Portland’s schedule will get tougher after the All-Star game
The Trail Blazers passed their January test. Now things get interesting.
Portland didn't sweep the month of January, as forward Scottie Pippen had wished for. The Blazers were 10-4, though Ñ 10-2 beginning with a Jan. 5 victory over Philadelphia in the Rose Garden.
The schedule was fortuitous, with games against only two teams currently more than a game over .500 Ñ Sacramento and Toronto ÑÊand both at home.
Still, the Blazers took care of business and, going into Thursday's home date with Phoenix, had resurrected themselves from 13-18 and sixth place in the Pacific Division to 23-20 and third.
This month's schedule offers a stiffer trial, especially during a post-All-Star game stretch from Feb. 13-20 when Portland faces Dallas, Boston and the Lakers at home and the Clippers and Seattle on the road.
'We know the schedule is going to get tougher,' Pippen says. 'We are going to have to start playing a lot of the top teams in the league. It is a good time for us. We are playing a lot better basketball. There is no reason for us to shy away from the challenge.'
Some reasons for optimism as the Blazers plow ahead toward what they hope are bigger and better things:
Since the 76ers game, only one team Ñ Sacramento Ñ has scored 100 points against Portland, and seven of 12 opponents have been under 90. The perimeter defense still needs to get better Ñ foes are shooting .384 from 3-point range Ñ but the Blazers' work around the basket has been impressive.
'Defense has been a major part of our resurgence,' coach Maurice Cheeks noted after a 92-86 win over Seattle on Tuesday. 'Rasheed (Wallace) had five blocked shots tonight, and Bonzi (Wells) took an important charge late in the game. That's winning basketball, and it starts with effort at the defensive end.'
Says Pippen: 'We know playing defense is key for our ballclub. That's probably our greatest weapon right now. We are able to shut teams down.'
The soft-spoken power forward-turned-center has quietly gone about doing the dirty work, and more. Against the Sonics, the 6-11 veteran was sensational, making nine of 10 shots en route to a 20-point, 14-rebound game. Over his last 10 games, not counting a four-minute stint against Orlando, Davis has shot .639 from the field while averaging 11.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. For the season, he is shooting a team-high .532 with averages of 9.6 points and 8.4 boards.
The Blazers run no plays for Davis, who gets most of his scoring chances off put-back opportunities and feeds from driving teammates. Opponents often double-team Wallace or drop off Davis to help in the paint, leaving the 11th-year pro alone. And more often than ever, Davis, who turns 33 in March, is showing a deft touch on jumpers in the 10- to-15-foot range.
'It is something I have been working on throughout my career,' he says. 'Each year, I have been getting better. I have added some confidence in being able to take those shots, and that has been a big key.'
Tandem at the point
For stretches in each game, Cheeks uses the 6-7 Pippen to run the offense, with the 5-9 Stoudamire working to rub his defender off picks for an open jumper.
Though he shot poorly in Seattle (4 for 15), Damon is going through one of the most productive stretches of his career. Mighty Mouse has hit double digits in scoring in each of his last nine games while averaging 17.7 points. Over the same duration, Pippen shot poorly (.373) but did a nice job getting the ball to the right people.
It's a good fit for Pippen, who shows offense only in bursts at this stage of his career, such as he did with eight points in four minutes of the second quarter in Tuesday's Seattle game. He says soreness in his back and knee, along with the normal ravages on his 36-year-old body, prevent him from spending his energy to create at the offensive end on a consistent basis.
'It has been fun,' says Pippen, a seven-time All-Star at small forward during his years with Chicago. 'It is a different role. I don't look to do as much from an offensive standpoint as I have done throughout my whole career. I'm content with it. We have guys on this team who can put the ball in the hole. Scoring is not my main concern.
'And it is great for Damon. He can put the ball in the basket for us. Putting him away from the ball allows him to get to certain areas on the court, where we can look for his offense. He doesn't have to have the ball in his hands to be effective for us offensively.'
Says Seattle coach Nate McMillan: 'Maurice has adjusted (the Blazers') style to his talent on hand. Scottie thinks and plays like a point guard. Damon is more a scorer, a 2 guard in a point guard's body. With Damon at the 2 and Pippen running the offense, it causes some problems for the defense, because guys wind up playing in unfamiliar positions.'
The Blazers have it for the first time this season. Cheeks chafes at a suggestion that the February schedule could provide a rude awakening for his troops.
'We have already played some pretty tough games,' the first-year coach says. 'I don't think it's always about us playing the tough teams. We are a tough team right now. We are starting to believe in ourselves. Our guys are ready to step up and challenge anybody we play.'
Adds Stoudamire: 'It's a tough schedule ahead of us, but there are teams we can beat. It just takes a little bit of confidence. You win some games, you are going to start feeling good about yourselves. And we have been winning games.'
Portland has dug such a hole, anything higher than sixth in the West might be too much to hope for.
Pippen says the Blazers can't worry about it.
'There are a lot of good teams ahead of us that played good ball at the start of the season,' he says. 'It's hard to say those teams will fall late in the season. We can only control our destiny and try to maintain the way we are playing now.'