|Trail Blazers' push for the playoffs heats up|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 13 February 2009 23:56|
The team headed in to the All-Star break in good shape at 32-20. They've weathered injuries to two starters and rookie growing pains to stand in second place in the Northwest Division behind the Denver Nuggets. They are fourth overall in the Western Conference.
Should the Blazers keep it up, they will make the playoffs and possibly reach 50 wins.
Last season the Blazers won 13 straight games in December, but the playoffs eluded them as they went 13-17 after the All-Star break to finish 41-41.
Roy is making it a personal mission to take the Blazers to the postseason for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
Now a two-time All Star, Roy has averaged 22.7 points, 4.7 assists and 5.1 assists this season. He's got the ninth-best scoring average in the league.
him with shouts of ``MVP! MVP!''
He scored 29 or more points in five straight games from Dec. 9-18. He hit game-winners in dramatic fashion with a buzzer-beating jumper in overtime against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 6, and a finger-roll as time ran out to beat the Knicks 109-108 on Feb. 8.
In his third season, Roy leads a team that is the second-youngest in the NBA but is loaded with potential.
``We've got talent, but we've got to continue to mature,'' he said when asked to assess his team's biggest challenge.
Portland's highest-profile youngster, rookie center Greg Oden, has shown steady improvement.
The 7-footer was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, but his rookie season was put off a year when he had microfracture surgery on his knee. He got off to a rocky start this season when he sprained his foot in the opener and missed the next six games.
Oden, who recently turned 21, was inconsistent upon his return, and appeared to withdraw when he didn't meet the lofty expectations that had been placed upon him.
But as the season has progressed, so has Oden. He shows signs of learning how to stay out of foul trouble, and leads all rookies with 16 double-doubles. His affable personality has re-emerged.
At the break, he was averaging 9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.15 blocks a game.
``It's all right. It could be better, but I'm still working, still learning,'' he said.
y injuries have put the rest of Portland's youth to work. Martell Webster, another third-year player who was expected to start at forward this season, required surgery on his foot in the preseason and briefly played before re-injuring himself.
Nicolas Batum, a 6-foot-8 rookie from France with a wingspan surpassing 7 feet, has been thrust into a starting role as a result of Webster's injury. The Blazers have kept forward Travis Outlaw on the bench because of his success with the team's second unit.
The Blazers also lost starting point guard Steve Blake for 13 games so far because of a right shoulder separation. Third-year guard Sergio Rodriguez has started in his absence, spelled by rookie Jerryd Bayless.
Bayless, who played a season at Arizona before turning pro, has made the most of the extra minutes, showing boundless energy and an ability to get to the rim. In a Jan. 15 victory over the New Jersey Nets, Bayless had 23 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, in 25 minutes.
It was not clear at the break when Webster or Blake may return, although Blake has rejoined practice with the team.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season has been the play - and the tremendous popularity - of Spanish forward Rudy Fernandez.
Fernandez, who has won a fast-growing following of female fans who wear ``I (heart) Rudy'' T-shirts, is averaging 10.6 points, 3 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game off the bench.
He has hit a 3-pointer in 30 straight games, a new rookie record, and has at least one three in 50 of his 51 games this season.
Fernandez was a surprise entrant in the All-Star weekend's slam dunk contest after fans voted him in. He also was named to the rookie team for the weekend's rookie-sophomore game, along with Oden.
Because of the team's overachievement so far, there was plenty of speculation over whether general manager Kevin Pritchard would make a move before the Feb. 19 trade deadline - or stand pat.
The Blazers have a key bargaining chip in injured center Raef LaFrentz's expiring $12.7 million contract. But at a recent game, most of the players said they hoped the team as it stands would remain intact.
``I don't know that people really realize what we're doing right now,'' Bayless said. ``For us, being such a young team, and accomplishing what we're accomplishing, it's just great. I think we're going to continue to build on it.