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Happy trails

AFTER A 33-49 campaign, with the top four players returning, the Blazers started 21-4 to lead the loaded West. Sure, there's some funky stuff happening, like Wesley Matthews hitting nearly half of his threes, but for every reason to doubt the team's legitimacy, more compelling arguments suggest that continued success wouldn't be a surprise -- it would be a virtual certainty.

Something in reserve
GM Neil Olshey knew his bench was a problem last season; it was outscored by 231 points and finished an absurd 10 wins below replacement level. So he signed Mo Williams to back up both guard spots, landed a solid wing in Dorell Wright and added energy and rebounding in Thomas Robinson. The hope was that the new guys could simply hold their own. But with the aid of 6'10" Joel Freeland, a holdover whose offensive rebounding (4.1 per 36 minutes) and D have improved dramatically, Portland's bench is actually expanding leads. The Blazers have outscored foes by 40 points with a reserve in the game. And that's without top pick C.J. McCollum, who is still recovering from a broken left foot.

Plugging a hole
The Blazers D last season was 26th in DRtg (106.9), 26th in eFG percent defense (51.2 percent) and 29th against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.964 points per play. So Portland made two significant changes: One, it replaced J.J. Hickson with the bigger, more defensive-minded Robin Lopez. "He knows and relishes his role as a defensive center," says coach Terry Stotts. Two, it installed a more conservative D, opting to protect the paint rather than double ballhandlers. So far, it's working. The Blazers are 19th in DRtg (103.5), 10th in eFG percent D (48.3 percent) and 16th in PnR defense (0.879 ppp). And according to SportVU, opponents shoot just 43.4 percent when Lopez defends the rim, miles better than against Hickson (57.6 percent).

Tougher road ahead
If you want to temper the excitement of the good people of Portland, just mention their team's road schedule so far. The Blazers started 11-2 away from home, a great -- but unsustainable -- winning pace that no team has matched in NBA history. The start was also built on the backs of minnows. Only two of those Blazers road wins came against teams better than .500 (Warriors and Lakers), and the combined record of their road foes was a paltry 130-179. No team thrives without a dose of good fortune, and any road win is a good win in the NBA. But each of their first eight road games post-Christmas comes against the West, so their lives are about to get much more difficult.

All stats through Dec. 15.

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