Cheeks should find more opportunities to rest his backcourt
As the Trail Blazers stay in the postseason hunt, a few observations about what must happen for them to reach the playoffs for the 22nd successive season.
• Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson and Theo Ratliff must stay healthy. Coach Maurice Cheeks has relied heavily on Stoudamire and Anderson in a backcourt that has no other proven players. Stoudamire has played 40-plus minutes in each of the last five games; since Feb. 10, Anderson has played 40 or more minutes 10 times.
That's too much, but no one behind them is capable of handling major minutes. If Stoudamire gets hurt, Omar Cook, Dan Dickau and Eddie Gill are the backups. If Anderson goes down, the logical move probably would be to shift Darius Miles to the backcourt, with Qyntel Woods or Ruben Patterson filling in. Cheeks must do what he can to limit the playing time of Stoudamire and Anderson, but there is precious little margin for error. Cheeks needs both on the court.
Ratliff's presence at the defensive end has been staggering. Since joining Portland on Feb. 12, he has averaged 4.59 blocked shots per game and turned a weak interior defense into a bastion of strength. The Blazers could cover more easily here than at guard, using Dale Davis, or with Shareef Abdur-Rahim swinging over from power forward, but a Ratliff injury would still be a crucial blow.
• Miles must continue to provide energy and numbers at small forward. In 28 games with Portland, the 6-9 Miles is shooting 52.5 percent while averaging 11.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, scoring in double figures 20 times. He has been effective in the open court for a team that has looked more to its transition game since his acquisition from Cleveland for Jeff McInnis on Jan. 21.
'It's a trade that has been good for both clubs,' Cleveland General Manager Jim Paxson said this week. 'Jeff has stabilized our backcourt, has averaged 10.4 assists and 1.5 turnovers over his last six games, and has allowed LeBron (James) the freedom to play his game and not have to worry about getting us into our offense.
'Portland is making a run, and Darius has been a big part of that. He is playing better, getting a chance to be a major factor on that team, and he wouldn't have been doing that with us.'
Added Paxson: 'It's funny how trades come about. Everybody thinks we traded Darius because he missed that practice (when he overslept a few days before the trade). But really, Jeff became available after he DNP'ed (did not play) at Phoenix and went off on Cheeks about it afterward. It turned out that both players needed a change of scenery.'
• Zach Randolph has to keep posting big numbers. If Blazer brass decides it must trade either Randolph or Abdur-Rahim this summer, it can't be Zach, who continues to be one of the most productive big men in the game. He is one of the NBA's five 20-10 guys (along with Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and the O'Neals, Jermaine and Shaquille) and is fourth in the league with 39 double-doubles. Forget defense or passing out of the double-team; Randolph gets things done as few players in the league do, and he's only 22.
• Abdur-Rahim must stay aggressive and do what he can in limited minutes, a tall order for a seven-year veteran who has never come off the bench. Barring injury to a frontcourt teammate, Abdur-Rahim is not going to play 30 minutes in many games. He will play 15 to 25 minutes, and the Blazers need his scoring when he is in the game.
Abdur-Rahim's performance Tuesday against Milwaukee Ñ 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting in 16 minutes Ñ was ideal. Cheeks needs to find a way to get him on the floor more than 16 minutes, however. One of the league's best and most prolific foul shooters, Abdur-Rahim must get to the line more often than he has in a Portland uniform. And he must be more aware of the shot clock. Too often he has passed to a teammate with fewer than five seconds remaining, resulting in a violation or a hurried shot as the clock expires.
• The Blazers can't worry about Utah or Denver; they have to win the majority of their games and let the schedule play out. Portland has 14 games remaining Ñ eight home, six away Ñ beginning with Saturday's home date against Orlando. Nine of the opponents are playoff-caliber teams. Nine or 10 more wins should secure the eighth spot in the West.
Denver and Utah each has seven of its final 13 games on the road; nine of the Nuggets' opponents and eight of the Jazz opponents are playoff contenders. There could be plenty on the line when the Blazers visit Denver on April 10.