Blazers finally rolling

The Portland Trail Blazers are stuck in the NBA’s surprisingly toughest division in the newly reorganized league format. The team has to compete in the standings with Seattle, Minnesota, Denver and Utah, and the strain of so many talented teams playing in the same division is showing.

Except for the streaking Seattle Sonics, which raised its record to 14-3 with a win over hapless Utah Wednesday, each team has been limited to nine wins or less. However, the poor records belie the level of talent that each team, including the Blazers, possesses.

The Timberwolves, the preseason pick to win the Northwest Division, rely on Kevin Garnett, the Big Ticket, to anchor a team of veterans that include Sam I Am Cassell and surly forward Latrell Sprewell. They will have to tighten up a defense that has sacrificed 100 points or more in 3 of their last 4 games if they wish to catch up to the Sonics and their miraculous start. To compensate, the Wolves are averaging close to 100 points a game, led by KG’s 23 points per contest.

The Denver Nuggets are another seeming underachiever in this stacked division, yet they have made significant progress recently. The Nuggets are 7-2 since Nov. 11, with the only losses coming at Sacramento and San Antonio. Denver owns wins against the World Champion Pistons, Dallas and Houston during that span. Now if only the Nuggets could get struggling Carmelo Anthony to hit more than 38 percent of his shots from the floor, they might have a chance.

In Utah, the Jazz don’t even have the luxury of even a struggling superstar, because defensive stud Andrei Kirlenko is on the injured reserve list and is expected to be out 2-4 weeks with a sprained ligament in his right knee. The Jazz already miss his 15 points and 4.4 blocks a game, dropping their last three in a row to fall to 8-8 on the year. Until the Russian phenom gets healthy, his teams will likely stay glued to the bottom of the standings. After all, there is only so much future HOF coach Jerry Sloan can do to keep the undermanned Jazz afloat.

An early season surprise, or more accurately the early season shocker, is the play of Portland’s I-5 rivals to the North. The Seattle Supersonics are playing unbelievable ball, in no small part due to the emergence of seventh year forward Rashard Lewis, who has finally become the consistent and dynamic scorer the Sonics need. With Lewis and University of Oregon alum Luke Ridnour taking care of the ball, Ray Allen finally has the help he needed to be successful. Seattle has stepped up its play this year, and it’s up to the rest of the division to answer the challenge.

One team that has actually beaten the white hot Sonics is, surprisingly, the Blazers. Quietly Portland has amassed a 5-2 record in their last seven games, with wins against the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic on the road in addition to their impressive 100-94 home win over Seattle Tuesday night.

During the stretch, Zach Randolph has set about to prove to Portland fans that he deserves the rich 83 million dollar contract the team awarded him just weeks ago. The bulky forward has scored under twenty points only twice during the streak and only six times all season. He is averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds a game and is the inside presence the Blazers require to open up the floor for Portland’s jump shooters.

December will not be a particularly easy month for the Trail Blazers. They have a rematch with Seattle on Saturday, and then face a month full of division rivals with some gimme games sprinkled intermittently for some relief. Two games with Utah, a game with the Phoenix Suns, and a six game road trip just before Christmas with games against Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit loom large. Portland closes out the hellacious month with a nationally televised game against San Antonio at home, on Thursday, Dec. 30.