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Blazer road games will be a reality check

Portland is 0-5 away from home against the top four teams in the Western Conference

It's not too early to think about playoff matchups for the Trail Blazers, who are all but locked into the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference with three weeks left in the NBA's regular season.

Portland could wind up facing any one of the top four teams in the best-of-five first round Ñ Sacramento, the Lakers, Dallas or San Antonio Ñ with the opponent holding homecourt advantage.

In their final 11 games of the regular season, the Blazers will play three of the possible first-round opponents, with road games against the Lakers tonight and against Dallas and San Antonio on April 8 and 9, and a home date with the Lakers on April 14.

Portland will use those three road games as a barometer of its playoff readiness. The Blazers are 0-5 in road games against the four teams ahead of them in the West this season.

That doesn't matter to coach Maurice Cheeks, who declares: 'We can play anybody. We can beat anybody. And anybody can beat us.'

Damon Stoudamire would just as soon avoid the Lakers in the first round, but not because he considers them the best in the West. He believes that league officials don't want to see the two-time defending champions ousted in the first round. The fix, he says, could be on.

'It just doesn't seem like some people would want them out of there that fast,' the point guard says, refusing to get more specific. 'I wouldn't want to play them in the first round. The odds would be stacked against you.'

Scottie Pippen is of the mind to get the Lakers out of the way early.

'I'm not a runaway type of guy,' the veteran swing man says. 'If I am going to get eliminated, eliminate me in the first round. Get me the best out there. That's where the prize is.

'The Lakers are not playing that great right now, but they don't need to play great. They did their work early, as all the teams ahead of us have done. We have to play great. When we play bad now, ain't nobody respecting us. We are more focused right now than most teams. Most teams are on cruise control. We are trying to make people forget about our first half of the season.'

Sacramento and Dallas are offense-minded teams that are only so-so in the rebounding and defensive departments, which are staples at playoff time.

The Mavericks 'have to show they can get stops,' Stoudamire says. 'As much as they can burn you on the offensive end, they are giving it back up on the defensive end. That's why a lot of people feel we would beat them.'

Adds Pippen: 'We can match up with them better than most teams. Their dribble penetration isn't as effective against us.'

Many of the Blazers believe that Tim Duncan, who went for 34 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday's 98-93 loss at the Rose Garden, is the NBA's Most Valuable Player this season. But they question his supporting cast.

'I don't want to add fuel to the fire of the other guys,' Pippen says, 'but when we were able to contain Duncan a little better, it gave us an opportunity to think we could win that game. They are as good as Tim wants them to be. He is pretty damn dominant. But he is going to need some help.'

A look at the remaining schedules of the top five West teams:

SACRAMENTO (50-19 going into Thursday's game with Houston) Ñ Eight of last 12 on the road, including stops at Detroit, Utah and the Lakers. The only scary home game is Dallas on April 14.

LAKERS (50-21) Ñ Six of last 11 at home, including dates with Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento. Road games include New Jersey, Boston and Portland.

DALLAS (49-21 going into Thursday's game at Minnesota) Ñ Eight of last 12 on the road, including visits to Boston, San Antonio, Utah, Seattle and Sacramento. Portland and Utah at home.

SAN ANTONIO (49-22) Ñ Six of last 11 on the road, with games at Seattle, the Lakers, Detroit and Utah. Dallas and Portland at home.

PORTLAND (44-27) Ñ Six of last 11 on the road, including stops at the Lakers, San Antonio and Dallas. Seattle and the Lakers at home.

Prediction: Even with Shaquille O'Neal hobbling on an arthritic toe, the Lakers will edge Sacramento for the Pacific Division championship and earn the West's No. 1 seed, with the Kings serving as No. 3. San Antonio will beat out Dallas for the Midwest title and the No. 2 seed. As the No. 4 seed, the Mavericks will face Portland in the first round.

NOTES: Cheeks is either playing dumb or refuses to believe that O'Neal is ailing: 'He doesn't look hurt to me. He didn't look that way against Sacramento last Sunday. I mean, I'd like him to be hurt. But whether he is hurt or not, when he is on the basketball floor, he is a force, and you have to pay attention to him. And then they have Kobe (Bryant).' É Portland is a remarkable 31-9 since its 13-18 start, and as big a reason for the surge as anything is rebounding. Over that stretch, the Blazers have outrebounded opponents 33 times, losing the battle of the boards only five times, with two draws. Through the first 31 games, Portland held an 0.3-per-game rebound advantage over foes. Over the last 40, the Blazers have outboarded the opposition by an average of 6.4.

Portland is seventh in the NBA in steals and has averaged 11 over the last 15 games. É Bonzi Wells is on a tear, averaging 18.9 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting .521 over the last dozen games. É Portland's win Wednesday snapped a five-game losing streak against San Antonio. The Blazers have won 18 of their last 21 games, including nine of 10 at home. They are an NBA-best 19-4 since the All-Star break.

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