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Close wins giving Blazers a playoff shot

Midseason honors go to Lillard, Batum and more


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland point guard Damian Lillard is the runaway leader for NBA rookie of the year in the eyes of many.The NBA reaches the halfway point of its regular season next week, and there’s no debate that one of the surprise teams has been the Trail Blazers.

Before the campaign unfolded, most pundits predicted between 30 and 35 wins for Portland, which was 20-18 going into Wednesday’s home date with Cleveland. My forecast had the Blazers at 35-47 and finishing 12th in the Western Conference, ahead of only Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento.

This week, the Blazers are at No. 12 in

ESPN’s weekly NBA power rankings, the eighth team in the Western Conference behind Oklahoma City (1), L.A. Clippers (2), San Antonio (3), Denver (4), Memphis (6), Golden State (8) and Houston (11).

It’s remarkable when you consider many of the statistics that normally determine the difference between the good NBA teams and the also-rans.

Portland ranks 25th among the 30 teams in the NBA in field-goal percentage (.435) and 28th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.463). The Blazers’ minus-.028 differential ranks is tied with that of Washington and ranks ahead of only Charlotte and Cleveland.

Portland’s average of 35.6 points in the paint ranks 28th. And though Terry Stotts seems more determined to run than did his predecessor, Nate McMillan, the Blazers average only 9.5 fastbreak points a game, 26th in the league.

Admirably, Stotts always stands up for his reserves, but it’s clear he is not playing with a loaded deck there. Portland’s bench ranks last in the NBA by a large margin in both scoring (16.8 points per game, with Memphis 29th at 26.0) and scoring differential (minus-21.4, with Cleveland 29th at minus- 12.0).

Where Portland has stood out is in winning the close ones. The Blazers are 5-1 in overtime games and 11-5 in games decided by four points or fewer, even after three close losses over the past week.

That’s a credit both to Stotts’ astute coaching and the resolve of a strong starting unit that has both competed and performed well in the clutch.

Three Portland starters — Nicolas Batum (39.0), Damian Lillard (38.4) and LaMarcus Aldridge (37.9) — rank among the NBA’s top dozen in minutes played, and Wesley Matthews (35.3) isn’t far behind. It will be interesting to see how the heavy work load affects both their performance and their health through the rest of the season.

Were the playoffs to start today, the Blazers would serve as the eighth and final team in the West. Four teams have a chance to catch them: Utah (21-19 through Tuesday), the Lakers (17-21), Minnesota (16-19) and Dallas (16-23).

When the season began, the Lakers, Minnesota and Dallas all figured to be playoff teams. All three teams have been crippled by injuries and may not recover. But the injury bug could catch up with other teams — including Portland — the rest of the way and figure heavily into which teams advance to the postseason.

Schedule will play a role, too. The Blazers have it good through the rest of the month. Beginning with Wednesday’s game with Cleveland, Portland has six of seven games at home, with only a visit to Staples Center to face the Clippers on the slate. The Blazers have done a terrific job protecting the homecourt (13-5 going into Wednesday’s play), but they have been so-so on the road (7-13).

February and March could be rough months, with Portland playing eight of 12 on the road in February and nine of 16 away from home in March. There is a six-game trip in February and a five-game trek in March with which to contend.

April is more favorable, with six of nine at the Garden, though all nine opponents are playoff contenders.

It will be interesting to see if first-year general manager Neil Olshey chooses to stand pat with his roster or make a deal before the Feb. 21 trade deadline. Will he keep free agent-to-be J.J. Hickson or make a trade to get some value for him before summer?

Portland’s record and playoff chances at the All-Star break will probably determine that, but it could be a difficult decision either way.

Here are my offerings for the NBA’s mid-season awards:

COACH — Golden State’s Mark Jackson over Memphis’ Lionel Hollins, the Clippers’ Vinny Del Negro, Denver’s George Karl and Portland’s Terry Stotts.

Any would be a good choice, but Jackson has pulled together a long-woebegone Warrior quintet and made it formidable in his second year as coach.

A special nod to old friend P.J. Carlesimo, 8-1 in his first nine games as Brooklyn’s interim head coach.

MVP — Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant over Miami’s LeBron James and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.

Those are the only veritable candidates, and Durant wins the nod by a whisker over James. Anyone who saw Durant carry a depleted Thunder team to victory Sunday night at the Rose Garden can appreciate.

ROOKIE — Portland’s Damian Lillard over New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Cleveland’s Dion Waiters and Washington’s Bradley Beal.

This is an easy call. Lillard leads first-year players in scoring (18.2), assists (6.5) and 3-point percentage (.364) and is arguably the most indispensable member of a team fighting for a playoff berth.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER — Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka over Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders, Portland’s Wesley Matthews and Boston’s Rajon Rondo.

Perhaps I’m shorting Sanders, who in his third NBA season leads the league in blocked shots (3.26) in Brew Town. Ibaka ranks second in the category (2.81) and is a force at the defensive end for a team on the short list of championship contenders.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER — Portland’s Nicolas Batum over Houston’s Omer Asik, Indiana’s Paul George, New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez, Portland’s Wesley Matthews and Dallas’ O.J. Mayo.

All are strong candidates, but none better than Batum, whose numbers are up across the board (16.9 points to 13.9 last season, 5.7 rebounds to 4.6, 4.4 assists to 1.4 and 1.5 steals to 1.0). That’s not to mention his influence on the Blazers’ surprising start.

SIXTH MAN — The Clippers’ Jamal Crawford over Denver’s Andre Miller, Orlando’s J.J. Redick, San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili, Miami’s Ray Allen, New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson, New York’s J.R. Smith, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Martin, Golden State’s Carl Landry and Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes.

It’s a long list of worthy contenders, but Crawford — a much different player than he was a year ago in P-Town — has provided a terrific spark off the bench for one of the league’s premier teams.

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