Improved defense, addition of Miller have Blazers looking strong in early going

Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard cautioned that it is still too early to determine exactly what to make of this season’s team.

Yes, the Blazers’ 8-4 record ranks second in the Northwest Division, behind the Denver Nuggets. Yes, Portland ran up a 4-1 mark on its recent five-game, seven-day road trip. And, yes, the four road victories contributed toward a six-game winning streak that shined the dull off a series of early-season struggles in which the Blazers were plagued by a lack of effort and cohesion.

However, Pritchard stated Tuesday that he is still taking a wait-and-see approach before he fully evaluates a team that many expect should contend for the Northwest Division title this season before making a run in the Western Conference playoffs.

“I still think it’s too small of a sample size to really get a good gauge,” Pritchard said. “Twelve games: You know, there’s been a couple games where I thought we had a chance to win, and a couple games we won where things went in for us. So, I still think it’s too early, especially when you’re talking about 12 out 82.”

One area that Pritchard did feel confident in making an early judgement, though, was Portland’s improved defense.

The Blazers lead the NBA in average points allowed (88.1) and opponents’ field-goal percentage (41.2), and rank third in rebound differential (5.5). Add in that Portland ranks second in assists allowed (15.8), and Pritchard said coach Nate McMillan’s emphasis throughout training camp on improving the Blazers’ defense has paid early dividends.

“One of things that we’re really happy about with the team is that, defensively, we have seen an improvement,” Pritchard said. “Again, it’s a small sample size, so we always caution on that. But in defensive efficiency, we’re among the top-five, -six teams in the league, which is an improvement.”

Pritchard drew a direct correlation between Portland’s enhanced defensive effort and the addition of veteran point guard Andre Miller.

Miller has started the Blazers’ last seven games, following McMillan’s decision to go with a three-guard starting lineup that teams Miller with Steve Blake and Brandon Roy. Portland has gone 6-1 during the stretch. And the Blazers have held all but one of their opponents below 95 points during the run.

Pritchard said Miller’s veteran-like ability to help coach and put his teammates in the right defensive position, along with an increased team commitment, has contributed to Portland’s recent lockdown style.

“He’s a good quarterback on the defensive end,” Pritchard said. “There’s the one thing that we really like; his ability to talk and get people to communicate.”

Blazers forward Travis Outlaw is scheduled to undergo surgery Wednesday to repair a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot, the team announced Tuesday. Dr. Jay Crary will perform the surgery at Southwest Washington Regional Surgery Center in Vancouver. A timetable for Outlaw’s return will be determined after the procedure. “You don’t just replace Travis Outlaw. He’s a special talent,” Pritchard said. “And we’ve got to identify how long he’s going to be out first, and then make some judgments.” … Pritchard stated that veteran Juwan Howard and rookie Dante Cunningham will fill in for Outlaw, but acknowledged that the team now has a hole to fill at the power forward position. “We owe Dante and Juwan some time to see how they do,” Pritchard said. “And I know Nate feels like that they worked hard, they’re prepared, and they’ll get in.” … The Blazers face the Detroit Pistons at 7 tonight at the Rose Garden. The Pistons (5-5) will be playing without injured standouts Tayshaun Prince (back) and Richard Hamilton (ankle).

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Today’s Game
Pistons vs. Blazers, 7 p.m. at the Rose Garden
TV: Comcast Sports Network (37)
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (8-4)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Andre Miller 6-2 10.8
G Steve Blake 6-3 7.6
F Brandon Roy 6-6 20.3
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 14.7
C Greg Oden 7-0 9.8
Coach: Nate McMillan (5th season, 156-184)
Player to watch: Miller — Portland’s veteran point guard continues to look more comfortable in the starting lineup, and could play well against Detroit’s young point guard rotation.
Key reserves: Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster, Juwan Howard, Joel Przybilla
Pistons (5-5)
G Rodney Stuckey 6-5 17.3
G Ben Gordon 6-3 22.4
F Jonas Jerebko 6-10 4.5
F Charlie Villanueva 6-11 16.7
C Ben Wallace 6-9 3.9
Coach: John Kuester (1st season, 5-5)
Player to watch: Gordon — He is one of the top shooting guards in the game when his shot is falling, and could give Blake trouble.
Key reserves: Will Bynum, Jason Maxiell, Kwame Brown

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