Portlands mystery men

As season winds down, Blazers still keep fans guessing

Well, there is some good news. Scottie Pippen, progressing in rehabilitation after knee surgery, will return soon.

Beyond that, the Blazers embark on their final road trip of the season Ñ beginning tonight at Houston Ñ with a few dobbers dangling to the floor.

There hasn't been more uncertainty about Portland's playoff chances this year than there is heading into the final six games of the regular season.

Minnesota's 98-79 win over the Blazers on the Rose Garden floor Sunday night was somewhere between surprising and shocking. Boos cascaded throughout the Garden among those still on hand for the final sorry minutes of the Timberwolves' resounding romp Ñ a reflection of the perpetual cloud that has seemed to hang over the franchise through the Bob Whitsitt regime.

It was a big game, a very big game, for both teams as they fight for fourth place and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Timberwolves rose to the occasion. The Blazers shrank into a tight ball.

The coup de gr‰ce came in the fourth quarter, with the game still in reach. Bonzi Wells committed a turnover, then an obvious foul in the backcourt, putting the T-Wolves at the line for two important free throws. When referee Danny Crawford extended a hand to help Bozo, er, Bonzi up from the floor, the Blazer forward refused it, cursed at Crawford and received a technical. It was the second time in recent weeks Wells has been hit with a T at a crucial time late in the game. He has earned his team's technicals lead over three-time league champion Rasheed Wallace, that is for sure.

Even the Blazers' good guys are wondering.

'In a basketball sense, I am frustrated,' says Derek Anderson, who rarely utters a discouraging word even in the worst of times. 'The hard thing is, sometimes we understand the problem, but then it gets to the point where you have to fix it, and it doesn't get done. You can't pinpoint any individual; just as a team, we don't get it done.'

Dale Davis says the Blazers will welcome Pippen back, but shouldn't use his return as a panacea.

'We need Scottie back playing the way he is capable,' the veteran center says. 'At the same time, what if he doesn't come back? We have to step up and meet the challenge.'

Notes: There was a chill in the air in the locker room after Sunday's game. A few of the players, including Ruben Patterson, departed without speaking to the media. Wells shouted an obscenity at Zach Randolph as the young forward who punched Patterson during practice last week, surrounded by media, answered a few questions before exiting. Randolph and Patterson, dressing two stalls apart, never spoke or made eye contact. É Randolph says through the NBA Players Association he intends to appeal the $100,000 fine levied by the Blazers for the Patterson incident. É Patterson says he can't retaliate against Randolph, 'because I am on probation (for sexual assault involving a nanny), so I would get in trouble.' Wouldn't it have been better had Patterson said he won't retaliate against his teammate because it is the right thing to do?

Portland can still clinch fourth by running the table in its remaining six games, but that won't be easy. Minnesota can apply the heat by taking care of the four games it has left, all against opponents at .500 or lower. Ñ at Seattle, against the L.A. Clippers and Memphis and at home against Chicago. If Portland and Minnesota end the regular season with the same record, the Timberwolves get the higher seed because of a 3-1 edge in the season series. É Looming close are the L.A. Lakers, at 46-31, a game and a half behind both Portland and Minnesota. The Lakers visit the Rose Garden on Sunday for another important showdown. A win would give the Lakers the season series. It is not inconceivable that the Blazers could fall to sixth in the West, which would mean a first-round matchup with either San Antonio or Dallas.

Don't write off the Blazers' playoff chances yet, however. They have the talent to get on a roll, and Pippen's return should solder some cracks in the team. If the first-round matchup is against Minnesota or Dallas, the Blazers rate a decent chance of advancing Ñ though the Timberwolves showed everybody something Sunday.

Coach Maurice Cheeks was a little testy after Sunday's game, walking out of the interview room in the middle of a question. When asked about Wallace's propensity to shoot from the perimeter instead of near the basket, the coach replied: 'We always, for some reason, come in here and talk about Rasheed taking a jump shot. Yeah, Rasheed takes a lot of jump shots, and I would rather have him on the post more times than not. É But let's make it clear, it wasn't why we lost this game.'

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