobe Bryant on Sunday night. For Boston, it should be another big measuring stick.
Team of the weak: The Clippers must have done something naughty no one has caught wind of this past year. How else do you explain the parade of injuries, from the season-altering (Elton Brand, Shaun Livingston) to the consistently nagging (Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley)? Now, Santa delivers a fat lump of coal in the form of a home-and-home with the Phoenix Suns on back-to-back nights, with the Suns getting the second leg at home. That means they'll have fresh legs for the road game, then benefit from the support of their crowd in the return. Chris Kaman might get 40 rebounds running up and down the floor, but expect the results to be similar to when these teams first met back on Nov. 23; Phoenix won 113-94.
Player to watch: Caron Butler's ankle might be sufficiently healthy for him to return to action Wednesday, which is great news for a Wizards team that had to rely on newly signed guard Mike Wilks and little-used rookie Dominic McGuire for minutes Saturday night, not to mention dipping into Roger Mason for a career-high 20 points in a loss to Indiana. Currently more short-handed than any team in the league, Washington needs Butler to continue fighting its uphill battle to stay alive in the Eastern Conference race minus star guard Gilbert Arenas. Butler has been incredible, cruising toward a second consecutive All-Star berth with career-high averages in scoring (22.0 ppg), assists (4.2), steals (2.2), field goal percentage (49.4) and 3-point percentage (41.8). Additional help could be on the way, because the Washington Post is reporting that Antonio Daniels might be back Saturday after a few weeks on the shelf with a sprained knee.
• You can see what the NBA tried to do for its fans this Christmas, but what often happens when you try to get your shopping done early, gifts become outdated. All of a sudden, a matchup between Cleveland and Miami isn't as appetizing as it once sounded. Count your blessings, though. At least James and Wade are healthy enough to play, even if there are some doubts about Wade because of a sore shoulder. In addition, there will be some desperation involved given the need for both teams to claw back up toward .500, making for a good show. The league added a third holiday game, envisioning a showdown between top picks Oden and Kevin Durant, but that obviously isn't going to happen, either. Durant will be in the mix, which, coupled with Portland's run, makes the night game worth watching.
• Raymond Felton doesn't get a chance to shine against the two point guards drafted above him in the 2005 Draft very often but looks forward to it every time he does. He'll match up with New Orleans' Chris Paul on Wednesday, looking to complete a home sweep of Paul and Utah's Deron Williams. The Hornets took out the Jazz on Saturday behind Felton's 17 points and seven assists, which are very close to his averages during a breakout third season.
• Ray Allen makes his return to Seattle on Thursday, no doubt feeling thankful to be on a championship contender at this stage of his career. Seattle shipped Allen to Boston for the No. 5 pick that became Jeff Green on draft night, essentially creating the monster the Celtics have become since Allen's acquisition persuaded Kevin Garnett to accept a deal out of Minnesota. Allen spent four-plus years as a member of the Sonics, averaging nearly 25 points per game and setting the NBA's single-season record for 3-pointers there in 2005-06 with 269. He'll be hoping to have a better time of it than Rashard Lewis had in his return to Seattle on Nov. 28. His old running mate shot 3-for-19.
• Friday night sees Stan Van Gundy return to Miami for the first time since he took as Orlando's coach. Van Gundy has admitted that this game will be more emotional than squaring off with mentor Pat Riley at home last month ever was, but he'll no doubt want a similar result, considering the Magic played one of their most complete games of the season to get him the win, 120-99.
• Detroit faces top Central Division challenger Indiana on Friday and Saturday, while Denver and Golden State square off in a home-and-home Friday and Sunday, which presents an opportunity for familiarity to breed contempt. The Pistons and Pacers already have a strong rivalry going and one could argue that Chauncey Billups and Jamaal Tinsley have been the Eastern Conference's top point guards, adding to the spice. The Nuggets/Warriors duel features the top-scoring points in the league, Allen Iverson and Baron Davis, so it's safe to expect a couple of this season's best scoring efforts as they get together.