Jackson offers Blazer analysis


When Ruben Patterson and Shawn Kemp are playing off the bench as they did Sunday against the Lakers É when Bonzi Wells is scoring and rebounding as he did last week (25.0 points, 9.0 boards in four games) É when Rasheed Wallace is draining his beloved 3-pointers (10 for 21 in those four games) É when the Trail Blazers are playing in the Rose Garden, at least since early January É they can play with anybody in the NBA.

I'm not convinced those are bankable items come playoff time. Sounds as if Phil Jackson isn't either, even after Portland's win over his two-time defending champions, minus the Big Bad Big Toe (aka Shaquille O'Neal).

Jackson is one of the few coaches willing to give you a fairly honest appraisal of the opposition. When you have won eight NBA championships, you don't have to sugarcoat anything.

Phil on the Blazers:

'They have pretty good talent Ñ athletic players, a lot of good shooting. They can rebound, too. (Scottie) Pippen is in good health now; that is a big key for them. They have been inconsistent from game to game, though. I thought they had turned the corner after the Miami comeback (a 92-90 Heat victory at the Garden on Jan. 10), but they had a couple of things that set them back, like the Minnesota loss (Feb. 6). É I anticipated better performance from them as far as the character of their team goes. I wonder about how they go to make the kind of adjustments you have to make from game to game. Of course, I worry about our team doing that, too.

'They have a defense that can make you change what you are trying to run. They threw us off-balance today. But I don't know how solid they are in the middle. We didn't have much of an interior game. That is one thing I still wonder about Ñ what their toughness would be.'

Jackson figures the Lakers, Sacramento, Dallas and Minnesota will finish as the top four in the Western Conference and hold homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. He gives Portland and Utah a chance to pass San Antonio and move up to fifth.

'San Antonio has struggled a little bit, in large part because of David Robinson's play,' Jackson says. 'It looks to me that it is going to round up to four teams at the top, and (the Blazers) and Utah are going to be squeezing around for fifth and sixth.'

San Antonio held a six-game advantage on Portland going into the Blazers' Monday game with the Clippers. But the Spurs have played only .500 ball the past three weeks. If they are playing like this going into the playoffs, the Admiral and friends will be playing golf by mid-May.

Assuming Shaq is healthy, the only teams the Blazers couldn't play with in the postseason are the Lakers and Sacramento. Dallas is vulnerable because of shaky defense and shoddy rebounding. There are those who would say Minnesota is better off with Terrell Brandon gone (lost for the year with a knee injury), but I beg to differ.

TeeBee is a veteran who has been through many a playoff war, and those kind of players are invaluable in the heat of battle. Plus, the Timberwolves are woefully thin on the bench with Chauncey Billups as the starter and Brandon in street clothes.

An embarrassing start (13-18) cost the Blazers big-time, because it took away a legitimate shot at a top-four West finish and homecourt advantage in the first round. If the Spurs go .500 the rest of the way, they will finish with 48 or 49 wins. Portland would have to close 23-8 to pass them.

The Blazers have not established themselves as much of a threat on the road (9-15 going into the Clippers contest). If the playoffs started today, they would qualify as the No. 7 team in the West, set to face Midwest champion Dallas, and would have to win at least one game at American Airlines Center in order to advance.

That is not insurmountable, but not as appealing as three games of a five-game series at home.

NBA, NOT IBA: David Stern has a vision, and he is bound and determined to share it with all of us. The NBA commissioner sees dollar signs when he thinks about expansion outside the United States, and it has been that way for years. You can almost see him frothing at the mouth ('the globality of what we are doing is slowly beginning to dawn on us') when he talks about the pre-eminence of international players and the possibility of having franchises in Mexico City or Europe or starting an NBA-sponsored league outside the United States.

Stern says NBA expansion would mean multiple sites, not just one, with a timetable at least three or four years away.

We will probably see it some day, with teams in Frankfurt, Germany, and Paris and Madrid, Spain, but it leaves me cold. Can you imagine the travel problems?

Scheduling? What kind of competitive disadvantage would it be to the European teams forced to the road for weeks on end?

And really, Stern needs to take care of business at home first. Last year, a city (Vancouver) lost a franchise, and Charlotte appears to be making it two in two years. In addition, a half-dozen other franchises aren't drawing worth beans, including Eastern Conference leader New Jersey, Atlanta, Denver, Houston and Golden State. Even Memphis, in its maiden voyage, has had a disappointing response from fans. With apologies to Toronto, this isn't the International Basketball Association; for now, we should keep it that way.

NOTES: When was the last time the Lakers captured the regular-season series with Portland? Way back in 1992-93. The teams have split the series the last four years and are 1-1 this season, with games in L.A. on March 29 and Portland on April 14. É For a team that was listed at the start of the season as the smallest in the league, Portland has taken care of business on the boards. The Blazers are fourth in the league in rebounding percentage and have outrebounded foes in 19 of the last 22 games at a whopping difference of 8.2 per game. Power forward-turned-center Dale Davis leads the way, averaging 11 over the past 15 games, but the Blazers get help from all five positions. 'We do a decent job of getting five guys down there,' Davis says. 'Everybody is chipping in.' It is a return to a longtime trend for Portland teams, which finished among the top five in the league in rebounding 12 straight seasons, from 1987-99. The last two seasons, though, they fell to 14th and 18th. É

Coach Maurice Cheeks has cut his rotation to eight players, with Patterson, Kemp and Derek Anderson playing regular minutes off the bench. Steve Kerr and Rick Brunson are getting only spot minutes, Chris Dudley and Zach Randolph mostly pine time. É Patterson and Kemp have earned even more time than they are getting. Patterson has played 20 minutes or fewer in 14 of the last 21 games. Kemp, playing with the most force and swagger he has shown since arriving before the 2000-01 season, is averaging only 13.4 minutes per game. Anderson, meanwhile, has yet to find a rhythm. Hampered by injuries, he has averaged only 9.0 points on .403 shooting over his last 23 games. É

Portland is averaging 15.7 3-point attempts a game while shooting .365 this season compared with 12.3 attempts and .349 a year ago. Says Cheeks: 'We shoot 3s; that's what we do. It doesn't concern me.' Cheeks adds that he would like to see a little more effort to drive to the basket. Though Cheeks would never single him out publicly, Wallace is the player he most has in mind. Few players in the league have changed their game as swiftly as Mr. T. As recently as the 1999-2000 season, he was only 8 of 50 from 3-point range. Last year, Wallace was 52 of 162 (.321), and this season, he is already 62 of 172 (.360) from beyond the stripe. If Arvydas Sabonis were still around, it would make more sense. As it is, Portland really needs Wallace's post-up presence, but it's not his thing anymore.

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