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Daniels gets his due

• Ex-Blazer hits comfort zone in Sonic starting role

As out-of-position small forwards Darius Miles and Qyntel Woods stumbled their way through embarrassing stints as backup point guard in the last two weeks, one thing became painfully obvious:

Boy, could the Trail Blazers use Antonio Daniels.

Daniels, the odd man out in Portland's overstocked backcourt last season, is now the starting point guard of the Seattle SuperSonics, who will visit the Rose Garden on Sunday.

With Brent Barry sidelined by a broken finger, Daniels has stepped into the lineup and played perhaps the best ball of his seven-year NBA career. He had career highs of 30 points and 14 assists in separate games against Sacramento in the last week.

And the 6-4 Daniels has played well all season, even while coming off the bench and getting spotty minutes as late as Jan. 16, when he played only six minutes in a loss at New York. In his last seven games going into a Thursday trip to San Antonio, Daniels has made 40 of 69 field-goal attempts (.580), -including 9 of 20 (.450) from 3-point range and 25 of 29 (.862) from the free-throw line. Over that span, he has averaged 16.3 points, 7.9 assists and just one turnover.

For the season, Daniels is averaging 8.6 points and 4.0 assists, and his shooting has been sensational Ñ .506 from the floor, .406 from 3-point range and .827 from the line. Compare that with his career numbers (.448, .326, .742). He also leads the NBA by a wide margin in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.94).

'What could I do?'

'It feels great,' says Daniels, who turns 29 next month. 'You develop a comfort level after a certain time. I have felt comfortable with this team all year, but initially the minutes weren't there.'

What a change from last year, when Daniels battled for playing time in the guard glut that included Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Jeff McInnis, Bonzi Wells, Derek Anderson and Charles Smith. Daniels, psyched for a new challenge when he was acquired in a trade with San Antonio the previous summer, averaged a career-low 3.7 points and 1.3 assists in just 13 minutes per game.

'I never really got an opportunity in Portland,' he says. 'It was unfortunate, but what could I do? We had so many guards. Funny thing is, there are no guards there now. It's ironic. But that's the way it goes sometimes.'

Portland management chose not to try to re-sign Daniels as a free agent last summer. He signed a three-year, $6.6 million deal Ñ with an opt-out after next season Ñ with Seattle. Since then, the Blazers have allowed Pippen and Smith to walk and traded Wells and McInnis, and find themselves with CBA veteran Omar Cook on a 10-day trial as the backup point guard.

Blazer depth makes difference

Daniels has always been a solid defender and a to-the-basket penetrator, with perimeter shooting his weakness. He spent last summer working with shooting coach Walter Kramer in San Antonio.

'Worked out twice a day, on ballhandling and shooting the ball, being balanced, the release and that sort of thing,' Daniels says. 'We put me in situations where I would take shots during the course of a game. I think it has helped, and it helps that I enjoy the team, the coaching staff and the system in Seattle.'

Daniels says he harbors no bitterness for his lost year in Portland.

'Last year happened for a reason,' he says. 'I learned a lot about myself, which enabled to come to this situation feeling comfortable and confident. The Blazers did what they felt they had to do to be successful, and I can't blame them for that. You play the guys you think can help you win.'

Daniels passed on the chance to comment on the troubles of Portland's 2003-04 team, other than to offer this observation: 'We were a deeper team last year than they are this year. That is the biggest difference -I notice. We were deeper and more versatile. We had Zach Randolph coming off the bench. That is scoring punch off the bench they don't have now.'

Notes

Daniels' teammate Ray Allen was named as a reserve to the West team for the All-Star Game despite missing 25 games. The selection of Allen killed Randolph's chances. The Blazer forward was overlooked by West coaches despite being one of five players in the NBA to average 20 points and 10 rebounds and being among the league's top 10 in scoring (ninth, 21.5), rebounds (fifth, 11.0), offensive rebounds (fourth, 3.5), double-doubles (fourth, 26) and efficiency rating (ninth). 'People are talking about Carmelo (Anthony) and LeBron (James) being snubbed, but I think I got the worst of it all,' Randolph says. 'But I'm happy for everybody who made it. It is just motivation for me for the future. I will just try to make it next year.' É Randolph could be added if an All-Star is unable to play because of injury. In that case, it is Commissioner David Stern's call, and he historically has added a player at the same position as the player unable to perform.

It is amazing that Rasheed Wallace has only 12 technical fouls and that his ejection in Wednesday's win at Phoenix was his first this season. No player protests calls more often than the three-time NBA technicals champion; the referees almost always let it go. His ejection nearly cost the Blazers a victory against the Suns, but Mr. T never seems to worry about that.

Sonic rookie Luke Ridnour continues to struggle, though he had a nice game this week with 12 points and four assists in the fourth quarter of a win over Chicago. Says Allen: '(Opponents) look at him like a little kid. He is small, and they try and take the ball from him. He has to find out what his niche is going to be. I know he can dribble and he can shoot, but there is something early that he has to cling to and say, 'This is what I am going to do well.' '

Barry is in the final year of a five-year, $26 million contract and is looking for a four-year contract at about $23 million. The Sonics have reportedly offered two years at $10 million. Several teams, including Boston, have expressed an interest in signing him as a free agent this summer.

Ex-Blazer assistant coach Caldwell Jones is back at his former job as a member of the staff at Division II Tuskegee (Ala.) University. 'I'm having fun,' says Jones, who also spent four years in a Portland uniform in the 1980s. 'I still watch what the Blazers are doing. Coach (Maurice) Cheeks and I were friends before I went there, and we will always be friends. It has been a roller-coaster season for them. Hopefully they will be more consistent the rest of the way.'

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