• Blazers search for a winning formula going into the playoffs

Playoff positioning does matter, but for the Trail Blazers, it is much more important how well they are playing going into the postseason.

Tonight's regular-season home finale against Phoenix and Wednesday's visit to Los Angeles to face the Clippers present Portland with two final opportunities to build on the adrenaline rush provided by Sunday's 101-99 victory over the Lakers.

You can talk all you want about the Blazers avoiding the three-time defending champion Lakers in the first round by falling to sixth in the Western Conference, which would mean a probable first-round matchup with Dallas. The way things were going before Sunday, Portland could have faced off with Denver and still wondered about its chances.

'We are trying to win every game possible,' Portland coach Maurice Cheeks says. 'There is no ducking anyone. There is not a team where you can write on the board, 'I want to play that team.' You face who you are matched up with. If it happens to be the Lakers, we have to figure out how to beat them.'

Portland enters the final two days of the regular season still in position to finish fourth, fifth or sixth in the West.

Minnesota can clinch fourth, and homecourt advantage in the first round, by winning at Memphis on Wednesday.

Portland can clinch at least fifth by winning its final two. If the Blazers lose at least once more and the Lakers close out with victories over Denver and Golden State, the Lakers would earn the fifth spot (by virtue of a better record against West competition than Portland) and the Blazers would fall to No. 6.

There weren't a lot of unbiased observers who figured Portland would upend the Lakers, who hit the Rose Garden on a hot streak, having won nine of their previous 10. The Blazers, meanwhile, had fluttered to losses in seven of their last 11 and were just 16-15 since the All-Star break.

Several things were big for the Blazers on Sunday, which they will need to bottle if their playoff run is to extend beyond the first round. Among them:

• Bonzi Wells, All-Star type. The enigmatic small forward came into the game having made 33 of 89 shots (.389) in his last five outings. On Sunday, Wells was at his best, sinking 11 of 15 shots en route to a 29-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance. Yeah, he was guarding Kobe Bryant for much of the time as Bryant went for 32 second-half points, but that can happen to just about anybody. On offense, Bonzi moved without the ball and got to the basket often in transition.

Portland is 7-1 this season when Wells has scored 29 or more points.

• Solid shooting. Portland shot .519 from the floor against a Laker team that prides itself on its defense. In games when they shoot 50 percent or better, the Blazers are 24-1; below that figure, they are 25-30.

And the Blazers hit 6 of 12 from three-point range, including 3 of 3 by Wells. Bonzi isn't going to do that often Ñ he is at .299 for the season Ñ but when he does, it comes in handy.

• Courage in the clutch. Early in the season, Portland had an uncanny knack for winning close games. That trend had disappeared over the past two months. As things got sticky in the final moments Sunday, Rasheed Wallace Ñ decidedly sub-par through most of the game Ñ rose up to hit a pair of big shots that turned Laker victory expectations to dust.

The loss temporarily douses Laker spirits, but don't for a minute figure they would mind facing the team they ousted in the playoffs four of the past five seasons.

'Mr. Wallace hit a couple of tough shots, but we had chances to win that game,' Shaquille O'Neal says. 'We have two games left to get sharp. We match up well with everybody. It's about us and what we do.'

Notes: Portland will open the playoffs with games Saturday and Monday or Sunday and Tuesday. É Don't think tonight's game is a gimme for the local quintet. Phoenix is 3-0 against the Blazers this season and has a chance to sweep its first season series with Portland since 1994-95. É Scottie Pippen says his return from a swollen calf, a reaction to knee surgery nearly a month ago, 'is week to week.' Portland's team leader says he doubts if he will be able to play in the next two games but is hopeful the injury will come around by the playoffs.

Pippen, a free agent at season's end, could be paid as much as $21 million to play in Portland next season. The Lakers can offer him only the midlevel exception at about $4.6 million to stage a reunion with his coach in Chicago, Phil Jackson. 'Scottie has all the basic skills we require in our offense,' Jackson says, 'and he is a great leader defensively. We know what he could bring to our club, but we can't step out and be vocal about it. We can't give him the kind of offer that is even a drop in the bucket to what he is making now. It would have to be a marriage that works into a situation for Scottie that would be more of his desire to be a part of a championship rather than for pure dollars' sake.' É Karl Malone also has expressed interest in the Lakers, 'and we would certainly be interested in Karl after he becomes a free agent,' Jackson says. 'He has shown the ability to play very well at 38, 39, 40.'

Pippen told the Chicago Sun-Times last week he would consider a return to Chicago next season for considerations after retirement. 'If (the Bulls) were to offer me a spot on the roster for at least the midlevel exception and a place in management helping to build the team, I would be crazy not to consider it,' Pippen was quoted as saying. 'If Michael Jordan and other former Bulls like John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong were also in the plan, that would sound like a winner.'

ESPN's Jack Ramsay talked before the game about his feelings on the makeup of the Blazers: 'I didn't like it from Day One. I heard a lot of people saying the Blazers had loaded up, but I didn't like the composition of the team. Too much a duplication of positions. Forget about whether these are the right character guys. It makes it very difficult to coach a team where you have so many guys of relatively equal talent vying for minutes. You can only assume (Whitsitt) is doing this with the consent of the owner. Until the owner decides he doesn't like the way it's going, (Whitsitt) keeps doing it.'

Shaq says the best-of-seven format in the first round should benefit the Lakers. 'The year Denver beat Seattle (1994), if the series would have been best-of-seven instead of best-of-five, Gary (Payton) and those guys would have shaped up and history wouldn't have been made,' Shaq says. 'It is hard to beat us four times, unless we are playing awful and giving it to (the opponent).' É Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said last weekend Pippen is instrumental to Portland's playoff chances. 'They have to have Scottie,' Adelman said. 'If they don't have him, they're a different team. He keeps them under control so much better.'

Wallace's three-year run as NBA technicals champion is over. The former Mr. T got one Sunday but has only 11 this season, well shy of the 35.3 he averaged the last three seasons (38 in 1999-2000, 41 in 2000-01, 27 in 2001-02). The apparent titlist this season is Boston's Antoine Walker with 22. Houston's Steve Francis (19), Minnesota's Kevin Garnett (17), Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal (16) and Milwaukee's Gary Payton (12) complete the top five. Wells is in a tie for sixth with 13.

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