After taking advantage of a home-heavy schedule to claim the best record in the Northwest Division, the Portland Trail Blazers expected to be challenged during their longest road trip of the season. They’ll face perhaps their toughest test of the trip in Wednesday’s finale.
The Trail Blazers look to finish their seven-game trip with a winning record and protect their division lead as they meet the Southwest Division-leading New Orleans Hornets, who are looking to win six straight games for the first time in nearly five years.
Before this trip, Portland (25-16) had won 17 of 18 games, a stretch that began with a 13-game win streak - the second-longest in franchise history. In that 18-game stretch, the Blazers went undefeated in 12 games at home.
Portland’s schedule hasn’t been as kind lately, with the Blazers finishing a road trip that started Jan. 13 in Toronto. They lost that contest in double overtime, but beat Atlanta 111-109 in overtime on Monday to improve to 3-3 heading into the finale. They have a one-half game lead over Denver in the Northwest.
The Blazers have already met two division leaders on their trip. They lost 100-90 in Boston last Wednesday, and fell 101-94 at Orlando on Saturday.
New Orleans presents another stiff challenge. The Hornets (28-12) have been the league’s hottest team over the last month, winning 13 of their last 15 games. They’re outscoring opponents by an average of 20.8 during their season high-tying five-game win streak, and are looking for their first six-game run in a single season since Feb. 19-March 7, 2003, when they won eight in a row.
“Right now, we have the ultimate confidence,” New Orleans point guard Chris Paul said. “We approach every game knowing that we want to win … that this team is going to win.”
Paul had 16 points and 10 assists and Tyson Chandler had 20 points and 15 rebounds as New Orleans cruised to a 106-92 win over Milwaukee on Monday. It was the 14th time Paul and Chandler have had double-doubles in the same game this season, and the Hornets have won each of those contests.
“It’s absolutely crazy, but it’s just like with your best friend or your buddy - you can understand what they’re thinking before they even say it,” said Chandler, who finished three alley-oop dunks off passes from Paul on Monday. “It’s all about eye contact and feeling the game. I know exactly what he’s thinking and what he wants out there, and he knows what I want to do.”
Chandler is averaging 14.6 points and 13.2 rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field during the Hornets’ win streak, which has moved New Orleans one game ahead of second-place Dallas in the Southwest.
“I couldn’t imagine playing with another center other than Tyson right now,” Paul said. “He’s helped me out so much, just having that option to throw it to the rim. … I think we complement each other really well.”
While Chandler has been coming up big for New Orleans, Portland has gotten a boost off the bench from Travis Outlaw, who’s averaging 18.5 points and shooting 54.3 percent from the field during the road trip. He made a 20-foot jumper with one second left in overtime to lift the Blazers over Atlanta on Monday.
“The shot at the end of the game felt good when it left my hands,” Outlaw, who finished 9-for-14 from the field, told the team’s official Web site. “That’s pretty much how I felt about my shots all day. It was just one of those games.”
This will be the final meeting between the Blazers and Hornets this season. The Hornets won the series opener at home, but have dropped the last two meetings in Portland, including an 88-76 loss on Dec. 17.
Portland’s Brandon Roy had 24 points and eight assists in that game, and is averaging 21.3 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 56 percent from the field against New Orleans this season.