The streak will not end this season. The Trail Blazers will reach the NBA playoffs for the 22nd straight year, and Utah's playoff run will die after 20 years. Portland will finish 43-39, besting both Utah and Denver by a game for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.

Then the fun begins. Pundits throughout the country will project the Blazers as fodder for the West's top-seeded power in a seven-game first-round series. A closer look tells us that won't happen.

Today's No. 1 seed in the West, Sacramento, has sputtered since Chris Webber returned to the lineup, playing lousy defense and some equally shaky offense. The Blazers have beaten the Kings three times. Home fans are booing Webber, and he is hinting he may ask for a trade in the offseason.

Minnesota? Portland whipped the Timberwolves twice in a five-day period earlier in the month Ñ and the Blazers aren't the only ones to beat up on Minnesota of late.

San Antonio? The defending NBA champions are 2-0 against Portland, with back-to-back meetings between the teams set for the final week of the regular season. But an aggravation of Tim Duncan's sore left knee would leave the Spurs with the talent base of a lottery team.

The L.A. Lakers are the potential opponent to be feared. Kobe Bryant is playing some of his best ball; Shaquille O'Neal is, well, Shaq; and with Karl Malone back, the Lakers have a real shot at surpassing Sacramento to gain the top seed in the conference.

That could mean a rematch with Portland's old playoff nemesis. Since 1983, the Lakers have won nine of 10 playoff series with the Blazers. If I am Maurice Cheeks, I am pulling hard for the Kings to hold on.

On another note: It is fortunate for Cheeks, Damon Stoudamire and the entire organization that Cheeks came to the realization late last season that Stoudamire doesn't have to be the prototypical setup point guard Cheeks was.

Let's not forget that Stoudamire endured 23 DNP-CDs (did not play-coach's decision) until regaining his starting job when Scottie Pippen was injured last March. Now he's back to being a jitterbugging, 3-point shooting, scoring point man for the first time since his days in Toronto. He's happy, confident and enjoying himself on the court for the first time in years.

A warning, though: Stoudamire's minutes are way too high. Going into Monday's game at New York, he had played at least 40 minutes in nine straight games, including a 49-minute stint in Saturday's overtime win over Seattle. He says he feels good, but at this rate, his body will be spent if the Blazers make the postseason.

Same with Derek Anderson, who had played 40 or more minutes five straight games and 14 times since the All-Star break. Anderson has played only 42 games after missing the early season with a back injury, so his body isn't as worn down as Stoudamire's. But the back acts up at times, Anderson admits, and he has a certain fragility that suggests more rest would be a very good idea.

Dwight Jaynes is on vacation.

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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