Blazers reek in Air Jordan finale


Walk in Maurice Cheeks' shoes for a minute. You are not just scared about the way the Trail Blazers are playing right now. You are mortified.

Portland enters the final 11 games of the regular season reeking of raw sewage. Going into tonight's matchup with the West's top team, Dallas, the Blazers are 6-7 over their last 13 games. More than that, they have been as lifeless as mannequins, knuckling under to Tyronn Lue and the Washington Wizards at home Tuesday, then going belly up a night later at Utah.

Portland is still 44-27 and fifth in the West, but Utah is only two games back and the L.A. Lakers are just three behind. Two huge games loom next week in the Rose Garden Ñ Utah on Thursday and Minnesota on Sunday. Lose those two and it is not inconceivable Portland could fall to seventh in the West, setting up a first-round playoff matchup with Sacramento.

The Blazers are 3-5 since Scottie Pippen had knee surgery. Pippen will return, perhaps as soon as April 8, when the Blazers begin a three-game trip to Houston, San Antonio and Memphis. His presence, leadership, defensive play and clutch shooting surely have been missed. But what does it say about this team that a 37-year-old with a failing body is so critical to its success?

The Blazer defense, a strength much of the season, has deserted them of late. How can it be that the Wizards and Jazz, two of the league's more immobile teams, found themselves with countless open jump shots against Portland?

Rasheed Wallace, a capable scorer but certainly not a leader, has been inconsistent. And the team's No. 2 talent, Bonzi Wells, could only hope for such a description. Wells had 20 points and 10 rebounds against Washington, his first big game since March 2, then faded into oblivion with a dismal showing at Salt Lake City. The guess here is he spent too much energy mugging, hugging and kissing up to Michael Jordan on Tuesday to have anything left for the Jazz.

The remaining schedule isn't easy, except perhaps the finale in L.A. against the woebegone Clippers. It's not too late to build some momentum, but time is wasting. It's not as important where the Blazers finish in the West standings as what kind of ball they are playing going into the playoffs. Lately? Bob Whitsitt's $105 million investment makes Enron look like a bargain.

Ground control

Jordan is not Air Extraordinaire anymore. He is all about economy of movement, walking the ball up on offense and sagging on defense until his man has the ball. He picks his spots, peeling off screens for open jump shots, using his guile and experience to take on defenders more than a decade younger.

And it works. At 40, Jordan couldn't have been more effective than he was against the Blazers, getting 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds as he kept the Wizards' playoff hopes alive with a win everyone connected with the Portland organization should be embarrassed about.

'There was a little extra bounce to Michael's step tonight,' Washington coach Doug Collins said, stressing that Jordan gives all he has every time out, even if his body isn't willing. 'April 16, if we are not in the playoffs, his gas tank will be empty. Emotionally and physically, he is laying everything out there. I am playing him 40 minutes a night, and he is not holding anything back. He is always the best player on the court, mentally. Tonight, he had his legs.'

Jordan's Rose Garden sendoff did not include a gold-plated rocking chair, a lifetime supply of Mo's clam chowder or anything of monetary value. There was a video tribute that included Nike chief Phil Knight's playful admonition that if Jerry Rice can go six more years, so should Michael. There was a pre-game standing ovation that inspired goose bumps, and even an impromptu ovation with Jordan at the line in the waning seconds and the outcome already decided.

'They appreciate the way I play the game here,' Jordan said. 'It inspires me. It is a great way to leave the game. They don't have to give me any presents or single me out. Just the respect (the fans) pay me means a lot to me. It helps me do my job, because I know I made a difference in someone's life.'

Jordan met with his longtime partner in crime, Pippen, in the visiting coaches' room for a five-minute reunion after Tuesday's game. They are not close friends, but they are respectful former teammates, and they know the end for both is in sight.

Jordan came back to basketball one last time because there was still 'a little bit I felt like I wanted to give,' he said. 'Now I feel like I have given it. I can't give any more. I have scratched the itch.'

The last memory in Portland wasn't of the Greatest, but of a very good player on a very good night. There is nothing wrong with that.

Surprise, surprise

Here's one to stump your friends: Which team leads the NBA in lowest field-goal percentage allowed? Answer: Sacramento at .420.

'I listen to all the so-called experts on TV saying we don't defend,' Kings coach Rick Adelman said after his team took care of the Blazers in the Rose Garden last week. 'San Antonio is a great defensive team, but we have been right there with them all year, so we must be doing something right.

'We are an offensive-minded team, and we put a lot of stock into that. During the course of a season, you have a tendency to relax at times on the defensive end. But we continue to make it difficult for teams to shoot well. I have always felt this team, especially in the playoffs, can lock in on what another team is doing and defend pretty well.'

The Kings' leader, Chris Webber, said they don't mind if their defensive prowess goes unrecognized.

'The rap on us is we don't play defense,' Webber said. 'We laugh at that and just try to stay under the radar. But you can't run if you don't play defense, and you know we like to run.'

You can't run if you can't rebound, and the Kings are 28th in the league in that category. But they took care of the boards against Portland, winning that battle 41-39.

'We know it's a problem area,' Adelman said. 'Having (reserve center) Scot Pollard back will help. He is very physical and takes up space in there.'

My preseason pick to win the NBA championship was Sacramento, and I'm not backing off. Geoff Petrie assembled a talented group that has grown close and ripened with its playoff experience the past two seasons.

'We have added Keon (Clark), an athletic inside guy who can play three positions,' Webber said. 'Mike Bibby has grown in his second year with us. Our personnel has matured. We trust each other. We have gone through losing some tough games together and have learned some important lessons. I like our chances.'

Notes: Portland's 23-12 home record is only ninth-best in the West. Also 23-12 at home is Chicago, which is sixth in the Central Division. É Indiana GM Donnie Walsh said rookie Fred Jones, who has played little for the Pacers this season, 'is going to be very good. He can defend right now in the league. He has worked extremely hard. He has improved his shooting range. He already knows how to play. He knows how to make plays, he can pass, he is a very good defender. He is only 6-2, short for a shooting guard, but he is thick and has good arm length, and he will be able to post up guards. I knew he wasn't going to play a lot this year, but he is going to play for us (in the future), no doubt in my mind.' É Portland assistant coach Herb Brown is engaged to Sheri Roberti, a math administrator for the Beaverton Public Schools whom he met last summer. They will wed this summer.

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