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The Portland Trail Blazers' rise from playoff hopeful to championship contender should go down as one of the biggest surprises in the first half of the season.
Portland entered the year as a fringe playoff contender, but through the halfway point of the season, it owns the league's fifth-best record (33-13). The Blazers sit a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs and three games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West, while trailing Indiana by 2.5 games in the East.
With LaMarcus Aldridge posting a career-high 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game and sophomore Damian Lillard building upon his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign, the Blazers should be taken seriously. Four losses since Jan. 20 may have some skeptical of the squad's staying power, however.
Consider this: Portland is tied with Miami for the league lead in offensive rating (109.5 points per 100 possessions), per NBA.com. Its defensive shortcomings—it ranks 23rd in defensive rating, per NBA.com—won't be as much of an issue in the regular season as they will in the playoffs.
As the wear and tear of the regular season builds up, a team with such immense scoring potential only stands to benefit. Knowing San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, he'll begin his typical maintenance program for his stars once the No. 1 seed appears wholly out of reach.
That leaves the Thunder as Portland's main obstacle in the West. Reintegrating Russell Westbrook into the OKC lineup could end up costing the team a few games, which should give the Blazers an opportunity to squeak ahead.
In the East, barring another 27-game win streak from the Miami Heat, the Pacers should have the No. 1 seed locked up by early April. That should allow coach Frank Vogel to rest his stars too, opening the door for Portland to seize the league's overall best record.