• To beat Dallas, Portland needs to haul all its talent out of hibernation

The Trail Blazers lucked out.

Portland won't have to face the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, which likely would have been a death knell for the men in red, white and black.

The Blazers' first-round opponent, Dallas, won 60 games with an explosive offense and a deep bench, but the Mavericks can be exposed in areas that are traditionally important in the playoffs: defense and rebounding.

Dallas allowed opponents to shoot only .438 from the field, better than Portland's .450 mark for opponents' field-goal percentage. But those numbers are deceiving.

The Mavericks played a lot of zone and were more effective with the ploy when 7-6 Shawn Bradley was manning the middle. Bradley fell increasingly out of favor with coach Don Nelson as the season went on, however, and though Raef LaFrentz is a better overall player, he is not the intimidating defensive factor Bradley can be.

Against the bad teams, Dallas' defense is adequate, and the Mavericks are able to win with offense. Portland doesn't shoot particularly well from the perimeter, normally a problem against a zone. But Bonzi Wells, who has found his rhythm in recent games, will roam the baseline and get all kinds of easy baskets if Dallas goes zone. Ditto with Ruben Patterson when he is in the game. And if Scottie Pippen is healthy, he will make sure the right players get the ball in the right spots.

Boards are Blazers' plus

Only three teams rebounded at a worse percentage than Dallas. When the Mavericks are in zone, they are particularly vulnerable to getting cleaned on the glass. Portland is a strong rebounding team, ninth in the league, with several players who attack the offensive boards. Wells, Patterson and Zach Randolph should be able to get plenty of put-back baskets if the Blazers play their cards right.

The teams split four regular-season meetings.

'They're extremely athletic,' LaFrentz says. 'If the right team shows up and they are ready to play, they are as good as anybody. And in the playoffs, you're always ready to play.'

Dallas was 34-18 in the West, Portland 29-23. But point guard Steve Nash expects 'a very tough matchup' against the Blazers.

'They pound us on the boards,' he says.

Backup point guard Avery Johnson says the Blazers 'can bother us with their length É and have big players who can go out on the perimeter and match up with us, especially with Dirk (Nowitzki).'

Dallas likes to run, and Nash is always looking to push and get the ball upcourt in transition. That is more difficult to do in the playoffs, especially if rebounding is a problem.

Guard Michael Finley's health is a major concern for the Mavericks; they were only 7-6 while he sat out down the stretch with a strained left hamstring. He is athletic, a great scorer, a decent midrange shooter and a willing defender. He played a total of only 29 minutes in the final two games, scoring nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, hardly a litmus test for readiness for the rigors of the postseason.

Small forward Walt Williams, a former Blazer, also is hobbled with a strained left hamstring.

'Finley is not very good right now, and neither is Walt,' Nelson says.

Much hinges on Pippen

Portland has its own injury situation with Pippen, whose knee gave him problems late in the season and allowed him back for only the final two games. His leadership is critical, as is his tendency to step up at crunch time.

Rasheed Wallace will be asked to come up large for the Blazers. Except for late in Sunday's 101-99 win over the Lakers, in which he hit the game-winning shot, the

6-11 forward wasn't up to billing in the last six games. Over that span, he made only 29 of 72 shots (.403) while averaging 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds. He played well in the playoffs against the Lakers last year, but if he is only average this time around, the Blazers could be in trouble.

After a terrible 15-game stretch in which he made just 64 of 162 shots (.396) while averaging 11.4 points, Wells came alive in the last four games. The 6-5 small forward made 35 of 69 (.507) while averaging 23.3 points and 7.8 rebounds over that span. Wells has not scored (12.3) or shot (.357) well against Dallas this season. The Blazers need him to play with the kind of force he displayed last week.

Derek Anderson was effective against Dallas, averaging 15.3 points while making 8 of 15 from 3-point range. The Blazers could use his long-accuracy and ability to get to the basket.

Challenges come in many guises

Randolph is Portland's emerging weapon. The second-year forward exploded with 31 points and 20 rebounds against Memphis and added 27 points on 13-of-17 shooting against Phoenix in the last four games. He poses another defensive matchup problem for the Mavericks on the block.

Portland must get more production out of Arvydas Sabonis, who played sparingly in many games the last month of the regular season. Maybe he was being rested for the playoffs. The 7-3 Lithuanian lug's passing and scoring potential in the post could be an element for which the Mavericks have no answer, but he must play 20-plus minutes to pay real dividends.

Nelson is a savvy, seasoned coach who knows all the tricks of the trade. Maurice Cheeks is still learning the ropes at the Portland helm. In a tight series, that could make a difference.

Dallas is a good team, showy and blessed with an impressive offensive arsenal. The Mavericks were 33-8 at home and sold out all 41 games for the first time.

That may not be enough in the playoffs. If the Blazers bring their 'A' game and exploit the Mavericks' weaknesses, they could live to play another series in the postseason.

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