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Blazers had early look of playoff contender

The Trail Blazers might not make the NBA playoffs. But their play in the first half of the season shouldn’t be a big surprise.

The Blazers had the makings of a team that could flirt with the .500 mark, thanks largely to their new coach and point guard and the new commitment to Nicolas Batum.

On the first day of the season, I wrote this in an online column:

“Never have understood why the Trail Blazers were counted out of the playoffs before the season even began.

“Sure, they still have a ways to go, but let’s put it this way: If you could have had Damian Lillard running the offense last season — and had Terry Stotts as head coach from the start — do you think the Blazers really would have gone 26-38 and been the mess they were?

“Last year’s Blazers earned the draft pick they used to take Lillard — which is how the system is supposed to work.

“And, once the Portland organization got that draft position, it was ready to get serious about bringing on a full-time coach — Stotts — who knows how to use Lillard, Batum and others.

“This season, the Blazers should be able to at least stay within striking distance of the final two playoff spots in the NBA Western Conference, especially with other teams’ older stars and even younger ones (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio) going down with injuries.

“Road games and managing the minutes of the starters will be a challenge for this Portland team, but with Lillard and Stotts and if the team is healthy, there will be some chalupa nights at the Rose Garden.”

The Blazers, now 23-22, could run into hard times the rest of the way, of course. They will have to play even better in the second half of the season, and the list of potential booby traps is long:

Their schedule has tough stretches. Key injuries would hurt (even missing Luke Babbitt and Meyers Leonard for a while set them back), and the starters will have to hold up physically. It would help if other teams continued to have health problems. Another West contender might get better with a deal at the trade deadline, and the Blazers could make a trade (moving J.J. Hickson, for example) that knocks them off course for this season. Opponents vying for playoff berths will play even harder down the stretch, and they have learned to try to take the ball out of Lillard’s hands. No one will be taking Portland for granted, and the Blazers may have to deal with the pressure of a tight race.

And, is the organization ready to commit to winning — now — as fully as the Blazers players clearly are?

But, to use a word that at least used to be the rage around this franchise, Stotts and the players have done a lot already to change the “culture” of the team. The culture is, we can compete.

Happy birthday

Feb. 4, 1930 — Jim Loscutoff, San Francisco-born, 6-5 forward starred in basketball at the University of Oregon, then spent nine years (1955-64) with the Boston Celtics, winning seven NBA championships. “Jungle Jim” averaged 6.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in his pro career and starred defensively alongside center Bill Russell. He declined the Celtics’ offer to retire his No. 18 jersey (later retired for Dave Cowens), so the team hung a banner in its arena with the nickname “Loscy” (age 83).

Feb. 2, 1954 — Rob Dressler, all-state pitcher for Madison High who went on to play five years in the major leagues, going 11-23 with six complete games and a 1.40 ERA for San Francisco and Seattle (age 59).

Feb. 1, 1956 — Tim Mazzetti, kicker for the USFL Portland Breakers in 1985; also made 45 field goals during three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons (age 57).

Feb. 3, 1959 — Darnell Valentine, former Trail Blazers guard played nine NBA seasons (age 54).

Feb. 3, 1982 — Paul Gaustad, Nashville Predators center from Beaverton played for the Portland Winterhawks from 2000-02 before launching NHL career with Buffalo.

Feb. 2, 1987 — Bright Dike, Portland Timbers forward (age 26).

Feb. 6, 1991 — Will Barton, Blazers guard (age 22).

Feb. 5, 1993 — Ty Rattie, Winterhawks forward (age 20).

Oregon sports history

Feb. 6, 1970 — Portland is granted an NBA franchise at a Friday afternoon Board of Governors meeting in Los Angeles. The franchise fee is $3.7 million. The same day, Stan Love’s 24 points lead the Oregon Ducks to an 87-73 win at Stanford, the Vancouver Canucks defeat the visiting Portland Buckaroos 9-1 in a battle of the top two teams in the Western Hockey League, Benson Tech’s Richard Washington nets 15 points and 19 rebounds in a 50-46 victory over Grant, Adams High in Northeast Portland decides that its nickname will be the Patriots; and Kurt Von Steiger prepares to clash with Cowboy Frankie Lane in Saturday’s pro wrestling main event at Portland Sports Arena.

stevebrandon@portlandtribune

Twitter: @sbrandonsports