• With 22 wins in the last 27 games, hometown team gets ready to roll
MIAMI Ñ Normally, All-Star Weekend provides an inviting break for an NBA team to kick back, recharge batteries and heal wounds.
Normally, however, a team doesn't skate into the weekend having won 22 of its last 27 games.
'It's probably an unfortunate time for us to go on break, because we have been playing so well,' Portland coach Maurice Cheeks says. 'But I guess we need a chance to rejuvenate ourselves.'
Sorry, Mo, if there were any more spring in the Trail Blazers' step, they would be bouncing into orbit.
Since Rasheed Wallace returned from his seven-game suspension, he has averaged 23.5 points and buried just about every opponent with timely jump shots.
Scottie Pippen may be 37, but he has his legs of a decade ago, when he was with Michael Jordan and collecting all those championship rings with the Chicago Bulls.
The Blazers are defending superbly, rebounding and running out for dunks and easy baskets, masking their lack of consistent outside shooting. They go 10 deep, and somehow Cheeks has spread the minutes and made it work.
Often they trail in the second quarter, or in the third quarter, or even the fourth. Almost always, they find a way to win.
Coming off the All-Star break, Portland is the team to beat in the NBA.
'Don't say that,' says Cheeks, cringing. 'We're just trying to get better every game.'
'That's not fair to say,' Pippen admonishes. 'Not yet.'
Maybe not. But Portland is 32-16, a half-game behind Sacramento in the Pacific Division (and a game up in the loss column). The last time the Blazers faced Midwest Division leader Dallas, to use 'Jim Rome-speak,' they punked the Mavericks in their own crib.
'They are talented and very effective,' says Miami coach Pat Riley, whose club lost 101-87 to Portland on Wednesday. 'They have perimeter scorers and good bigs (post players). It's Sacramento, Dallas, with the Lakers coming on É but they are right there in the West.'
Defense, Cheeks' calling card, has been at the apex of Portland's surge after the first month of the season. On Tuesday, Bonzi Wells and Ruben Patterson used their physical play Ñ and plenty of good defense help from their teammates Ñ to force the NBA's leading scorer, Tracy McGrady, into a 10-for-27 shooting night in Portland's 96-89 win.
'They are right there at the top,' McGrady says. 'They have a lot of talent. When those guys put their minds to it, put that craziness behind them and go out and play, they are one of the best teams in this league.'
Wallace and Pippen are excellent defenders, both on ball and with help, and their teammates have caught the fever. They try to take away the opponent's strengths and, in such cases as Orlando's, the go-to players.
'Maurice has a great defensive scheme,' Riley says. 'They use their length well. They shade all your plays and your key players and make you work so hard.'
Wells (18 for 48, 9.2 points) and Derek Anderson (19 for 52, 12.0 points) have struggled offensively the last five games, but good defense has produced plenty of offense in transition, and there is always Wallace or Pippen to knock down a big shot when necessary. With Patterson, Arvydas Sabonis and Jeff McInnis in reserve, Portland's depth is almost always better than the opposition's.
Vintage Pip feels at home
Pippen has played well since joining the starting lineup six games into the season, but since he came to Portland in 1999, he never has been better than in the road trip-ending victories over Orlando and Miami.
Against the Magic, he collected 25 points, 17 rebounds Ñ one shy of his career high Ñ seven assists and no turnovers in 32 minutes.
Against the Heat on Wednesday, the ageless warrior contributed 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and five steals in 34 minutes.
'Scottie absolutely dominated that game,' Riley marveled. 'He did everything he had to do to get his team over the top.'
At 6-8, Pippen is bigger than just about everybody he matches up with at point guard. He has been effective posting up and scoring or drawing the double-team and finding the open man. Occasionally he gets burned defensively by a quicker foe, but the Blazers have almost always gotten the better of the matchup, and his defense help and court leadership is invaluable.
'Since I have been in Portland, this is the first time I feel like this is my team,' Pippen says. 'I'm in control, (and) Maurice is comfortable with me running the team. Last year, we were both feeling each other out. Under Mike (Dunleavy), I was trying to fit in. Now, I am feeling like this is my team. I can take responsibility in how well we do as a team.'
Bitter PIL to swallow
That the Portland school board will consider eliminating funding for Portland Interscholastic League sports in 2003-04 doesn't sit well with Damon Stoudamire.
Stoudamire, who is giving $200,000 to help save PIL sports this spring, knows the potential ramifications of the loss of PIL sports.
'If athletics are gone, that means that school system is in trouble, too,' the Wilson High graduate says. 'You are probably going to see a couple of schools close. Jefferson's enrollment right now is (Class) 3A level, anyway. It's a shame. A lot of good athletes came out of Portland public schools. That's taking away something big from a lot of kids. Not everybody is fortunate enough to get into Jesuit.'
Stoudamire stays calm
Stoudamire recently has regained a spot in the rotation and says he doesn't expect to be dealt before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, nor will he ask to.
'I'm going to leave it alone,' Stoudamire says. 'This summer, all parties will want to visit, definitely, but right now, I don't think anything is going to happen.'
Stoudamire never knows when he will enter or come out of a game. He didn't play for the first three quarters in Tuesday's win over Orlando, then played the entire fourth quarter, knocking down a pair of key 3-pointers and contributing six points, three assists and two rebounds.
He says the uncertainty makes it the least pleasurable time in his career.
'Everybody knows I'm frustrated with the situation. But if I kill myself over it, it's just going to make me miserable,' he says. 'There's no need for me to go up to Seattle to holler at the dude (President-GM Bob Whitsitt). I'm just going to practice hard, do my job and whenever they call me to play, I'm going to be ready.'
Stoudamire, 29, has two years left after this season on a contract that calls for him to be paid $14.6 million in 2003-04 and $15.75 million in 2004-05.
'It's clear Damon needs to be on the court, but his desire is not to be traded; it's to be on the court for Portland,' says his agent, Aaron Goodwin. 'He is getting playing time now and rewarding the team with his performance when he is out there. There is no reason for us to force any issues. A lot of things can happen between now and the summer.'
What are friends for?
Fans at last week's 'Fight Night at the Rose Garden' were surprised to see heavyweight Al Cole wearing Dale Davis' basketball shorts during the boxer's draw with Jeremy 'Half Man, Half Amazing' Williams. Davis and Cole have been friends for several years, and Davis, a boxing fan, was part of Cole's pre-fight entourage as he walked to the ring.
'Al ended up leaving all his stuff at home (in New Jersey), and he asked me if I had any shorts he could wear,' Davis says. 'No problem.'
Sabonis and the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Vygaudas Uzsackas, are close enough friends that Uzsackas intended to fly from Washington, D.C., to watch last Sunday's Blazers game in Cleveland. A business conflict prevented it from happening, but Sabonis downplays the significance of their relationship.
'Only 3 1/2 million people in our country,' says the 7-3 center, a national icon, grinning. 'Everybody knows each other.'