Since NBA referees are a hot topic these days, it was only fitting that Pat Riley torched the men in gray after Miami's 101-87 loss to Portland on Wednesday night.

Riley is old school, and while chagrined at the huge disparity at the foul line Ñ the Trail Blazers shot 32 free throws, the Heat seven Ñ the veteran coach popped a cork over the running repartee between officials Derek Stafford, James Capers and Anthony Jordan and the Blazers throughout the game.

'It was an absolute officiating travesty,' Riley said. 'I thought I was at the Comedy Store, with (the referees) sort of comedians, laughing with the Blazers and talking to them and smiling with them. It was so unprofessional. It all must have been pretty funny. I would have liked to have heard some of the jokes.

'It was a joke how that game was handled. There was constant laughing and dialogue, and (the refs) let it go while we are É trying to play and trying to win. They talk about us being professional Ñ it's hard to do that when that is going on out on the court.'

The Blazers acted as if they didn't know what Riley was talking about.

'I didn't see anything,' Scottie Pippen said.

'I didn't notice it,' coach Maurice Cheeks echoed.

What Riley and other observers without ties to the Blazers saw was a steady stream of protest from Portland's players Ñ and not just Rasheed Wallace, who drew his sixth technical of the year and probably should have later been ejected for a barrage of expletives.

The protests ranged from mild to vociferous. This, mind you, when the Blazers were called for 15 fouls, the Heat for 25. There also was plenty of buddying up by the Blazers, contrived to show the officials that they are all nice fellows after all.

Bonzi Wells complained about most of his six personals, but he usually approached the ref with a smile, which must be a tactic he feels deflects the potential for an accompanying technical. Wallace employed the grin a couple of times, too. The refs were only too happy to smile back and engage in banter, which rankled Riley, in no mood for a Night at the Improv.

Wallace's recent seven-game suspension for accosting and threatening referee Tim Donaghy outside the Rose Garden hasn't changed his on-court deportment much, if at all. The volatile forward may have toned down the language he used during his record-setting technicals spree of the previous three seasons, but he still finds time to complain about virtually every foul called on him, along with many of the fouls called on his teammates, or calls that aren't made against their opponents.

After calling a foul on Wallace in the Cleveland game, veteran official Ronnie Nunn mused to press row, 'and he agreed with it. That's amazing.'

Despite what Jerry Sloan or Isiah Thomas might argue, NBA referees are more inclined to walk away from conflict this season than ever. This is one reason why Wallace has not been ejected this season. Many of the refs will take a boatload of guff before calling a 'T.'

Refereeing an NBA game is about as easy as catching lightning in a bottle.

'There's no sport that has a tougher job than an NBA official,' Orlando coach Doc Rivers says. 'Players are too quick and strong, the court is too small, and you probably could call a foul or not call one on every play.'

NBA referees are the best in the world. They have integrity, use good judgment and make the correct call the vast majority of the time.

It's the players and coaches, caught up in the drama of a highly charged, competitive season, who have to cool it.

'There is so much more pressure on the coaches and the teams to win these days,' Portland assistant Herb Brown says. 'Everything is made bigger than life. Plus, there is so much parity. There is a thin line between winning and losing, and everybody is desperate to get that little edge.'

Refs are human, and they'll make mistakes. On Wednesday, they shouldn't have gotten caught up in the Blazers' Second City routine. On the other hand, it didn't cost Miami the game, nor was it the reason the Heat shot only seven free throws. That's what happens when you settle for perimeter shots and don't attack the basket. And Riley knows it.

Reunion game

Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Portland's Arvydas Sabonis met at halfcourt for a five-minute chat before their game Sunday. Ilgauskas is almost a generation behind Sabonis and grew up trying to emulate his Lithuanian countryman.

'He was everybody's hero back then, and he still is,' says Ilgauskas, who will represent Cleveland in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game. 'He is the best player who ever came out of Lithuania. We all just followed in his footsteps.

'I look at him as a friend. I admire him a lot. I admire him a lot for what he has done for basketball back home. When push comes to shove, he is just a really good guy. We are two guys from the same city in Lithuania playing in the NBA Ñ that doesn't happen very often.

'He is still a really good player Ñ perfect for that team. They have so many athletes and scorers, and he doesn't care about his stats. He is a great passer, unselfish, and he makes guys around him better.'

Pippen's All-Stars

This is the way Scottie Pippen would put together his All-Star five: 'I would look at Tim Duncan as my No. 1 power forward, Tracy McGrady as my small forward and Shaquille O'Neal at center. At shooting guard, I like Kobe (Bryant), and at the point. I'd say Jason Kidd. He's not a great scorer, but he can do it all.'

Pippen thinks that players should be chosen for the All-Star teams at each of the five positions.

'Even though you have so many great power forwards in the West, it's smacking the small forwards in the face when you don't choose any of them,' Pippen says. 'Shawn Marion made it this year because Karl Malone was bypassed, but you know what? I think that was an injustice to Malone. He's the greatest ever at his position, and he is so close to having an All-Star year, he should have been on there again. They picked Michael (Jordan), and they should have picked Karl, too.'

NOTES: Pippen, on the Los Angeles Lakers' recent surge: 'It looks like somebody woke up the sleeping dog.' É Veteran forward Mark Bryant, on Denver's injured list without an injury, played his first seven seasons in a Portland uniform, then played for eight teams in his next eight seasons. Bryant, who turns 38 in April, marvels that he's still around. 'Hard to believe I have lasted this long,' he says. 'There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I have been blessed.' Bryant would like to play another season or two on a more accomplished team or move into a position as an assistant coach. É Ex-Blazer Steve Smith is out of the rotation in San Antonio with the emergence of Argentine rookie Manu Ginobili. É Robert Pack, who began his career with Portland in 1991, has stepped in for injured Baron Davis in New Orleans and done a nice job. Pack, who turned 34 on Monday and is on his seventh NBA team, had 18 points and 11 assists in a recent win over Toronto. É The other day, Chicago General Manager Jerry 'Crumbs' Krause was lamenting a curse that is plaguing the Bulls: 'The problem in past years is, we didn't have enough talent. Now we have a plethora of talent at several positions. Until we have a way of solving that, it will stay.' Yeah, those Bulls need to get rid of some of that talent. É By the way, during the draft process last spring, Yao Ming had dinner with Krause. Yao's lasting memory: 'He ate twice as much as I did.' É Ex-Blazer Gary Trent is complaining about uneven playing time off the bench for Minnesota: 'I really don’t know how to explain it,' the 6-6 forward says. 'One day you play 25-30 minutes, one day you play five minutes. Play the first half, don’t play the second half. Sometimes coaches are talking to you, being active, showing interest. Then it's, 'OK, so-and-so is back from his injury, to hell with you.' Coach Flip Saunders' reaction? 'I explained to him, Wally (Szczerbiak) is back, a lot of teams we're playing we have to go small and the guy playing in front of him is Kevin Garnett. So, there's not a lot of minutes. É last I heard, communication wasn't a one-way street.'

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