Stoudamire keeps cool, earns a return

Plucky point guard plays aggressively against Mavericks

DALLAS Ñ There he was, scurrying about the court at American Airlines Arena, a rodent pestering a pack of much larger creatures all around him.

Mighty Mouse was back, if only for a quarter.

This was the Damon Stoudamire who turned on Toronto fans and earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 1995-96, darting past defenders with water-bug quicks, pulling up for jump shots and getting to the foul line.

This was not the Stoudamire who didn't play at all in 23 regular-season games and looked tentative during his infrequent appearances on the court for the Trail Blazers. Or the Stoudamire who, subbing for the injured Scottie Pippen as starting point guard late in the season, looked to pass first, shoot second.

Stoudamire played all 12 minutes in the second quarter of Portland's 96-86 loss to Dallas on Saturday. He scored 13 points, knocking down 4 of 6 shots from the field, 1 of 2 from 3-point range, 4 of 4 from the free-throw line. He had an assist and no turnovers and was instrumental in a surge that saw the Blazers outscore the Mavericks 31-19 in the period and go into halftime with a 10-point lead.

The Blazers lost Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, but Stoudamire regained some of his swagger. He finished with 16 points in 25 turnover-free minutes. It was his best game off the bench all year.

It was by design. If Stoudamire has his way, fans will see more of the same in Wednesday's Game 2.

'I was looking to score,' the Wilson High graduate says. 'I was trying to make things happen. That's what I'm going to try to do all series.'

Before the first game, Portland's coaches told Stoudamire to be aggressive with the ball.

'But my mind-set was, I was going to be that way, anyway, not just because they were telling me to,' Stoudamire says. 'That's the way I've got to play.'

This season has been Stoudamire's first real taste as a reserve, dating to his days playing Goldenball in North Portland, and the result has been the worst year of his career. There was the arrest for marijuana possession with Rasheed Wallace on Nov. 21. There were forays in and out of the Blazer rotation and finally back into the starting lineup after Pippen's knee surgery.

The 5-9 Stoudamire, who turns 30 in September, had career lows in scoring average (6.9), assists (3.5), field-goal percentage (.376) and minutes (22.3). The eight-year veteran's pride was wounded.

Stoudamire sucked it up. He put in extra work before and after practice and games, trying to maintain his conditioning.

'You never know what's going to happen,' he says. 'Maybe you get traded. Maybe Pippen gets injured. And É and bam! It happened. Had I not been ready to go, people would have been saying, 'The guy has been complaining, and now he gets his chance to play and he wasn't ready.' You just have to make the best of it.'

The coaches have been impressed.

'I have been proud of Damon,' assistant coach Jimmy Lynam says. 'The degree to which he stayed involved when there were no guarantees as to how things were going to work out for him É I mean, that says a lot about the guy.'

'Damon has been great all year,' assistant coach Herb Brown says. 'He was ready every time Mo (Cheeks) called on him. It's amazing how he has handled everything, how focused and determined he has been.

'He gave us instant offense off the bench. He and Jeff (McInnis) stepped up the pace and gave us a different tempo in that second quarter.'

Cheeks had indicated he probably would trim his rotation in the playoffs. But he used 10 players in Game 1, and it paid off in the backcourt. Cheeks likes using Stoudamire and McInnis together, with McInnis defending the opponent's shooting guard but playing the point on offense.

'Damon is small, so he's going to have a hard time matching up with a lot of people defensively,' Cheeks says. 'But for his size, he's a pretty good post defender, and he causes trouble at the other end. The way he moves, the way he can cut to get open for shots, can be big for us.

'(In Game 1) Damon was moving and cutting and making shots. I mean, he's pretty good when he's making shots. With Jeff out there, Damon was playing off the ball more. He's at his best when he's off the ball, not putting the ball on the floor as much, and other guys are screening down for him so he's getting open shots.'

Stoudamire has always thought that Cheeks and his predecessor, Mike Dunleavy, erred by trying to convert him from a scoring point guard to either a distributing point man or a small shooting guard.

'I have been changing my game ever since I got here,' says Stoudamire, his voice showing agitation. 'I ain't been able to play the way I play since I got to Portland.'

But things won't change, at least this year. Stoudamire could possibly start Wednesday with Pippen hobbled, but there's no guarantee he will remain in the rotation if and when Pippen gets healthy.

'It has been hard, but I've been able to deal with it,' he says. 'I am going to get through it. I have no choice. What am I going to do? It is either come to work mad every day, or continue to work hard and when I get the call, just go out there and try to perform.

'I still love playing basketball. Something good is going to come out of all of this in the end. Whether I am (with the Blazers) or somewhere else, I know eventually I can get back to playing the way I am capable of playing Ñ more of the open-floor style of game, where I don't have the reins on so tight.

'I just got to bear with it because that's the way it is.'

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