Ever surprising, physical Portland is now pushing the Mavs around

Softies don't win championships, and they rarely win playoff series.

That's why the Trail Blazers have a great shot at making NBA history, beginning with Game 6 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 tonight.

Portland is bullying the Mavericks, beating them on the boards, taking the ball to the basket and getting physical with them on defense. And its show of force finally seems to be paying off.

Which is remarkable, considering the Blazers' backs weren't just to the wall after falling behind 0-3 in the best-of-seven series Ñ they were hanging onto the edge of a cliff, waiting to plunge into a great abyss.

There the Blazers were in Game 5 on Wednesday, down eight points inside five minutes to go on a foreign court, another first-round elimination just a few scoreless possessions away.

Now it's Dallas' turn to feel the heat. If Portland wins Game 6 and a deciding Game 7 Sunday in Dallas, it will be the first NBA team to rally from an 0-3 deficit and claim a series.

In the first three games, Dallas played well in the clutch, and Portland didn't. But when the Mavericks had a chance to close out the series, they wilted. The pressure is squarely on them now, and they haven't performed well in that kind of situation.

Dallas is a jump-shooting team, alongside Sacramento as the best in the league, and the Mavericks made enough open shots from the perimeter to win the first three games.

That inspired members of the Dallas media to pronounce the series over, and it seems as if some of the Mavericks believed their press clippings.

Beginning with the second half of Game 4, their shots haven't fallen with regularity, which has unmasked two of their major weaknesses: rebounding and interior scoring. Yeah, the Mavs are tough Ñ just like the Wizard of Oz.

Portland won the rebound battle 48-32 in Game 5, hauling 20 boards off the offensive glass. Arvydas Sabonis' tip of Bonzi Wells' miss in the final seconds secured Wednesday's 103-99 win in which the Blazers led for a total of one minute, five seconds.

Dallas starts a trio of 7-footers on the front line, but only Dirk Nowitzki Ñ the best player on either team, by far Ñ has risen to the occasion on more than an occasional basis.

The swing players of late have been Zach Randolph and Steve Nash.

Randolph, the 21-year-old second-year forward, moved into Portland's starting lineup in Game 4 and has averaged 23.5 points and 12 rebounds the last two games. He makes the Blazers bigger, better and even more physical.

Nash, meanwhile, has disappeared. Dallas' All-Star point guard has lost confidence in his shot, missing 13 of 15 attempts in the last two games. Nash had 11 assists Wednesday, but the Mavericks need him to hit a few shots if they are to win tonight.

Cheeks guesses right

Dallas has three players who have showed their heart on a consistent basis in this series Ñ Nowitzki and reserves Nick Van Exel and Eduardo Najera. Michael Finley, lousy in Game 4, scored nine of the Mavericks' first 11 points in Game 5, then disappeared. Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz are foul magnets who don't want anything to do with an open shot when the game is on the line. And coach Don Nelson is playing just seven in his rotation.

Nelson, incidentally, was outcoached for the first time in the series by Maurice Cheeks in Game 5. Cheeks went with a hunch and used Scottie Pippen for major minutes in Wednesday's second half, even though Pippen is far less than 100 percent because of an ailing knee and hadn't played since Game 1. Pippen rewarded Cheeks with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, five rebounds and some excellent defense down the stretch.

Cheeks also inserted Sabonis Ñ who played only nine minutes Ñ on Portland's final possession, figuring that Sabas would come in handy with a post-up hook or potential offensive rebound. The latter occurred, 'and I guess I'm a genius,' Cheeks said, laughing.

On Wednesday, Nelson's Maverick played timid and looked lost on offense down the stretch, milking too much time off the shot clock and winding up with forced shots as time expired several times. Dallas scored on three of its final nine possessions. Portland scored on seven of its last eight possessions and 14 of 18 in the final quarter.

Sabonis was asked if the tip-in was the biggest shot of his seven-year NBA career. 'I think yes,' he said. 'It is not a last shot, but it is for victory.'

Dallas feels mounting tension

The 'most underappreciated 60-win team in NBA history,' as one Dallas columnist dubbed the Mavericks, still has the advantage in the series, but it is shrinking like a slug in salt. Dallas won Game 3 in Portland, but that was ages ago, when things were different.

The Rose Garden 'is a tough place to play,' Nowitzki says. 'It gets pretty loud. Along with Sacramento, it's probably the loudest place on the road. But the crowd was fired up in Game 3, and we found a way to quiet the crowd and win the game. That's what we have to do again.

'We have to have a great team effort, have everyone play well and making shots and especially rebounding. Then we put ourselves with a chance to win the game.'

Were it not for the NBA's midseason decision to extend all first-round series from best-of-five to best-of-seven, the Blazers would be making summer vacation plans. Instead, they are planning a dip into uncharted waters.

If the Mavs lose the series, they will live in infamy.

'They are a little bit nervous now,' Sabonis says. 'If we were in this situation, we would definitely be nervous. It was 3-0 and now it is 3-2. And if they come to Portland and lose É '

Wednesday's win did as much to inspire the Blazers as it did to demoralize the Mavericks.

'We are still alive, and now we have some momentum,' Sabonis says. 'I think this win will make us start to really believe we can win this series.'

Notes: Six NBA playoff teams have rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win two games, including Portland in this series. Only two teams have won three games after starting a series 0-3 Ñ Rochester in the 1951 finals against New York and Denver against Utah in the 1994 Western Conference semifinals.

Cheeks says Randolph, who has played at least 40 minutes in the last two games, is getting major playing time because his defense has improved. 'During a timeout in the second half, I was going to sub for Zach, and he was like, 'No, no, no, I can guard this guy,' ' Cheeks says. 'He knows to stay on the floor, he has to defend.'

Wells, who made 5 of 22 shots in Game 5, is 14 of 59 (.237) in the last three games. É Wallace is averaging fewer than five rebounds a game in the series. É In the first half of Game 5, Wells and Wallace were a combined 1 of 13 from the field.

Pippen had little to say about a Rose Garden fan's claim that he tossed a cup of water on him after Game 4. Jeff McClelland, 33, of Oregon City, told Portland police that he and Pippen exchanged words near the Blazer bench. 'It's a legal case, and I'll leave it at that,' Pippen said Wednesday.

Najera, asked if the pressure is on Dallas: 'No, not at all. There is no pressure. It's just a game. We just have to play Maverick basketball. Shooting is our strength, and if we shoot better on 3s, their defense will open up.'

Nelson may elect to go small tonight, starting either Van Exel or Najera instead of Bradley or LaFrentz.

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