He now gets 15 to 22 minutes a game behind Scottie Pippen

ORLANDO Ñ Finally, as the NBA season nears its All-Star break, Jeff McInnis has the strut back in his step.

It has taken that long for the sixth-year pro to regain the bounce that made him starting point guard the last two years for the Los Angeles Clippers.

When the Trail Blazers invade TD Waterhouse Centre tonight against the Orlando Magic, McInnis can expect regular minutes behind starter Scottie Pippen at the point. He might enter late in the first quarter or early in the second, but chances are he will get 15 to 22 minutes Ñ enough to make an impact.

It's different from earlier in the season, when McInnis might have played 29 minutes one game and four the next. Coach Maurice Cheeks wasn't sure when or how to use him, and McInnis' game was as wobbly as a three-legged wagon.

After his fourth 'DNP-CD' (did not play-coach's decision) of the season Jan. 18 against Minnesota, McInnis was shooting .373 from the field. He suddenly hit his stride, connecting on 7 of 12 from the field in a 15-point, 26-minute performance against Memphis.

Maybe it was the tip from his personal shooting coach, Ivory Manning, who called and told him to quit floating as he went up for a jump shot.

'He said, 'Go straight up on your shot,'' McInnis says. 'So, I started working on that.'

In the eight games since Minnesota, the former North Carolina standout has made 33 of 56 (.589) Ñ with only one sub-50 percent game Ñ and raised his season mark to .427. He doesn't have 3-point range (1 for 17 this season), but his 12- to 15-footer is solid. And McInnis has played good enough defense and a solid enough floor game to keep Cheeks satisfied.

'I feel more comfortable now,' McInnis says. 'I'm in a comfort zone, and I'm playing more aggressively. Our roles are pretty much set. I'm just playing ball like I know how. Not thinking, just playing. When I am hitting that little short-range jumper, it opens things up for our team.'

Cheeks likes to emphasize that success of a point guard in his system isn't predicated on scoring.

'People get caught up in the ability of a guy to shoot,' says Cheeks, an All-Star point guard in four of his 15 NBA seasons. 'Jeff's shot isn't going to make or break him as a player. You love him to make his shots, and lately he's been doing it well. But the essence of his game is running a team. He's learning.'

Cheeks says McInnis' game has gradually become more suited to the coach's desires and his team's needs.

'It takes awhile for a point guard to know what a coach wants, particularly if he is playing spot minutes,' Cheeks says. 'The last two or three weeks, Jeff has played very well. He has found more of a rhythm. The guys understand his game a little better. He's one of our better pick-and-roll players. If you put a shooter with him, like Rasheed (Wallace) or Arvydas (Sabonis) or even one of our small forwards, you are going to get something out of it.

'And I look to Jeff for some leadership. When things get a little haywire, he can bring the ball down and run a play the way I like it to be run.'

McInnis could be a starter for some NBA clubs but says he wouldn't swap roles.

'We have a good team,' he says. 'We have a chance to do something real special.'

McInnis says he wouldn't trade playing 38 minutes on a bad team 'for winning and having fun. At first it was tough, but it's a lot better now. I know what I have to do.

'It might not be me every night. We have a lot of guys who can come in and contribute. But I'm happy I'm here. I wouldn't trade it for the world.'

NOTES: Portland has submitted a bid to host the 2006 or 2007 All-Star Game. The city has never been awarded the midseason gala. Sunday's renewal is in Atlanta, and Los Angeles will be the site in 2004. Denver is the only official candidate for 2005, but Houston and New Orleans are expected to enter bids. É Cleveland forward Darius Miles says there's no reason Portland shouldn't win the NBA championship. 'They can beat any team in the NBA right now,' he says. 'They have the most talent of anybody. They have a starting five coming off the bench.' É Cheeks says that in his 24 NBA seasons as a player, assistant coach and head coach, he has never experienced a 4-0 road trip as the Blazers did last month in beating Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans and Dallas. The last time a Portland team swept a trip as long as four games was April 1991, when the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers went 6-0. É Blazer coaches and players will disperse after Wednesday's road-trip finale for the All-Star break. Cheeks will visit friends and family in Philadelphia, Derek Anderson in Louisville, Antonio Daniels in San Antonio and Dale Davis in Atlanta. Scottie Pippen will remain in southern Florida and be joined by his family, where they will frolic on their yacht in nearby Fort Lauderdale. É Portland resumes play next Tuesday against San Antonio, the opener of a five-game homestand.

Daniels, who has sat out the last three games because of a sprained ankle, could return to action tonight. É In the two games since his return after a seven-game NBA suspension, Wallace has scored 57 points on 20-for-31 shooting, including 9 of 16 on 3-pointers. É Portland has won 19 of its last 24 games. During that stretch, its two most one-sided wins have come against Cleveland. É Pippen has 2,260 career steals, which ranks fourth on the all-time NBA list, 50 behind the player in third place: Cheeks. Pippen, who averages 1.7 steals per game, should pass his coach near the end of the season if he stays healthy.

Rookie Qyntel Woods has played only 176 minutes but has made the most of them, shooting a solid .545 from the field. 'Qyn is going to be real good,' veteran assistant Herb Brown says. 'He is a versatile player, mobile, and runs the floor extremely well. The thing I like about him is, no matter who speaks to him, whether it's Scottie, Rasheed, a coach, whoever, he listens and assimilates what they are saying. He tries to put it all together.' Brown says Woods is further along than Zach Randolph was as a rookie last season. 'There's no comparison,' Brown says. 'And he has helped Zach. They like each other, they go at each other, they push each other. Zach is much stronger; Qyntel is much quicker. I really think we got a gem, a diamond in the rough.'

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