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On basketball

Beating a trail of success

Young Portland surprises league

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / January 17, 2008

The two best success stories of 2007-08 were in Boston last night. The Celtics, well, were expected to be good, maybe not this good, but still pretty good. The Trail Blazers? After Greg Oden went down for the season, a lot of people figured they'd make marginal gains, if any, over last season (when they went 32-50) and would be wise to make reservations for Secaucus.

What we saw in a spirited if uneven 48 minutes was the reemergence of Ray Allen (season-high 35 points) and the Celtics toughing it out to take a 100-90 victory over the hottest team in the NBA. Only problem - Portland did not play like a team that had won 18 of its last 20. It turned the ball over way too many times (21, leading to 23 points). It wasted way too many possessions by hoisting desperation no-hopers to beat the 24-second clock. It allowed the Celtics to attempt 38 free throws.

And yet, the Blazers still were in the game, down by 4, in the final minute.

So, in other words, as soon as Vegas is accepting bets on the 2009-10 season, go lay some money on the Trail Blazers. You'd say maybe this season, or certainly next season, if they had kept their own pick in 2005 and taken Chris Paul or Deron Williams, instead of trading down to take Martell Webster. (But they had Sebastian Telfair!)

Last night was a learning experience for the young lads from the Great Northwest. As coach Nate McMillan put it, "It showed us we got work to do. They're the better team. They showed it." Then he added, "I don't know if we really came in here feeling we could get this game."

But even with the loss, the Blazers remain on a remarkable run. Last night was only their third defeat in their last 21 games. They're eight games over .500, a place few imagined they'd be after they lost 12 of their first 17 games. Then a few things happened. McMillan conducted an Australian Rules practice, resulting in an altercation between Joel Przybilla and Webster. Super soph Brandon Roy requested more time at point guard. Request granted. And then, well, they started to win. And win. And win.

From Dec. 3 to Dec. 30, they ran off 13 straight victories, still the best streak in the league this season. After a loss at Utah, they ran off four more wins before losing last Sunday in double overtime in Toronto. They responded the next night by clubbing the Nets by 26 in New Jersey. They move on to Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, and New Orleans on this trip.

All this winning has led to what veteran Raef LaFrentz, the oldest Blazer (a grizzled 31), calls "the best chemistry of any team I've ever been on, period." The team still leads its division; the last Portland team to be in first place this late in the season was the 2000-01 team.

"Am I surprised? All I can say is that you go out there every day, try to improve, try to win, and wherever that lands you, that lands you," McMillan said earlier in the day. "This team is playing hard. This team is playing together. This team is playing the right way. If you do those things, you can win."

What makes this story even more amazing is that the Blazers are the NBA's youngest team. You know the axiom - the NBA is a league for veterans, a league that eats its young. Portland has only three players with more than four years of NBA experience, and one of those, Darius Miles, hasn't played this season because of injury.

"The thing with these young guys," LaFrentz said, "is that they all are older than their years. In a lot of ways, it's similar to the situation in Boston. But these guys came together quicker."

Blazerologists point to the altercation between Przybilla and Webster as one of the turning points. It happened in San Antonio Dec. 1.

"I was planning to hold a physical practice," McMillan said. "We needed to learn to play that way and to learn to play against that style. Tempers flared, but those things happen. But it turned out to be a big thing because our players learned that they have to take that style of play onto the court in games. How could we have that kind of aggression against each other in practice and not take it to the floor in games?"

Roy, who was otherworldly in December (21.2 points, 6.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds) and had 22 points last night, started to assert himself. He won back-to-back Player of the Week honors. His appeal to the coach for more time with the ball came, not coincidentally, Dec. 3, the first game of their 13-game winning streak. That night, he had 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists and the Blazers won, 106-105, on a Travis Outlaw buzzer-beater.

You have to like this group going forward. In addition to Oden, they also are planning to welcome Rudy Fernandez next season. He's the reigning European Player of the Year and is an important player on Spain's very strong national team. Oden is merely the best defensive center to come into the league in a generation.

"It's pretty exciting for me knowing I got something really good to look forward to next year when I come back," Oden said.

Meanwhile, he's got a pretty good view of something really good going on right now.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com.

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