Maybe Agatha has a solution for the Blazers

Cheeks and players are trying to find an answer for Portland's late-season enigma

Nobody is sure what to make of the Trail Blazers right now. Not coach Maurice Cheeks, not his players, not the opposition.

They are like an Agatha Christie mystery. There are so many twists and turns and subplots, you're not sure what will happen to the protagonist in the end. At the moment, though, it doesn't look good.

The playoffs open a week from Saturday, and the opponent could be San Antonio, Dallas or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Portland team that started the season 13-18 wouldn't even have made the playoffs. The Portland team that righted itself to go 30-8 over its next 38 games Ñ including a 12-0 tear Ñ probably was the best team in the NBA at the time. The Portland team that has been 3-6 since then (going into Thursday's visit to Memphis) will have a difficult time beating whichever first-round foe it faces.

The Blazers have been shooting poorly, defending sporadically and once again fighting the affliction of referee rage. After losses at San Antonio and Dallas Ñ the Mavericks going without injured Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, who was slowed by the flu Ñ the almost always positive Cheeks was moved to say, 'We are trying to get ourselves ready for the playoffs, and that's not the way to do it.'

Portland sustained seven technicals in the first two games of its final four-game road trip. Rasheed Wallace upped his league-high total to 26 and was ejected from the Dallas game. Scottie Pippen, who seems to be growing increasingly frustrated with refereeing, got the boot after taking a swing at the Mavericks' Nick Van Exel.

Bonzi Wells has his moments with the men in gray, too, but understands the root of Portland's problem.

'It has nothing to do with the officiating; it's all about us,' the Blazer guard says. 'Officials are going to be officials. We have to quit chirping as much as we do and play the game the way it is supposed to be played. We have a lot of nontraditional players, but we still have to go out there and try to play and keep our mouths shut.'

Nontraditional? The reference seems to be directed at established veterans such as Pippen, Wallace and Dale Davis, who expect their credentials to have earned them a certain edge in close calls.

'We go to the hole; we are aggressive,' Wells says. 'We have guys who have been in this league forever who expect certain calls. It's not like that no more. It gets frustrating sometimes, but you still have to go out and play and quit talking to (the refs) and focus on our task at hand.'

The players like Cheeks, but do they mind? At halftime of the Dallas game, he addressed the issue of cutting back on complaints with officials and focusing on basketball. Then in the second half, Wallace and Pippen went out and got the thumb. Remember how the Blazers of the early '90s had a reputation with the refs? With Wallace leading the way, it is worse now, and the Blazers must take care of it.

On Monday, as Portland was on its way to a 29-point deficit to the Spurs, Wallace spent most of a timeout imploring his teammates to 'get it together, play hard, don't let this thing get away.' Maybe he felt he was answering the call to be more of a vocal leader, but at the time Wallace was 0 for 7 from the field. He finished 1 for 13, collecting five points and eight boards in 34 minutes.

Offense is problem, too

Composure is one problem; offense is another. Over the last 10 games heading into Memphis, Portland had shot .414 from the floor, including only 52 of 181 .287) from 3-point range, while opponents had shot .459. The latter figure worries Cheeks more than the former, he says.

'Our shots will fall,' he says. 'I am more concerned about our defense. We lost (to San Antonio and Dallas) because our defense was inconsistent. We have to shore that up. I believe guys on this team will make shots.'

Uncomfortable statistic from Portland's standpoint: The team's regular-season record on the road against the top four teams in the West Ñ Sacramento, the Lakers, Dallas and San Antonio Ñ is a perfect 0-8. And no matter which team they play, the opponent will have homecourt advantage in the first round, so the Blazers will have to win on the road.

'I didn't know that, but it's no big deal,' Damon Stoudamire says. 'We have played with all those teams, and we can beat them. It is a lot easier to play a team come playoff time because you have more days to dissect that team. You don't have to worry about another team you are playing the next day.'

Cheeks says: 'Things can happen in the playoffs that don't happen in the regular season. I have been around this league a long time. I have gotten beat by teams in the regular season and gone on to beat them in the playoffs. Defense is the essence of our team. To beat the Lakers, San Antonio or Dallas, you have to play efficient defense. I believe we will.'

Potential first-round opponents seem to hold a healthy respect for the Blazers. San Antonio could wind up playing Minnesota, Portland, Seattle or Utah in the first round, and coach Gregg Popovich sounds as if he wouldn't mind avoiding the Blazers.

Popovich says the Blazers 'have experienced guys who are playing with game-plan confidence. They haven't played with that in the past. There has always been something wrong. Either they didn't all buy in on offense or defense, or they didn't accept their roles, or they didn't really believe in their gut they could get it done. I honestly think these guys believe, and they are sticking to a game plan at both ends of the court. They are a much more capable playoff team than they have been the last four or five years.'

Dallas has split four games with Portland, the home team winning each time. The Mavericks have the same first-round opponent potential as San Antonio.

Dallas coach Don Nelson says of Minnesota, Portland, Seattle and Utah: 'Portland has been the hardest for us. We got blown out twice there, and they have more (playoff) knowledge than we have. We are pretty young. Some day we will know what they know but not right now.'

'Portland is scary'

Dallas center Raef LaFrentz adds: 'All four are quality teams, but the collection of talent in Portland is scary. Their record doesn't accurately show how good a team they have. They are still right there with the elite teams in the NBA.'

Such comments ring hollow, though, unless the Blazers can get it together and gather a little momentum going into the playoffs.

'We have lost a little steam from our play right now, but I don't question our ability to step up and play at a high level again,' Cheeks says. 'I have no doubt about that.'

NOTES: After San Antonio's win over Portland on Monday, the Spurs' Tim Duncan wasn't in the mood to throw bouquets in the direction of any potential playoff opponent: 'All the teams are dangerous, but we are fine with any of them. Whoever it might be, we are waiting for them.' É Portland is 1-2 against the Lakers, 1-3 against San Antonio and 2-2 against Dallas during the regular season. The Blazers match up best with the Mavericks, an excellent offensive team but not strong defensively or on the boards. Wallace has been extremely effective against them in the four regular-season matchups, averaging 23.3 points and 7.5 rebounds while hitting 38 of 53 shots, despite missing the fourth quarter after ejection on Tuesday. É Wells (20.8 points, 9.0 rebounds) and Ruben Patterson (11.3 points on 17-of-26 shooting) also have been big against Dallas. É Wallace has had significantly less success against San Antonio, making 16 of 58 shots (.279) and averaging 10.3 points and 7.3 boards in the four games. Duncan, meanwhile, has mopped up on the Blazers, averaging 28.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game while shooting .589 from the field.

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