Notebook: Blazers' strong start overcomes a weak schedule

PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers have endured significant injuries and major lineup changes on the way to a fast, strong start.

Heading into Wednesday night’s contest against the New Jersey Nets at the Rose Garden, the Blazers were 11-5. The record was good enough for second place in the Northwest Division, and ninth out of 30 NBA teams.

In addition, Portland is off to its best start since 1999-2000, when the team began the season 13-3.

But the one thing the Blazers have not been able to control is their strength of schedule. And that is the one category some critics have used to pick the team apart.

Portland’s SOS of .451 ranks 25th in the league. And it will only get worse after consecutive games against the Nets and Memphis Grizzlies.

Moreover, the Blazers have picked up three of their 11 victories against the Minnesota Timberwolves (1-13). And eight of Portland’s wins have come at the expense of teams with losing records.

But Blazers coach Nate McMillan said he has still been able to learn a great deal about his team while playing inferior competition.

“A game is a game. And each night you look to improve, to get better,” McMillan said. “And these are NBA players, NBA teams.”

McMillan said the Blazers’ defense has been strong, but still has room for improvement. In addition, Portland’s first and second units need to become more consistent, while the team’s starting five must remain efficient.

The Blazers’ road will become harder in December. Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Orlando, Miami, Dallas and Denver are on the schedule. And the final month of the year should provide the first legitimate test of just where the 2009-10 Blazers stand.

“This is somewhat of a build up into the rest of the season,” McMillan said. “Because as you get deeper — regardless of the teams you’re playing now — everybody gets better. And we’ve got to get better. And that’s what you try to do every night. You look at what you did in that last game, and you try to get better and improve.”

Moving up

Portland rookie forward Dante Cunningham has assumed the team’s back-up power forward role.

The 6-foot-8, 227-pound Cunningham is averaging 2.7 points, 1.2 rebounds and 6.2 minutes per contest. And while the numbers do not shine, Cunningham’s role on the team has increased in recent games.

The former Villanova standout recorded a season-high 14 minutes in the Blazers’ 122-98 home victory over the Chicago Bulls on Monday. He finished with four points, three rebounds and one block.

Cunningham spent the first six games of the season on the bench. And he has not played in 10 of Portland’s 16 contests. But Cunningham has taken the court in the Blazers’ last three games, and has minutes have increased in each outing.

“He’s a guy that I’ve looked at since the summer,” McMillan said.

With Travis Outlaw out at least three months with a foot injury, and veteran forward Juwan Howard’s playing time on the decline, Cunningham’s role should only increase during the next few months.

“He has the potential to do it,” McMillan said. “He’s played big-time basketball, and now he’s getting his opportunity.”

Still answering?

McMillan said he thinks guard Allen Iverson still has a place in the NBA.

News surfaced Wednesday afternoon that Iverson will reportedly retire from the league.
Iverson, who many believe is a future Hall of Famer, played three games for the Grizzlies this season before leaving the team. He was subsequently waived, and has yet to sign with another NBA squad.

The 10-time All-Star has averaged 27.0 points, 6.2 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 14 seasons.

“I think he still thinks he has something left, and he probably does,” McMillan said. “But I think the situation is going to have to be right for him. I don’t think he’s done.”

McMillan recalled his own playing career when discussing Iverson’s situation. McMillan, who played 12 seasons for the Seattle SuperSonics, said he began missing the game after just one week.

“Basketball is what he does,” McMillan said.

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