Off to their best start in eight years, the young Portland Trail Blazers appear to be progressing nicely in their first major rebuilding project in decades.
After continuing their unbeaten start at home with a dominant performance in their last game, the Blazers look to improve to 7-0 at the Rose Garden on Friday night when they host the surging New Orleans Hornets.
Portland made the playoffs every year from 1983-2003, before five straight trips to the NBA draft lottery. The Blazers appear to have used those high draft picks wisely, as their young nucleus has led them to their first 10-6 start since 2000-01.
Each of Portland’s top four scorers - Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw - was a first-round pick in a draft between 2003-07. That group doesn’t include Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, who’s playing limited minutes while recovering from knee and foot injuries.
Led by the youngsters, the Blazers have won their first six games at home by an average of 14.6 points. It’s the Blazers’ longest undefeated start at home since they won their first nine games in Portland in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, en route to a 22-3 overall record at the Rose Garden.
The Blazers’ latest home victory may have been their most impressive. They outrebounded Miami 55-28 and had 31 assists to the Heat’s 14 in a 106-68 blowout Wednesday night.
“We’re not thinking about a streak,” said Roy, who was held to a season-low eight points and shot 2-for-11 from the field. “We’re trying to win every home game when we’re in this building. We’ve got to win games because the West is tough and we’ve got to win as many home games as possible.”
Channing Frye, the eighth overall pick in 2005 by New York who was traded to Portland before last season, added a season-high 17 points off the bench while going 7-for-11 from the floor in 22-plus minutes.
“It’s only six games so far, and we have 35 left,” Frye said. “We have to continue to get better every game if we want to become one of the elite teams.”
It’s safe to say the Hornets (9-5) are already among the league’s elite after winning a franchise-record 56 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs last season. Though they encountered some unexpected struggles early in 2008-09, they’ve recovered to win their last four games.
The run appeared to be in jeopardy Thursday night when Denver outscored New Orleans 17-5 to start the fourth quarter, but Chris Paul scored seven straight points late in the period and James Posey made a 3-pointer with 19.1 seconds left to help the Hornets escape with a 105-101 road victory.
Paul, who had posted triple-doubles in his previous two games, had 22 points, 10 assists and four rebounds Thursday. He deflected the praise toward Posey.
“He’s used to making them from the experience he’s had with championship teams,” Paul said of Posey, who has won NBA titles with the Heat and Celtics. “And we got some big stops and plays.”
The Hornets won their first meeting with the Blazers on Nov. 14 in New Orleans, riding Paul’s 17 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals to an 87-82 victory. However, they’ve dropped their last four games in Portland since an 88-75 win Feb. 26, 2006.