IT SOUNDED LIKE one of his usual mental games at the time, when Warriors coach Don Nelson put his team on equal plane with the Portland Trail Blazers.

"We're no better than they are," Nelson said before the Warriors' trip to Portland on Dec. 12.

Huh? The Warriors are no better than Portland? Assuredly, the word whatever crossed the mind of those within earshot of Nellie's voice since the wily coach means about a third of what he spews aloud.

The Warriors were a trendy pick to make some noise in the Western Conference this season. The Blazers were unanimously written off after center Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall draft pick, had season-ending knee surgery.

Get outta here, Nellie.

However, just a few weeks later, Nelson is looking quite prophetic -- and not just because the Warriors lost that game at Portland. Out of nowhere, the Blazers have become contenders in the NBA's best conference. The Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston, Denver and New Orleans were widely considered as the five teams battling for the final four postseason spots in the West (San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas and Utah were considered shoo-ins).

But after winning 10 consecutive games, Portland has joined the arena of challengers. The league's youngest team has become one of the feel-good stories of the NBA.

Sound familiar? It should.

That's right. Pink is the new black, rehab is the new yoga and the Blazers are the new Warriors.


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Like the Warriors last season, Portland improved with an addition-by-subtraction trade.

The Warriors shipped forwards Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy to Indiana, dumping big contracts and improving team chemistry.

The Blazers did the same thing in the offseason, sending forward Zach Randolph to New York on draft day.

Like the Warriors last season, Portland is getting a boost from a second-year stud. Golden State guard Monta Ellis emerged as a key player and was named the 2006-07 NBA Most Improved Player.

Second-year forward LaMarcus Aldridge (18.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game) is now one of Portland's best players.

Like the Warriors last season, the Blazers are creating a buzz with their exciting style of play. Portland doesn't play as fast as the Warriors, but it, too, is young, athletic and uptempo.

Led by shooting guard Brandon Roy, one of the league's shining young talents, the Blazers are highly skilled and starving for legitimacy. Portland is responding by embracing the team, creating an increasingly intimidating atmosphere at the Rose Garden.

Not only are the Blazers now a threat to Golden State's postseason security, but Portland is one of the few teams who hold the cards the Warriors could use. Of course, now that they're seeing improvement faster than expected, there's little chance the Blazers would work out a deal that aids the Warriors.

Think about it. What do the Warriors need based on this current roster and style of play? Yup, an athletic power forward who can score inside with consistency, and a reliable back-up point guard who can shoot.

How good would the Warriors be if they were able to pry Aldridge or Steve Blake away from Portland? Certainly, Aldridge was a long shot either way. But if a package highlighted by Ellis and a first-rounder ever would've done the trick, it certainly won't now. The Warriors probably couldn't get Blake for Ellis at this point. Portland has its eyes on the No. 8 seed occupied by Golden State a year ago.

Expect the Blazers to linger around and become a formidable obstacle for the Warriors. Expect the national spotlight of the NBA to shine in the Pacific Northwest more often, as experts and fans hop on the Blazers' bandwagon.

Expect some red and blue "We Believe" signs to start cropping up around March.

Contact Marcus Thompson II at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com.