On the NBA
by: SAM FORENCICH, Guard Brandon Roy says the Blazers can make the playoffs, but the road gets tougher with an 11-day span where they play seven road games.

Let's stop referring to the Trail Blazers as 'the youngest team in the NBA,' or 'the third-youngest team in NBA history.'

Closing in on the halfway point of the season, it's time to call Portland a serious playoff contender.

The Blazers are no cinch to make it for the first time since 2003, mind you. There is plenty of schedule to be played out, and the West is replete with playoff-caliber teams.

But if the playoffs were to begin today, Portland would be in. The Blazers are the surprise team in the league and have played with such consistency over the past month, it would be foolish to count them out against anybody.

Nate McMillan - an early candidate for coach of the year - confesses to only a trifle of surprise.

'The playoffs were the goal before the season started,' McMillan says. 'We didn't talk about it, but that's always the goal. People want to start talking about it, but we don't have to talk about it now. We have to just go out and play.'

There is a growing confidence in this Portland team. It starts with the leader, Brandon Roy, who has emerged as one of the NBA's best all-around players sooner than expected. He doesn't want his teammates to limit their dreams to the playoffs.

'When I come into a season, my goal is always to win a championship,' Roy says. 'People may say that's far-fetched this season, but we're trying to work toward that.

'We have a chance to make the playoffs this season. We don't talk about it all day long, because talk means nothing. But we're going to try to continue to try to win games. And at the end of the season, if we're in position, great. If not, we know what we have to do to get there.'

A 13-2 December record, even with a home-loaded schedule, was remarkable. But the upcoming seven-game, 11-day road trip, with two sets of back-to-back affairs - which begins Sunday at Toronto with stops at New Jersey, Boston, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and New Orleans - will tell a bigger story. If the Blazers can go 4-3 or 3-4 on the trip, they'll be in good position.

'It's going to be a big test for us,' Roy says. 'We know it's a tough month, that we're away from home for a long time. Let's just put our heads down and do the best we can and see what happens.'

A major factor will be injuries. Teams can handle losing a star in the short term, as Portland has done well without Roy or LaMarcus Aldridge. If either of those two were lost for an extended time, it would be a different story.

• Roy has a chance to make the NBA All-Star game. But consider that only five or six guards will make the West squad, and the top eight vote-getters at the position are Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Baron Davis. That's stiff competition.

'People call all the time and say, 'You should make it,' ' Roy says. 'I say, 'I'd love to make it, but all the other players deserve to make it, too. Who do you take out to put me in?'

'I just have to do my job to make it hard for them to decide.'

• Oden's rehab from Sept. 13 microfracture knee surgery continues to go smoothly, but those in charge are reluctant to put a timeline on when he will begin running.

Oden is in the weight room every day and doing pool workouts every other day, says Portland trainer Jay Jensen, who with strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina, is overseeing the 7-footer's recovery.

'We're going slow with Greg,' Jensen says. 'We're holding back on the running and pounding. He doesn't have to be ready to go until November. We're letting his leg heal, and everything is going good. He has had no setbacks, he works really hard, he does exactly what you ask him to do.

'He has good strength in the knee, full range of motion, no pain, no swelling. We're just holding him back, concentrating on getting his weight down. He's conscientious in watching what he eats now. Before, he really wasn't. The next month, that's what we'll concentrate on more than anything. I'm just trying to get (the weight loss) started so he doesn't have so far to go when he's ready to play.'

Oden, whose upper body strength has improved dramatically since the summer, is still near 290 pounds, 'but I'm losing. My weight's still up there, but I'm doing Pilates twice a week now, and that's helping a lot.'

Oden admits it's been difficult to sit out and watch his teammates play, 'but it's not that bad,' he says. 'I'm still in the loop with everything.'

• As for Darius Miles, who is 14 months removed from his microfracture knee surgery, the message is more hazy.

'He still has a ways to go,' McMillan says. 'So far, he's mostly been doing one-on-one or two-on-two stuff.'

'He's getting closer, but he still has to get in game shape,' Pritchard says. 'He has to get at a specific weight, and where he can run up and down and not have any issues with the leg.'

'He's progressing,' Jensen says. 'It's kind of how he feels and how his knee feels. Nobody knows except for Darius.'

Miles says he's ready.

'It's up to (team officials) now,' he says. 'I can play. I can practice any day they practice. There's no pain in the knee. I'm ready to go.'

Will he push the Blazers to get back in action?

'I've been doing that,' Miles says.

Though everyone skips around the issue, part of the Blazers' concern is, with the team playing so well, Miles' return could disrupt the chemistry. He's not exactly been a character guy in the past, and there are questions about how he will fit in.

It seems a long time ago when, in the 2005-06 season opener at Minnesota, Miles collected 32 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. At 26, the 6-9 Miles - with three years and $26 million left on his contract - has no guaranteed spot in the rotation.

'I'm past that stage of developing guys, in a sense,' McMillan says. 'Darius has to earn his way on the floor. We won't just put him back out there. Everything will be based on how he plays in practice, and (if he) can beat out a 12th man as far as being on the active list. We'll have to look at that.'

• Miles, incidentally, is the newest Blazer father of a baby boy. Bryce Miles, weighing 6 pounds, 4 ounces, was born Dec. 29 to Darius' wife, Brandi.

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