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Blazers still hold a trump card

• Arvydas Sabonis may be creaky, but his game's in great shape

Arvydas Sabonis didn't knock 'em dead Tuesday night in the Rose Garden. His knee was sore, he played only 12 minutes, and his statistical line in the Trail Blazers' 116-111 overtime loss to San Antonio was mundane Ñ two points on 1-for-4 shooting, two rebounds, an assist and four personal fouls.

Stats have never done Sabonis' game justice, anyway. The 7-foot-3 Lithuanian's season averages going into Thursday's date with Boston were pretty ordinary stuff Ñ 5.9 points on .460 shooting, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists in about 16 minutes a game. His impact is a different story.

'He can change a game,' says Portland coach Maurice Cheeks, who utilizes Sabonis as a trump card in tight spots. 'There aren't too many players you can say that about.'

There aren't many big men like Sabonis, nor have there ever been. Cheeks, who played with Moses Malone and against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal during his 15-year career, scratches his head when asked to draw a comparison.

'Sabas is unique,' Cheeks says. 'Moses was brute force. Sabonis is big and strong, but he has some finesse, and I didn't know until I got him he had that kind of ability to pass. He has great hands and an understanding of the game.'

Veteran assistant Herb Brown could come up with only one name, and he made it clear he wasn't comparing the overall games of the two.

'The only center who could pass the ball off the post like that is Tom Boerwinkle, but he couldn't do the Houdini tricks like Sabas,' Brown says. 'When he's in the game, we run a lot of our offense through him. We try to get a lot of movement to give him opportunities to hit cutters rather than having guys spot up.'

Sabonis' three head coaches with the Blazers were in the house Tuesday night. Cheeks was coaching Portland. P.J. Carlesimo (1995-97) is an assistant for San Antonio. Mike Dunleavy (1998-2001) serves as television analyst for the Spurs. All are members of an appreciation society for the creaky-wheeled Sabonis, who at 38 moves like he's 48 but takes care of business like he's 28.

'I told Sabas he looks better now than he did when I had him,' Carlesimo says, only half joking. 'He has taken good care of himself. The way he plays is like John Stockton Ñ close to the floor. The great players learn to do other things as they get older. I wouldn't be surprised if he's still playing when he's 48.'

Dunleavy laughed when told of Carlesimo's description.

'P.J. is right, but Sabas has been that way for as long as I can remember,' Dunleavy says. 'His game has never been tied into speed and quickness. He has learned to play within his physical limitations.'

Achilles tendon and knee surgeries robbed Sabonis of the bounce in his legs years ago, but he has played with more pep this season than he did for Dunleavy in 2000-01. After that season, Sabonis left the Blazers and took last year off, living in Spain and playing little basketball. In this comeback season, he has missed only three of 46 games, all because of a sore hamstring in early November.

'Maybe the year and a half off helped Ñ I don't know,' Sabonis says. 'I feel fresher mentally and physically. It's fun again to be playing. None of us had much fun my last year (2000-01) here. It was bad for everybody.'

Other things have helped. Among them:

• Cheeks limits Sabonis' involvement in practice sessions. Sabas hasn't missed an entire practice all season, but Cheeks lets him skip some running and physical contact.

'He has the license to sit out whatever he needs to,' Cheeks says. 'There is a fine line, because I don't want him to lose his conditioning, but I want to limit the wear and tear.'

• Cheeks tries to hold Sabonis to 20 minutes or less, especially in the second of back-to-back games. Sabas' season high is 31 minutes, but he has been over 23 only four times. Sabonis has asked Cheeks to use him in stretches of no more than eight or 10 minutes.

'I am mindful of all that,' Cheeks says, 'but sometimes he's so good, it's hard to take him out.'

• Trainers Jay Jensen and Geoff Clark and strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina have developed a program that helps Sabonis stay healthy. The big man adheres to the Blazers' mandatory weightlifting regimen of 10 days a month, but for the first time in his career he also rides a treadmill machine for a half-hour daily.

'He has been very consistent in his training, and it shows,' Medina says. 'His energy seems better. He has a lot of spirit to his step.'

Sabonis says it has all contributed to a feeling of wellness.

'These things are done by design, and it's good design,' he says. 'I feel good. The (treadmill) machine gets my legs working. My back is sore sometimes, but that's life. I have gotten used to it. For me, the bad isn't as bad.'

Sabonis is in the first year of a three-year contract that calls for him to make $20 million. He and the Blazers each have an option for the next two seasons. Has he made a decision yet?

'I don't think about two years from now,' he says, grinning. 'Let's get past tomorrow first. We'll see.'