Rip City reality check

Three games. Three measly wins. That’s all that separates the Trail Blazers from the top spot in the Western Conference.

Three games. Three measly wins. That’s all that separates the Trail Blazers from the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Blazers (21-13) are within legitimate striking distance of the San Antonio Spurs (23-9) and the NBA season is well over 40 percent complete. Making the playoffs, a ludicrous concept just a month ago, now seems inevitable.

John Hollinger, stat wiz, gives the Blazers a 61 percent chance to make the postseason. A few years ago, there was a 61 percent chance of a player getting arrested on any given day.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it hasn’t been this good for fans of the local five since just before “the collapse” against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. The wheels fell off after that loss, and soon after, fan interest fell off as well.

It took three coaching changes, a completely new (and ridiculously young) roster and eight long years for the dark clouds above One Center Court to finally lift, but it’s about time to start giving this team its due.

Pundits and fans have been quick to issue plenty of compliments following Portland’s 13-game winning streak in December that resulted in a Coach of the Month award for Nate McMillan. General manager Kevin Pritchard has received plenty of love, as has the nucleus of exciting young talent.

Even the fans themselves got their due from Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who gives credit to the disgruntled locals for forcing a change in culture that replaced the “Jail Blazers,” with 15 of the nicest guys in the Association.

Those 15 guys also happen to be very good NBA players, though, on many nights, not all at once. In the Blazers’ 103-89 win over Utah Saturday night it was Martell Webster scoring 24 points in the third quarter alone while Brandon Roy, out with a bruised tailbone, cheered from the bench.

It’s been swingman James Jones, who the Blazers outright stole from the Phoenix Suns, hitting threes pretty much at will. It’s been Travis Outlaw, playing pedestrian basketball until coming alive with clutch shots when it matters most, in the fourth quarter.

Even the road has been good to Portland during this improbable stretch of 16 wins in 17 games. During the streak, Portland is 5-1 on the road, including a rousing 115-109 double-overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls last week.

However, amid all the euphoria the apparent rebirth of the franchise brings, it may be wise to note that the Blazers play seven of the next eight games on the road. The seven-game road trip includes stops in Boston, Miami and Orlando.

And while Portland is just three tantalizing games behind conference-leading San Antonio, the Blazers are also three games away from slipping out of the playoffs and suffering a fifth-consecutive year without competing in the postseason.

If that seems like doomsday prognostication to you, fair enough. But remember a time, just last year, when it appeared as if this season was just another step in the rebuilding process and it would take much more than this scrappy squad of youngsters to blow those stormy clouds away.