They've been tough in the clutch, winning numerous close games

Just when it was getting hard for the Trail Blazers to stay humble, along came Wednesday's debacle in Utah. It's not easy to get outscored 58-24 in a half, or 29-9 in the fourth quarter, that's for sure.

From Portland's perspective, however, momentum continues to build going into tonight's matchup with Chicago at the Rose Garden. The Blazers (28-16) have won 18 of 23 and regain the services of Rasheed Wallace for the rematch with the Bulls, who spanked them 102-87 in Chicago on New Year's Eve.

The Los Angeles Lakers are down Ñ and a long way from even making the playoffs. Sacramento and Dallas have stumbled of late. Everything in the Western Conference appears up for grabs, and the Blazers aren't the ones with alligator arms, their collapse in Salt Lake City notwithstanding.

Here are some questions, followed by answers, regarding the Blazers' ascendancy over the last six weeks:

Q. What is the biggest factor in Portland's surge?

Without question, performance in the clutch has been the Blazers' No. 1 asset.

Over the 23-game stretch, the Blazers have only one victory by more than 12 points Ñ 118-94 over hapless Cleveland on Jan. 13. Four of the wins have come in overtime. Six have been by three points or fewer. Seven more have been by between three and seven points. Only three have been by double-digit margins. In games decided by six points or less over that stretch, Portland is 14-2.

Sometimes, opponents have gagged at crunch time. At other times, the Blazers have made big plays at both ends of the court. In most games over the last 1 1/2 months, they have been just a little better than the other guys.

'We've been taking care of business by closing games out,' Scottie Pippen says. 'In the past, we've been in the position where we've lost some close games. But we've learned what it takes to finish, and it has been a big boost for our confidence. When a game is tight and we're in the final minutes, we know we have what it takes to win.'

Q. Are the Blazers able to make plays when a game is on the line?

The Blazers haven't played great defense throughout the course of each game, but they often get better when it counts most.

Since Dec. 14, when they beat Minnesota 98-92 in overtime, the Blazers have held opponents to 20 points or fewer in the fourth quarter in 10 of 22 games, including three times under 15 points. In only eight of the 23 games have foes scored 26 or more points in the final period Ñ and in five of those games, Portland had a big enough lead to hold on for the triumph. They have gone into the fourth quarter of five of those games tied or with a deficit and rallied to win.

'We seem to know when we have to buckle down,' coach Maurice Cheeks says. 'I don't know if there's more emphasis on defense late in a game, but I know when we have to really defend. It's usually in the fourth quarter.'

Watch Pippen on the court. Especially late in a game, he's communicating with his teammates, making sure defensive assignments are secured, making sure everyone knows what's going on. And he's showing his versatility at the defensive end, guarding small or big point guards Ñ he shut down Denver's 6-9 Juwan Howard in the fourth quarter Tuesday.

'Defense is one of Maurice's (points of emphasis),' Pippen says. 'It's the type of player he was. He expects good defense out on the court, and when it's close near the end of a game, I demand that my teammates play good defense. We do that and we're going to give ourselves a chance to win just about every night.'

Q. Should the Blazers be concerned that they aren't blowing out bottom feeders such as Denver and Atlanta?

A little. Most good teams enjoy a number of one-sided victories over the course of a season, which relieves the stress, allows the starters a little more rest and displays consistent sharpness for most of 48 minutes. But the large number of close victories serves Portland well, too.

'You would love to blow people out, but blowouts are hard to come by in this league,' Derek Anderson says. 'If we get behind, we know we can come back, and if we're ahead, we know we can hold the lead. Our feeling of confidence grows every time we pull out a (close) win.'

Q. How is the big, slow guy doing?

Cheeks calls Arvydas Sabonis his 'relief pitcher,' but the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian is more like a fireman, coming to the rescue when the Blazers smell smoke. On the second night of back-to-back games, he's often ineffective, but there are few players who can match up with him on his good nights.

'Sometimes the game can get too quick for him, but we try to throw him in when he's comfortable,' Cheeks says. 'He does so many things for you, and some of them don't show up in the stat sheet.'

Q. Has Cheeks settled on a rotation?

Nah. All 12 players played in Tuesday's win over Denver. All 11 available for Utah's game got in, though Qyntel Woods' appearance came in garbage time. With Wallace back, Zach Randolph's minutes will be limited. The players have accepted their roles pretty well, but the problem of finding time for everybody hasn't gone away.

Q. How have the Blazers avoided major injuries?

Give trainers Jay Jensen and Geoff Clark and strength/conditioning coach Bobby Medina their due ÑÊthey have helped keep the players healthy. Pippen and Davis have played in all 42 games, and nobody has missed more than six games because of injury. The Blazers need that kind of good fortune going into the playoffs.

Q. Should the Blazers feel slighted because they have no representatives at the All-Star Game?

No, except perhaps Randolph, who should have been in the rookie-sophomore game. Wallace wasn't going to make it, anyway, but his seven-game suspension took care of any debate. Bonzi Wells is a dangerous player but not of All-Star caliber. Portland's most valuable player, Pippen, is averaging only 11 points a game, which isn't going to cut it.

Besides, Wallace and Pippen have made it clear they'd rather rest on All-Star weekend, and Wells probably feels the same way. Careful what you ask for.

Q. How important is homecourt advantage?

Big, but not critical. Portland has 15 road wins already, second-best record in the league behind Dallas. That experience could pay off in a playoff series.

'I always think fans play a role in a close series, so you want to be at home,' Pippen says. 'But if you're a good road team, playing on another team's court is just as comfortable as playing at home.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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