Blazers rise above, view the top of the West

TUALATIN, Ore. — The Trail Blazers are finally on top of things.

After grinding through a season during which fortune was hard to find and luck even harder, Portland’s perseverance has paid off.

Heading into Tuesday’s NBA action, the Blazers were tied with Oklahoma City for sixth place in the Western Conference. And while playoff-aspiring teams such as the Thunder and San Antonio still have a hard to road to follow, just eight regular-season games remain for the Blazers — four of which are at home, including tonight’s matchup against the lowly New York Knicks at the Rose Garden.

But Blazers coach Nate McMillan said that does not mean his team can coast from here on out. While making the playoffs is all but guaranteed, seeding and momentum are still at stake. Moreover, Portland is shooting for its second consecutive 50-win season, while also attempting to end a zany, unpredictable 2009-10 campaign the right way.

“What you don’t want to do is start to get complacent,” said McMillan, following Tuesday’s practice at the team’s workout facility. “We want to finish strong.”

To McMillan, a home-court contest versus a Knicks team more concerned with the 2010 NBA Draft and the upcoming offseason free-agent bonanza is exactly the type of game Portland needs to take advantage of. The Blazers must be fired up, focused and mentally prepared, McMillan said. They can not afford to look ahead to mid-April — or the playoffs — until the time is right.

“We need to play well as a group,” McMillan said. “Sometimes players think, ‘Well, they may not need me as much.’ Or one of those situations where, ‘This is a game where I can get off,’ and you play the game the wrong way. So, you play the game the right way. You come out focused; execute on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes.”

Portland has done just that during three consecutive impressive victories. The Blazers downed Dallas, New Orleans and Oklahoma City by an average of 9.3 points. In the process, Portland played some of its best, most efficient ball of the season. The Blazers’ starting five of Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Camby all took turns carrying the team.
Meanwhile, a Portland squad that has won 11 out of its last 13 games and is 14-5 since acquiring Camby just before the trade deadline has begun to fulfill the promise that weighed so heavily when the season began.

Portland lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said a smooth 1-5 rotation has been at the core of the team’s late-season surge. Consistency are communication have come to define the Blazers’ starting unit. And with consistency — a rare, precious word when injuries took a major toll midway through the season — has come confidence.

“Now we have an order,” Demopoulos said. “And it’s much easier to get a rhythm when there’s a certain order.”

That rhythm was in full view Tuesday, as the team ran through a spirited practice that saw small groups of players sprint through a workout that resembled a high school station-based regimen more than it did a streamlined NBA practice. Hard work was done and sweat poured out. But it was spelled with jokes, laughter and half-court shots that showed off a Blazers squad fully aware that good times have finally arrived.

“Right now, we’re just trying to take it one game at a time and win as many games as possible. … We’re just trying to continue to move up,” Roy said. “We’re in a tight race with Oklahoma and San Antonio. The biggest thing is to keep winning all the games we can win. Then if other teams lose and win, then that would be great.”

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Today’s Game
Knicks vs. Blazers, 7 p.m. at Rose Garden
TV: KGW (8)
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (45-29)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Andre Miller 6-2 13.9
G Brandon Roy 6-6 22.1
F Nicolas Batum 6-8 9.9
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 17.5
C Marcus Camby 6-11 5.9
Knicks (26-47)
G Toney Douglas 6-1 7.8
G Tracy McGrady 6-8 10.9
F Bill Walker 6-6 10.1
F Danilo Gallinari 6-10 14.3
C David Lee 6-9 20.0

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