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Team sage adds finesse to Blazer game

Scottie Pippen brings wisdom from more than 1,000 games, six rings

You wondered when the body would break down for good, with all those miles on it. You noticed the statistics and muttered, 'average.' You looked at the salary Ñ $18.1 million this year, $19.7 million next Ñ and cried: 'Overpaid.'

But those in the Trail Blazers' organization understand the value of Scottie Pippen. Even at 36, in a lot of ways, he is the straw that stirs the drink.

And, as Portland has mounted a charge and moved firmly into the Western Conference picture as a contender in the upcoming playoffs, the old war horse is getting his due.

'He has brought our team together with his knowledge and ability to run a team,' says first-year coach Maurice Cheeks, who sounds almost in awe as he speaks of Pippen. 'Even at his age, he brings it. He controls our team. He commands so much respect on the court and in the locker room because of his credentials.

'I learn things from the guy. I listen to him, and it helps me understand things that are going on, things that might be out there on the court, and I apply it to my coaching of the game.'

Blazer guard Steve Kerr was a teammate of Pippen's for five seasons in Chicago, a key member of the Bulls' final three championships in their six-title run. He talks of the 6-8 swing man with reverence, too.

'Without him, we wouldn't be any better than we were two months ago,' says Kerr, referring to the Blazers' 13-18 start. 'People ask me why we are better, and I say because we got healthy. When I say that, I am really talking about Scottie. We had Ruben (Patterson) and Bonzi (Wells) and Damon (Stoudamire) out, but the constant that was missing was Scottie, and we could never develop that rhythm.

'He is the guy who gives our team not only the rhythm and the flow, but sort of that swagger. He has six rings. He has been there. He is the one smiling with three seconds left when he goes to the foul line with the game on the line. He is so relaxed.

'I feel so lucky to have played with the guy. He is one of my favorite teammates of all time.'

Taking it with confidence

Pippen admits he paces himself these days. After all, this is a player who is approaching 1,100 regular-season games, not to mention 201 playoff games.

In other words, add the equivalent of 2 1/2 more seasons to his 15-year career, and the wear and tear is considerable.

Scottie's shooting touch is not always there. He finally has his percentage over .400 (.413 going into Thursday's game against Dallas), but he is finding the range late in close games, often with the shot clock winding down, often from downtown.

In some cases, Pippen has hardly taken a shot for 3 1/2 quarters, before unloading in prime time. Splat!

'It is knowing the game, having the confidence you can make the shot É that's it,' Pippen says. 'When the game gets on the line and the opportunity is there, and the guys know I am going to take the shot, I step up and take it with confidence.'

It is ironic, because through his years of greatness in Chicago, Pippen was known mostly as a slasher and scorer and defender. Role players such as Kerr and John Paxson took care of the long-distance stuff.

'Going to Houston and Portland and being asked to do different things has brought out another side of my game that I had to utilize,' Pippen says.

Other stars have evolved into perimeter shooters as they wound through their careers. Clyde Drexler improved considerably in his later years.

Blazer assistant coach Jim Lynam offers another case: Julius Erving.

'Dr. J was such a flier in his early days, but he relied much more on the jumper at the back end of his career,' Lynam says. 'And I'll tell you another guy: Maurice Cheeks. He was a terrific finisher early on, but in the last four years of his career, he became a big-time knockdown shooter.'

Pippen shares the Blazers' on-court leadership role with Stoudamire.

'That is really what Scottie has been in my ear about the most the last couple of months Ñ keeping the guys' frame of mind right,' Stoudamire says. 'He is one of those guys who plays the game the right way. He helps you out on the floor. As a teammate, he makes the game easier for you.

'And he has been playing good. It seems like if it's not working in some areas of the game, he finds a way to pick it up, wherever it might be. When you have somebody who has been where he has been, you try to emulate his ways and tendencies. That rubs off on people.'

Here to win

At this stage of Pippen's career, what does he get the biggest kick out of? Nailing crucial 3-pointers? Passing? Defense?

'Winning,' he says. 'I don't think any part of the game is special other than winning. I have the ability to do pretty much anything on the court I want to do. I just want to win.

'I don't feel old. I'm old because I have been in the game for so long, but I have worked on building a foundation, and now I feel it is pretty solid. There are things I can do I have always done in my career. Other things I choose not to do because I am a smarter player now.'

Did he give up on the Blazers at one point after their rotten start?

'I would probably agree with you on that,' he says. 'We were wearing our attitudes on our shoulders and weren't playing together as a team to win. Until we changed our attitude, things were not going to look up for us.'

Pippen is careful not to draw comparisons between this Blazer bunch and his Chicago teams.

'Not at this point,' he says. 'The first year I was in Portland, the team was real focused. This year is different. We are focused, but we are surprising ourselves a lot.

'We are a very scary team. If we are playing good basketball, I feel good about our chances against any team out there. But we have to play an almost perfect type of basketball, especially at the defensive end.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at keggers@portlandtribune.com.