Think back to your schooling days. As soon as the new year started, there was one thing all kids looked forward to besides summer: Christmas vacation.
For the Trail Blazers, the equivalent has finally come: the All-Star break.
Players take this time to relax and recover. To rest and reflect. As the week-long vacation winds down, they look to the future and how to improve and earn a respectable playoff seeding. The Trail Blazers are looking up.
When fans and onlookers think about Portland's season, they specifically remember injuries to Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby and the rough stretch the Trail Blazers endured early on in the season, when Portland suffered a 5-9 November or the six-game skid at the end of that month.
But now, the Trail Blazers sit on similar ground. Last season, Portland headed into All-Star Weekend with a 31-24 record and an eighth-seed in the Western Conference. Now, the Trail Blazers are 32-24 and with a victory against the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday night, hold the fifth spot in the conference.
Last year's squad won 50 games and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. This season's team has more to look forward to and have momentum on its side.
Behind the rolling L-Train in LaMarcus Aldridge, the Trail Blazers have won a season-best six consecutive games and have put together seven victories in nine games at the beginning of February, knocking off elite squads such as the NBA-leading San Antonio Spurs, the Chicago Bulls and the Hornets. This is all without the face of the franchise in Brandon Roy and rebounding forces in Greg Oden and Marcus Camby.
Right now, the Trail Blazers are in great shape. They're jelling as a team, playing entertaining basketball and continuously improving as the year goes on.
We're at the point of the season when players are eroding. They begin to tire and their bodies start to break down, leading to lapses in performance. Portland is the outlier. The Trail Blazers have turned it up a notch and are threatening to move up the Western Conference even further.
Having trouble believing it? Think about it. Aldridge's month-by-month production is unheard of. Since putting up 18.9 points per game in November, Aldridge has taken on the role of go-to guy, pouring in 24.9 points per game in January and 29.1 so far this month, including the franchise's first-ever back-to-back-to-back 36-point outings.
Still not convinced? How about Wesley Matthews, who has filled the Roy-less starting lineup quite well. Not only does Matthews rank second among sophomore scorers at 16.5 points per game, but he's also flourishing in February with 18.67 points per contest.
Still? Take a look at Andre Miller. The veteran point guard is putting his stamp on the game with 14.3 points and 8.8 assists this month along with becoming a closer for the Trail Blazers to seal wins. Not only that, but guys like Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum, Patty Mills and Dante Cunningham are providing productive minutes to help carry Portland.
Look back to the 50-win Trail Blazers. At this point in the season, Portland dropped two-of-three before the break and three out of five. That group was led by Roy, who, although he had to sit because of an injury, posted more than 23 points per night, as Portland put up 97.5 points per game. Portland had Oden and Przybilla bringing down 8.5 and 7.9 boards per game, respectively.
This year's Trail Blazers have gradually increased their scoring to just over that mark, paced by Aldridge, who is averaging career bests with 22.3 points and 8.9 rebounds. These Trail Blazers, as noted earlier, are on a six-game winning streak and have won seven out of their last nine matchups.
This is a different team than we saw in 2010. This is a team that's not only putting opponents away in fourth quarters, but establishing itself as a force to be wreckoned with in the Western Conference. Again, all without key players and a depleting roster. Soon, however, Roy and Camby will return. Bad News Bears for the rest of the league.
The Los Angeles Lakers are faltering. The Hornets are slumping. The Jazz and Nuggets are struggling. The Trail Blazers - rising. Don't be surprised to see Portland continue to climb the conference standings, continue to improve as the season winds down and continue to surprise the NBA World.