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Blazers look for real with Aldridge, Lillard, ‘flow’ offense

by Sam Smith

It’s no surprise that going into the final week of December, the Portland Trailblazers had the best record in the NBA.

After all, they finished last season with a 13-game losing streak to finish 33-49.

So in the offseason, one of their big additions was center Robin Lopez, a mostly injury plagued, awkward center for four seasons in Phoenix who had a career year with New Orleans last season averaging 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds for a 27-win team.

The Hornets, even without a starting center, then traded Lopez to the Trailblazers for two second-round picks. The Trailblazers’ other big move was to acquire veteran combo guard Mo Williams, who was going to his fourth team in the last four seasons and averaged missing 25 games per season with injuries the last three years.

Watch out Miami, here they come?

Well, Portland’s best player, LaMarcus Aldridge, didn’t seem to think so as he all but demanded to be traded, complaining after last season about the lack of competitiveness and suggesting he needed a winning environment.

Behind the scenes, Aldridge’s representatives worked feverishly to get him out of Portland. Aldridge hadn’t been that enamored of management, anyway, long feeling ignored and that they had promoted and coveted Brandon Roy much more.

And Aldridge could be a free agent after the 2014-15 season and that was giving Portland management pause as well.

Oh, and the second year coach, Terry Stotts, had a career record of 148-217 coaching in Milwaukee, Atlanta and last season in Portland.

All the ingredients for success, eh?

And yet that is the attraction of sports and the rare alchemy that talent and togetherness can produce that transcend the most logical of assessments.

There is no good reason why the Trailblazers have spent the first two months of the season as the league’s winningest team. Yet, they have and there is no indication they won’t be there for the long run.

They are 3-0 thus far over the other division leaders they have played and 3-0 over the only title contenders they have played, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana.

It’s like they have come out of nowhere to beat everyone, just like a team in 1975-76 that finished last in its division at 37-45 and the next season won the NBA title.

Yes, the Portland Trailblazers.

Now, this is getting scary.

No one is considering the Trailblazers a title contender quite yet. But mostly because they didn’t before. But on closer inspection there’s no reason not to and it doesn’t appear they are going away.

Going into Christmas week in the United States, they led the NBA in scoring and three point shooting and were top five in rebounding, assists and fewest turnovers.

In other words, they are an unselfish team that shoots well, takes care of the ball, scores and can defend.

What exactly else do you need to contend for a title?

In some respects they are reminiscent of that 1977 Trailblazers team that inspired the famous “Rip City” expression that exists to this day in Portland for the Trailblazers.

That team had future Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was at his best.

But Aldridge is having a career year, actually, in part, because Lopez is there to rebound and defend the inside, which always was an Aldridge weakness.

Yet, he’s the most decorated Blazer with just one All Star appearance.

Second-year point guard Damian Lillard should soon be joining Aldridge as an All Star as Lillard has become one of the league’s top guards and pressure players with three game-winning shots just in the last two weeks.

They are complemented by small forward Nicolas Batum, who is a strong defender and passer and good long distance shooter.

That’s along with the underrated Wesley Matthews and Williams off the bench, both good shooters and willing passers who fit well in Stotts’ so-called “flow” offense.

It’s essentially a motion game with lots of passing and shooting, which players prefer, a fast game without a lot of play calls that slow the tempo.

It’s a style of play becoming more popular in the NBA as it takes advantage of the rules changes and attention to analytics in which players search out the corner 3-pointers and play fast before the defense can set.

The playoffs, obviously, become more of a half-court game and there are those who say that style won’t work in the playoffs.

The Trailblazers also get accused of being a jump shooting team, which is anathema to playoff basketball since they don’t throw the ball inside to Lopez and Aldridge is better with his jump shot.

But it’s not like the Heat are throwing the ball to any big centers inside or that the Spurs are relying on Tim Duncan to win games.

Plus, the playing field is more equal in the NBA this season. Miami is nursing Dwyane Wade through the season to save his knees and he generally sits out a game a week.

There is no potential super team in the Western Conference since the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston.

The Trailblazers have been fortunate since they have not had a starter miss one game all season and have played every game with basically the same lineup.

But some seasons are like that and if you can remain healthy your chances are enhanced.

No one much paid any attention to the Trailblazers before the season. Not even in Portland.

They’re watching them now.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”