Dare Portland Trail Blazers fans dream of a playoff run this spring in the tough Western Conference?

With a 12-6 record heading into the New York game Dec. 2, the Blazers have soared past pre-season expectations projecting a struggle in the initial part of 2008 since 15 of Portland's first 22 games were scheduled on the road.

But the Blazers have so far overcome both that brutal early schedule and the supposed growing pains of trying to incorporate rookies Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez.

In fact, Portland is fighting for first place in the Northwest Division. But as every fan knows, the Blazers were in a similar battle for first even later in the 2007-08 season before failing even to make the playoffs.

Yes, it's early in the 2008-09 season. But since Portland hasn't made the playoffs since 2003, we're already wondering whether this might be the year the Blazers break that string. Here are three reasons why they should at least make the playoffs and be a tough out for any opponent besides Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers:

Unlike last year, when Brandon Roy had to carry so much of the late-game load as a scorer and defender, this season's team has more players capable of filling those roles when Roy is off. Roy has a higher scoring average this year. But on offense, LaMarcus Aldridge and Fernandez have proven quite capable of sharing the fourth-quarter scoring burden. And on defense, 19-year-old Frenchman Nicolas Batum, along with veteran Travis Outlaw, is an effective long-armed defender when an opponent's top scorer has the ball in the last minutes of a game.

Oden. He's still a work in progress on offense—and fans gasp in injury-fearing horror each time he falls to the floor. But Oden doesn't need to score much on this team, which has five players averaging in double figures. And on defense, he does scare opponents into altering their shots.

The flip side of having 15 of your first 22 games on the road? Why, having 34 of your final 60 at home. And the Blazers are one of just two teams in the NBA—along with the Cleveland Cavaliers—who are undefeated at home.