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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Midway through the season, Portland aims to make NBA playoffs, win a series

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers have taken some lumps so far during a shorthanded season.Imagine what the Trail Blazers might have been this season.

With a starting lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Hassan Whiteside, Rodney Hood and Zach Collins, a bench featuring Kent Bazemore, Anfernee Simons, Pau Gasol and Skal Labissiere and Jusuf Nurkic a February addition, Portland could have been a contender again for an NBA Western Conference championship.

Instead, the Blazers hit the midseason point with a 17-24 record, languishing in 10th place in the West after losses to a succession of lottery teams (Cleveland, New York, Golden State, Minnesota and New Orleans, to name a few).

To their credit, the Blazers aren't using injuries as an excuse.

"I never say injuries," coach Terry Stotts told me this week.

But he could, and I wouldn't blame him.

Collins was lost three games into the season with a dislocated shoulder. Hood played 21 games before being lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Gasol never made it back from off-season foot surgery. Labissiere is likely to miss at least six weeks with a knee injury.

Without Hood's injury, Portland might not have added Carmelo Anthony, and he likely wouldn't have played such a key role. Maybe the Blazers would have taken him, anyway, to add depth and another veteran leader.

When Whiteside missed last Saturday's loss to Milwaukee with a respiratory infection, Stotts was left with 6-8 journeyman Anthony Tolliver and two-way rookie forward Jaylen Hoard at the post.

Those are the breaks, and other teams (see: Golden State) have had them this season.

Had the Blazers stayed relatively healthy, they might have been up there with the Denvers and Utahs and Houstons and Los Angeles Clippers, jockeying for home-court advantage behind the front-running L.A. Lakers in the West.

Instead, Portland is in dry dock, hoping to stay afloat until the injured return.

The Blazers' preseason goal was a spot in the NBA Finals.

"That's been adjusted," Stotts conceded last week. "Our hopes were pretty high going into the season. Right now, our goal is to make the playoffs and win a playoff series.

"In some sense, that's always the goal going into a season. You want to qualify for the playoffs, win the division, win the conference championship and an NBA championship. Those have consistently been our goals since I've been here. In that context, they haven't changed. We have the second half of the season to go. The first goal is to make the playoffs."

Portland is still a decent offensive team, ranking first in the NBA in free throw percentage (.813), 13th in scoring (111.5 points per game) and 3-point percentage (.360) and 14th in offensive rating.

The Blazers are a poor defensive club, ranking 21st in opponents' field-goal percentage (.446), 23rd in opponents' scoring (113.9), 24th in defensive rating, 26th in opponents' turnovers and 29th in steals.

With the dearth of big bodies, they're 28th in rebound percentage, even with Whiteside's good work on the boards.

"We're disappointed with our record," Stotts said. "We've lost a lot of games we felt we should have won. Our defense hasn't been as good as it needs to be to be a winning team. The injuries have impacted our season, but I don't think anybody is using that as an excuse. And we have a long way to go."

Stotts points to the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons as reasons for hope.

The first season, Blazers were eight games under .500 in January — and coincidentally 17-24 at the midway point — and ended up with 44 wins and a playoff series victory over the Clippers. The next season, they were 11 games under .500 on March 1 and still got to 41-41.

"We never count ourselves out," Stotts said. "We have an uphill road, but there are a bunch of teams in the West who have uphill roads right now."

It's true. There are plenty of bad teams in the West. There are six strong teams, and No. 7 Oklahoma City (23-17) has a 6 1/2-game lead on the Blazers. The eighth playoff spot is wide open, though, with Portland, Memphis, San Antonio, Phoenix, Minnesota, Sacramento and New Orleans all within 3 1/2 games of one another.

Stotts is keeping a stiff upper lip. I asked him Monday if this has been the most trying of his eight seasons as the Blazers' coach.

"We have a long way to go," he said. "It's too early to say. Get back with me in April. Those are things you evaluate after the season."

Fair enough. As far as half-seasons go, though, this one certainly qualifies.

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