When top draft pick Greg Oden was lost for the season because of knee surgery, many wrote off the Portland Trail Blazers. Now, the NBA's youngest team is proving it can do fine without him.
The Blazers have won nine straight, the longest current winning streak in the NBA after the Boston Celtics lost at home to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
Portland (14-12) came from behind to beat the Toronto Raptors 101-96 to extend the streak, the team's longest since it won 12 straight in the 2001-02 season.
They can go one better on Friday night when they host the Denver Nuggets.
The Blazers started the streak with a win Dec. — at Memphis, after going 5-12 to start the season. Six of the nine wins have come at home, where the Blazers are 11-3.
Portland has not been two games above .500 since April 10, 2004.
The Blazers themselves seem a bit surprised.
"It's hard to say. I think early maybe it was a hot streak," guard Brandon Roy said. "But I think now we are getting confident, and we are getting better. I think now people kind of want to see us lose to see how we respond, to see were they really that good or were they just riding a wave?"
Roy is one of the primary reasons the Blazers are winning.
Last season's Rookie of the Year has been averaging 24.2 points a game during the streak. He has been named the Western Conference player of the week the past two weeks.
Against Toronto, he was battling the flu and hadn't eaten for two days, but still managed 25 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. In the third quarter on a driving layup he switched the ball from his right hand to his left in midair, a stunning move that left coach Nate McMillan commenting: "It was like Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals."
The crowd at the Rose Garden chanted: "MVP! MVP!"
"Unbelievable. He's just taking over the game," McMillan said. "You're talking about the bast player in the West for two weeks in a row. No question it's All-Star caliber."
For the season, Roy is averaging 19.2. points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
"I think this year, or even earlier in the season when I did have good games, I don't think I was confident. There were times I didn't feel totally in control out there," Roy said. "Where now I just feel I'm in a zone. I'm just in control. I feel like I can get a shot when I need one, I can make a play for my teammates."
The Blazers have won despite the five-game absence of starting forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who returned against Toronto with 15 points and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-11 forward was having trouble with planta fasciitis, a heel injury.
"I wanted it for him so he could feel the streak," general manager Kevin Pritchard said after the Blazers' latest victory.
Portland's bench has also been key to the team's success. Jarrett Jack, Travis Outlaw and James Jones lead a group that has averaged 41.9 points a game.
Jones, who was acquired in the offseason from Phoenix, has made 20-of-37 3-point attempts, and 28-of-29 free throws over the nine games. Outlaw has 11 blocked shots.
Through it all, Oden has often looked on from the bench, usually wearing a suit and a broad smile. The 7-footer's rookie season was over before it began when he had microfracture surgery on his right knee in September.
With the way the season is shaping up for the Blazers right now, Oden's return next season has become all the more exciting.
"This is what you play for. You play for wins," Jones said. "You don't play for stats, you don't play just to compete. You don't play for anything besides wins."
Blazers red hot and rollin' again