PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Not many expected the Portland Trail Blazers to be where they are at the All-Star break - but the Blazers themselves aren't all that surprised.
Following the departure of four starters from last season's team, including All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland was in the first year of a rebuild with one of the youngest rosters in the league. At the start of the season the Blazers weren't expected to do much, and the playoffs seemed like a best-case scenario.
But at the All-Star break, the Blazers are at .500 (27-27) and surprisingly sit in seventh place in the tough Western Conference standings. The team has won eight of its last nine games, and is 12-3 since mid-January. Portland has won eight of its last 10 at home.
''Our team has done a great job of sticking to the grind, working every day in practice and staying together,'' guard Damian Lillard said. ''That's gotten us to where we are now.''
Lillard is also a big reason Portland is there now. The fourth-year point guard is averaging 24.3 points and 7.3 assists per game, the only player that ranks in the league's top six in both categories.
Although he was snubbed this season for an All-Star nod, Lillard has 13 games this season with 30 or more points. So far in February, he's averaging 25.2 points and 9.4 assists.
Lillard is the lone starter left over from last year's Blazers, who went 51-31, clinched the Northwest Division title and advanced to the playoffs. But there was a mass exodus in the offseason, with Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez all heading elsewhere.
While early oddsmakers put Portland's win total this season at 26.5 games, what was left of the team gathered with the new faces for a bonding trip to San Diego before the start of the season. With a starting nucleus that for the most part consists of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu, coach Terry Stotts has put an emphasis on defense and playing to individual strengths.
''Back at the beginning of the season it wasn't about a number,'' Stotts said. ''The goal was to make the playoffs. We've never shied away from that as a goal, and we've got a long way to go.''
The group did get off to a rocky start, with a seven-game losing streak early in November. Then Lillard missed seven games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. McCollum started at point guard in Lillard's absence and the Blazers went 4-3.
The Blazers saw improvement in January, going 9-5 for their best finish in that month since the 2008-09 season when they posted the same record.
''We dug ourselves a hole to start the season, giving up some games late, but we stuck with it, we kept going, we kept working,'' Lillard said. ''We didn't get too high or too low.''
McCollum is making a case as most improved player of the year, averaging 20.7 points, 4.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds, and creating a dangerous backcourt tandem with Lillard.
''When those two guys are on the floor they demand your attention, they do a great job of working together,'' Atlanta's Kent Bazemore said. ''You see what they do on paper and watch film, but when you are out there on the floor it's totally different.''
Lillard also said that Stotts and the rest of the coaching staff have been methodical about preparation.
''It's hard to bring that energy and be on point every day and the coaches have all year,'' Lillard said. ''They're pulling guys aside, watching film, getting there early and getting guys shots in. They've just done a great job with the team and being patient.''
The Blazers resume the season on Friday at home against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who have lost just four games this season. They head into the game with a three-game winning streak.
The NBA trade deadline also looms on Thursday. Portland has been a rumored participant in trade talks, but nothing concrete has emerged.