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Blazers could have an edge on Garnetts guys

It is almost a given that the Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves will square off in the first round of the playoffs. That could be a good thing for Portland.

The Timberwolves, who visit the Rose Garden Sunday for an important final regular-season meeting with the Blazers, would win the season series 3-1 with a victory. The first time the teams met, Dec. 14, Portland won 98-92 in overtime at Minneapolis despite scoring only nine points in the fourth quarter. The Timberwolves won 104-98 at the Rose Garden on Jan. 18 and 111-95 at the Target Center on March 16.

An injured Wally Szczerbiak missed Minnesota's only loss to Portland. Rasheed Wallace was suspended and didn't play in the first loss, and Scottie Pippen sat out the second loss with a knee injury. Pippen won't play Sunday, but he will be back for the playoffs.

Homecourt advantage is very important for Minnesota, which is 31-8 at home and only 16-21 on the road. Portland went into Thursday's game with Utah 25-12 at home and 21-15 on the road.

The Timberwolves have an MVP candidate in Kevin Garnett, a solid sidekick in All-Star forward Szczerbiak and a supporting cast of role players. They have one of the game's top coaches in Flip Saunders but wear the albatross of having lost in the first round of the playoffs six years in a row (collective record: 5-18).

Minnesota has played poorly of late, losing three in a row Ñ including blowouts to Miami (111-84) and Dallas (119-95) before beating Seattle on Wednesday night. Portland has been up and down.

'If that series comes about,' Utah coach Jerry Sloan says, 'which team comes in with the right frame of mind is probably as important as anything.'

The marquee matchup would be Garnett against Wallace. Garnett has had two huge games against Portland this year. He had 31 points and 20 rebounds in the game Wallace missed and 17 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and three blocked shots in the last meeting. Wallace averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds in his two appearances against the Timberwolves.

'It would be interesting to see Wallace matched up with Garnett in a series,' Golden State coach Eric Musselman says. 'It would be two great players banging each other.'

Szczerbiak vs. Bonzi Wells and/or Ruben Patterson is a good matchup Ñ Wells had one huge game with 32 points and 13 rebounds but was subpar in the other two.

At the other three starting spots, the Wolves are undertalented, with Rasho Nesterovic at center and Anthony Peeler and Troy Hudson at guards. Minnesota's bench is weak, too, while Portland's bench is a strength.

'There is never a question about Portland's talent,' Sloan says. 'Their talent is as good as any team in the league. You can't get much more talent. We look at their second group as good as anybody's in the league.'

Depth doesn't matter as much in the playoffs as it does through the regular season. It does mean Portland could afford an injury more than Minnesota can.

'Both teams have given us a lot of trouble,' Musselman says. 'Sacramento was by far the toughest team for us in the West this year, and the next two were Portland and Minnesota. Portland has more depth than Minnesota, but Garnett is playing at as good a level as any player in the league, and Minnesota's role guys do a great job. They know what is expected of them to win.'

Family feudin'

One of their teammates says Zach Randolph and Patterson have a history dating to last season, thus Randolph's hasty intervention in Wednesday's practice altercation between Patterson and Qyntel Woods. 'No question, Zach was at fault,' the teammate says. 'It was like third man in during a hockey fight. You just don't do it. It was uncalled for.'

It's just another bonding opportunity for coach Maurice Cheeks, I suppose. After Woods' arrest for marijuana possession, speeding and no insurance, Cheeks said, 'Because of the things that have happened, we have become more of a family.' Hmm, and a dysfunctional one, at that.

The most amazing thing about Woods' escapade on the road is the rookie forward has driven in Oregon for six months without a driver's license or, apparently, insurance on his 2003 Cadillac Escalade, valued at about $60,000. His Tennessee driver's license was under a one-year suspension after a Feb. 7, 2002, conviction for DUI in Mississippi. The suspension date had passed, but the 22-year-old Memphis native had not reapplied for his license through the Tennessee Department of Safety.

One more question: When Woods showed the police officer his rookie card for identification purposes last Saturday night, was it Skybox or Donruss?

Playoff conjecture

Indiana coach Isiah Thomas laughs when asked who he likes in the Western Conference playoffs. 'Shaq É I mean, the Lakers,' he says. 'He is just a huge asset. You know when it comes playoff time, you can write it down, this guy is going to have 25, 35 points for you every night. Until the season is over and the Lakers are not there, the defending champs are the team to beat. I would say Sacramento, with the addition of Keon Clark, comes next. Everyone else after that is kind of a dark horse.'

Pacer star Jermaine O'Neal claims the first two rounds in both the West and East 'will be better than the NBA Finals, especially with the first round series going to seven games. I mean, there are going to be so many good matchups, how much will the teams have left by the Finals?'

By the way, word is out that O'Neal, a free agent at the end of the season, wouldn't mind a return to Portland next season. The Blazers have no salary-cap room, so a trade is the only way it could happen unless he would settle for the midlevel exception, which won't happen.

Would the Pacers take Wallace in return? Nah.

Sloan's read on the West playoffs: 'There are a lot of good teams, but we don't have any luck to even try to play San Antonio. They wax us Ñ dominate us every time we play. They have a lot of things that are good for playoff basketball. They can make you play their game.'

Sacramento coach Rick Adelman seems resigned that the Kings will wind up playing the defending-champion Lakers in the first round. 'If we get the second seed and they get the seventh, that's a toss-up, probably,' Adelman says. 'It is all about matchups and who is clicking on all cylinders in the playoffs.'

Notes: One NBA scout's appraisal of Luke Ridnour's pro potential: 'He is a good prospect. He will play in our league. He doesn't have blazing speed. His body has to improve. He has to become a dead(eye) outside shooter. How good he will be depends on how strong and proficient he becomes.'

Mike Dunleavy Jr. is back to not playing much again after starting and doing well for Golden State while power forward Troy Murphy was out with an injury. In Dunleavy's last six games, he made 5 of 30 from the field, averaging 2.7 points in 14 minutes. 'When Troy was out, Mike couldn't have played much better,' Musselman says. 'The last five or six games he may be a little tired, and I am sure he would like more minutes. I'm happy with him. This is going to be a big summer for him to spend time in the weight room and play summer-league ball. I think he will take it up another level next season.'

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