If you really want to put the brakes on the early-season rise of Portland, winners of eight straight games, it’s not all that difficult.

Sure, the Trail Blazers swept their four-game road trip with a win on Wednesday, but considering that the four games came against three members of the woebegone Atlantic Division and the fourth was in Milwaukee, it is fair to be underwhelmed by the accomplishment. In fact, the combined record of teams the Blazers have beaten on their current streak is 31-59, and none of the teams is over .500.

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To that we say, “Pffft.” There is no fun in cynicism, really.

“We don’t have to win every game,” point guard Damian Lillard told reporters. “Probably the second we lose a game, they will be like, ‘They are not what everybody thought they was.’ We are not trying to live up to what other people say we are, what they think we are. We are playing well and finding a way to win games. There might come a time when we lose a game and we just got to focus on the next one after that.”

Note Lillard’s use of the modal verb “might” there. The Blazers might lose. Or they might go 80-2.

OK, Portland is not a legitimate contender in the West, not yet at least. But there are few teams easier to root for than the Blazers, given their snakebitten recent history (Greg Oden? Brandon Roy?) as well as their efficient, high-energy style of play. They won’t maintain their current pace, of course, but they are certainly a West darkhorse. And there are good reasons to think they will still be on the board when the playoff picture shakes out.

LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge never came out and said it himself last season, but there were rumors that he was unhappy with the Blazers’ youth movement, and that he was seeking a trade. That was mostly just chatter, but Aldridge did say at last year’s All-Star Game, “I feel like they’re not going to make any quick fixes this year. I think they want to run it out with these guys.”

If Aldridge was unhappy, he has turned things around this year, thanks in large part to his own efforts. Aldridge is averaging 22.5 points, a career high, and he is as big a part of the offense as he has ever been — he is taking 20.3 shots per game, and his usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of plays he is involved in while on the floor) is 29.2, both career highs. That’s why Aldridge’s outlook this season is much sunnier. “It’s one of those years where you know our team is good,” he said.


It is almost impossible to overstate how terrible the Portland bench was last year. Before trading for Eric Maynor, the Blazers’ top two reserves were rookies Meyers Leonard and Will Barton, and they averaged 5.5 and 4.0 points, respectively. Combined, Portland’s reserves put up 18.5 points per game, which was not just worst in the league, but the third-fewest points by a bench in the last 15 years. The Blazers reserves shot 39.8 percent from the field last year, and 29.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Credit general manager Neil Olshey with addressing the bench issue head-on in the offs

eason. Olshey brought in three veteran players with bench experience — sharpshooting forward Dorell Wright and guards Earl Watson and Mo Williams — and got forward Thomas Robinson from the Rockets. Williams is now doing something that would have been unheard of on this bench last year: he is averaging double-figure scoring, at 10.1 points. Wright has made his presence felt with 45.5 percent 3-point shooting, and Robinson is chipping in 5.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 11.8 minutes.

The Blazers' bench is by no means tearing through the league, but it is averaging a respectable 24.7 points, shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from the 3-point line.

Road play

The additions of the bench veterans have had an impact that extends beyond the points they produce — they’ve added maturity to a starting five that features Aldridge (28) and no other player over 25 years old. Last year, Portland was a mess on the road, going 11-30 (tied for seventh-worst in the NBA) and frequently suffering defensive breakdowns (it allowed 48.4 percent shooting away from home). This year, they Blazers have started 6-1 on the road and the opposing field-goal percentage has dropped to 43.3 percent.

“That’s huge,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “The big thing for us, if we want to be a playoff team in a good situation, is to win on the road. We know what we can do at home when our crowd is there, winning at home. But winning on the road is huge for us and the run we are on now is pretty good. We have to play like that.”

So far, they are most certainly playing like that.