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Blazers shots are falling

Nick Van Exel and Damon Stoudamire are posting big numbers

Even as the injury-riddled Trail Blazers deal with the misery that goes with a 1-9 record over the past 10 games going into Saturday's home date with Minnesota, there are bright spots.

Ruben Patterson is playing hard and usually quite well, Joel Przybilla is emerging as a potential center of the future and Ha Seung-Jin has proved himself as one large South Korean.

The greatest reason for optimism, though, comes from guards Nick Van Exel and Damon Stoudamire, who have been as hot as any backcourt in the NBA.

Perimeter scoring punch had been lacking all season, and Van Exel and Stoudamire Ñ both in the final year of their contracts Ñ seemed to be on a slow boat going nowhere, with shooting percentages in the low 30s.

In the past seven games, with forwards Zach Randolph, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Darius Miles on the shelf, Van Exel and Stoudamire have turned into the second coming of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. Since the second game of that stretch, the 6-1 Van Exel, 33, and the 5-10 Stoudamire, 31, have teamed as starters in the league's smallest backcourt Ñand made the biggest noise.

The numbers are eye-popping: Van Exel Ñ .496 shooting, .523 on 3-pointers, 22.4 points per game, 6.0 assists; Stoudamire Ñ .476, .456, 26.1 and 5.4.

That's a combined 48.5 points, 11.4 assists and 9.3 3-pointers per game from the southpaw duo. It's been bombs away, and it's been a sight to behold.

'The energy they've put out on the floor has been amazing,' coach Maurice Cheeks says. 'They play together as if they have been together a long time, even though it's their first season together. They play off each other's styles pretty well.'

Van Exel says a change of attitude has brought out Nick Van Excellent.

'My first couple of months here, I was concentrating on getting the ball inside, playing off the big guys and taking opportunities when they came,' he says. 'Now it's like a shoot-first mentality. I think every shot I take is going in. At least it looks good. The release is good.

'When I was with Denver (from 1998-2002), I didn't have to shoot the first two quarters. I knew I could get it going in the third and fourth quarters. I tried to do that here early on, and it didn't work. It kind of got me into a slump. I kind of lost confidence as far as being aggressive. I started passing more, and it messed my game up some. Now it's about being aggressive from the outset and not worrying about it.'

Stoudamire's recent play is his best since his time with Toronto (1995-98), when he averaged nearly 20 points per game.

'Right now, I feel like I can hit a shot from anywhere,' he says. 'Most of the shots I'm taking have been tough shots. The confidence grows every game, and part of that is I've been able to take a lot of shots (an average of more than 20 over the last seven games) and get into a groove.

'Me and Nick know how to play. We're both scoring point guards, and we're playing well together, knowing where each other is going (on the court).'

Notes

With Randolph and Miles due back perhaps as early as Saturday, it begs the questions: Can Van Exel and Stoudamire continue with the hot hands? Can they mesh with the Blazers' inside threats? Will Cheeks still give them the green light? '(Van Exel and Stoudamire) will still shoot the ball,' the coach promises. 'We'd like to have a post-up game. It's important. There are times when those (perimeter) shots are not going to fall, but we're not going to go post, post, post. We'll incorporate some post-up plays with our outside shooting.'

Even with creaky knees, Van Exel has shown a quick first step in recent games, allowing him to hit floaters in the lane and pass off to teammates for layups and dunks. He says intense therapy has been the key. 'The knees are a lot of work,' Van Exel says. 'I just have to stay on top of it. (The knees) feel pretty good right now, but I can't have days where I let up on (therapy).'

Has Van Exel's recent play caused him to reconsider his decision to retire at season's end? 'A lot of people have been saying that,' he shrugs, 'but my mind is pretty much made up.'

Abdur-Rahim, who underwent elbow surgery Jan. 12, says doctors predict he will return to action in late February. 'But hopefully I can be a quick healer and be back before that,' he says.

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