First road trip will quickly test Blazers

Portland visits Clippers, Thunder before facing Lakers

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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You probably never thought you would read this sentence: Last year, the Trail Blazers were tied for the second best record in the Western Conference.

It’s true. Well, at least it is if you only include home games.

Portland’s 30-11 mark in the Rose Garden last season was bested only by San Antonio (35-6) for home records in the West. So why didn’t the Blazers earn a No. 2 or 3 playoff seed? Because they went a dismal 18-23 on the road.

Portland winning its opening three games of the season is certainly a solid foundation to build off of, but the team would be foolish to allow its start to breed even the slightest hint of complacency. With their first road game coming Sunday against the revitalized Clippers, and their second coming Tuesday against the unbeaten Thunder, the Blazers will get their first opportunity to see if they can have similar success in unfamiliar territory.

“Really, the tough part starts on this trip here,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “We’ve done a really good job of taking care of home court, but now we’re going to see who we are.”

The Blazers will have plenty of opportunities for such self-reflection in the month to come. Of Portland’s 18 games in January, 11 of them are on the road.

Moreover, after they play the Thunder, they will return to host the Lakers on Friday.

But Portland isn’t worried about any opponents appearing later on the schedule at this point. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the rest of the Clippers present enough of a challenge as it stands.

True, the Clippers are 1-2 at this point, but with two All-Stars suddenly on the same team, few expect them to remain on the wrong side of the .500 line for very long.

As Blazers guard Wesley Matthews stated succinctly: “They’re contenders now.”

Griffin, last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, comes into the game averaging 28 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting .548 from the field. Paul, meanwhile, is averaging 15 points and 10.7 assists.

But the Clips are also getting 16 points per game from Chauncey Billups, 13 from Caron Butler, 11 from Mo Williams — and a whopping 4.67 blocks per game from center DeAndre Jordan.

The most intriguing matchup Sunday lies between Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, who enters the game averaging 20.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. The last time he faced Griffin, Aldridge scored 28 points on 13 of 20 shooting. But that, of course, was a whole season ago.

McMillan praised Paul’s court vision Saturday and acknowledged that Griffin’s athleticism and energy poses a unique challenge. Yet, despite the Clippers’ collection of individual talent, McMillan insists his team’s focus remains internal.

“They’re a good team, but it’s not about them, it’s about us,” McMillan said. “They’ve added some talented players and have added some depth. We gotta be solid. This is an opportunity to measure ourselves.”