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No matter playoff fate, Blazers quietly developing into juggernaut


I don't care. OK, Houston 108, Portland 81 in a calamitous Saturday night. I'm still loving the Trail Blazers. Loving the talent, loving the personality, loving the coaching, loving the front-office decisions.

The Blazers didn't need that Hazmat spill of a Game 1 to be reminded that they don't yet rate championship-contender status. There may not be another team less in need of a reality check. Portland is a city that embraces its NBA entry as a civic institution, so, yeah, the safe bet is that the 2008-09 roster gets frequent updates of where it stands compared to where it wants to be.

In the real message, this is only the coming attraction. The Trail Blazers of opening night in October were the second-youngest team in the league, trailing only the Warriors, yet still won 54 games. A candidate to start at small forward, Martell Webster, missed all but five minutes because of a stress fracture in his left foot and the projected starting center, Greg Oden, missed 21 games, yet Portland tied for the second-best record in the West. Without coming close to touching the ceiling, with inexperience and injuries, the breakout season many predicted materialized as if everything had broken right.

The franchise's best season in nine years was a shot across the bow to the rest of the league, and nothing that happened Saturday night changes that. The Blazers could leave the Rose Garden toes up Tuesday night as well and it won't change that.

The team wants a ferocious response in Game 2, of course, and the ability to at least push back will be an important read on the emotional toughness of a roster of nice guys. But out in the real world, Portland has had great forward movement this season no matter what becomes of the first round. This season was always about great forward movement more than a real title shot. The Blazers are playing with house money the rest of the way.

"We feel like we've overachieved for a young team," general manager Kevin Pritchard said a few days before the playoffs began.

The Blazers are the first team in league history to win 50 games while playing four rookies at least 50 games. The No. 25 pick in the draft, Nicolas Batum, started 76 times. No one averaged more than nine rebounds. Only Brandon Roy (22.6) and LaMarcus Aldridge (18.1) averaged more than 13 points.

And yet: 54-28 and home-court advantage in the first round.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich grouped the Blazers, Lakers and Mavericks as the West teams playing especially well at the end of the regular season, understandable as Portland closed with 10 victories in its final 12 games.

"They might be the deepest, most-talented team in the league," Popovich said.

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There had to be a misunderstanding. Either Popovich thought I was asking about the Lakers or I misheard his answer about the Blazers.

No misunderstanding.

Deepest. Most talented.

The Portland Trail Blazers.

"I think so," Popovich said. "You look at some of those young players. I think that the Lakers fit together really well and they've got everything covered, and Phil's done a great job pulling them together. But when you look at six-seven-eight-nine-10 [in the rotation], Portland's got some hellacious depth. And like you said, Webster's not even on the court. Very athletic. Very long. Nate [McMillan] has done a great job with them. Defensively, they've gotten better and better as the year has gone on. They believe in themselves now. I think they're a monster."

Imagine when they get good.

Really sending the rest of the league diving for cover, the Trail Blazers are this much of a factor without coming close to their potential. Viewing their prospects with an updated perspective changes everything.

Oden: No longer has to be a superstar. Just developing into credible and dependable gets Portland to another level. Though that personal improvement alone won't save him from the daily grief of hearing about a No. 1 pick gone bad, it will put him on course for a meaningful career with a legitimate shot at a ring. It won't be the glam life Kevin Durant will be leading, but better than the tracking of the moment.

The front office: Pritchard will be aggressive again this offseason. He always is, only now it gets really, really interesting because the Blazers, with trade chips and Paul Allen's checkbook, can be buyers in what may be the all-time buyers' market around the draft. If $3 million would get a pick in the 20s in past years, Portland may be able to buy into the teens this June with the number of cash-strapped owners out there. The chance to get away from a guaranteed contract and bank millions in one move? Sold!

Blazermaniacs: Their dedication pays off. In one of the few instances where a fan insurrection went beyond talk and became impetus for actual change, turning their back on the beloved franchise during the dark Jail Blazers days forced management into major renovations. Then the new team started to win and the turnstiles whirred again.

"I think the guys on this team have been extremely tough and played through injuries," Pritchard said of the root of the success. "That's No. 1. No. 2 is the character of our team. Everybody in this locker room is a good guy. It's off the charts. Are there small things? You bet. But never has there been a big issue."

So far. We're not at the future yet.