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Blazers slide for other reasons

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by: Jonathan Ferrey, Phoenix center Shaquille O’Neal blocks Blazer Jarrett Jack’s shot earlier this month. Portland’s reliance on perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll offense with jump shots has at times hurt the team.

As they say, Nate McMillan probably has forgotten more basketball than I've learned over the years.

But when he insinuates that his players have begun to cash in the season, I have to beg to differ.

'You have to show that you want to win and you're not just going through the motions,' McMillan said after his Trail Blazers' 93-85 loss to Charlotte on Saturday.

If effort were the problem, Portland wouldn't have outrebounded Charlotte 57-32. When you grab 23 offensive boards, you're working hard, just missing a lot of shots. The Blazers shot .363 from the field, going 7 for 29 (.241) from 3-point range.

The Bobcats outscored them 52-32 in points in the paint and 16-5 in fastbreak points. There's a reason the Blazers are last in the league in both categories. They don't push the ball upcourt to get easy opportunities in transition, and they rely on a perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll offense in which the screener often winds up with a jump shot. Some nights it works, but it's harder that way to win over the long haul of an entire season.

And don't forget, Portland is without the straw that stirs the drink, Brandon Roy, who is hopeful he can return Sunday against San Antonio as he recuperates from a groin strain. Roy scores, creates opportunities for his teammates and takes a lot of pressure off everyone else at the offensive end.

When Steve Blake, Martell Webster and James Jones combine to make 7 of 32 shots - including 2 of 18 on 3-pointers - you're not going to win many games. And that really has nothing to do with desire.

• Starting with Wednesday's road game with the L.A. Lakers, Portland's schedule includes six games against playoff teams - the Lakers twice, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix - as well as a visit to Sacramento and a home game with Memphis.

The Blazers (38-36) must go 4-4 to achieve their goal of a winning season, and McMillan will use the players he believes give them the best chance to do that. Which means that Sergio Rodriguez, Raef LaFrentz and Von Wafer - and Josh McRoberts, if he is recalled from the D-League - will see little or no action.

McMillan stresses he is looking to the future, simulating what he hopes will be a run to the playoffs next season.

'We are looking at our players,' he says. 'We're looking at Martell and Travis (Outlaw) and LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Joel (Przybilla) and Blake and (Jarrett) Jack. We're playing those guys to look at them - but not the 11th and 12th men.

'Martell and LaMarcus haven't played in (a starting) role at this time of the year. Against the kind of teams we'll face, these are guys who need to play this time of the year. We want them to play meaningful games and see what they look like.

'It's an opportunity for a lot of guys to show what they're capable of doing. If they want to be a part (of the Blazers' future), this is an opportunity.'

• McMillan is taking an interesting approach to Roy's potential return. The coach wants him back, but only if Roy recuperates quickly.

'If Brandon gets down to the last couple of games of the season and he hasn't played, why play him?' McMillan says. 'You don't take that risk. But if you still have six or seven games left and he's healthy, then why not?

'It would be good to see him and LaMarcus against San Antonio, for instance. We saw that matchup - LaMarcus vs. Tim (Duncan) and Brandon vs. Bruce (Bowen) - early in the season; so let's look at it in April. Has there been any improvement on our end?'

• Greg Oden wasn't fined or penalized for taking part in a health-club pickup game last week, and he got only a gentle admonishment from his coach.

'I was surprised, shocked,' McMillan says. 'But upset? It's like your kids. You think they know certain things until they go out and do something.'

McMillan wants his rookie center to understand not just the obvious risk of injury as he rehabs his surgically repaired knee but also that he's in a fishbowl now.

'He wants to be normal, but we have made him aware he's not the guy who came in here a year ago,' McMillan says. 'You're such a huge value to this franchise. You can't do certain things, because people look at you differently. They're watching your every move. They're listening to what you say. Your life has changed forever.'

• In an interview with the Spanish Web site Marca.com, Blazer draft pick Rudy Fernandez expressed reservations about signing with Portland next season, in part because of countryman Rodriguez's inability to crack McMillan's rotation.

'Sergio is a good player, and it's very weird to me that the coach isn't showing much confidence in him,' Fernandez was quoted as saying. 'Honestly, it really scares me to think that McMillan could do the same with me.'

Asked if he will go to Portland next season, Fernandez replies: 'I haven't decided yet. That's the truth. I don't know if I'll make the jump now … it's a difficult decision I'll need to think about.'

The 6-6, 180-pound Fernandez - who turns 23 on Friday - has had an outstanding season and is considered one of the top players in Europe. He would be able to make more money there than with Portland, which is limited to paying him what the 24th pick (from last season) is slotted as determined in the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement.

In late April, Portland General Manager Kevin Pritchard, assistant GM Tom Penn, director of college scouting Chad Buchanan and director of NBA scouting Mike Born will fly to Spain to watch Fernandez, along with a host of other European players. Fernandez remains under contract with DKV Joventut until the middle of June, but Pritchard hopes to lay the groundwork for a contract for next season.

'We have a good opportunity to sign him,' Pritchard says. 'We're competing against some major teams in Europe, but his ultimate goal is to be in the NBA, and we have his rights.'

Frank Lawlor, editor of Euroleague.net and a former beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers, has watched Fernandez play several times this season.

'The kid's showmanship belies how tough he is, mentally and physically,' Lawlor says. 'Reminds me a bit of (Allen) Iverson in that way. Gets knocked down - hard and seemingly intentionally sometimes - then shakes it off to nail the free throws (he almost never misses), bury a 3 and an alley-oop dunk in the next couple of minutes.

'When he gets angry, he sentences games himself. The kid has moxie.'

• Jack has struggled with his shooting (.423 from the field and .329 from 3-point range) and has a turnover average (4.0 per 48 minutes) that is more than four times that of starting point guard Blake.

But Jack averages nearly 27 minutes a game, and McMillan often plays him at crunchtime because the third-year combo guard will take the ball to the basket and get to the foul line, where he is almost always successful (.868).

Jack believes his offensive inconsistency is in part due to his continuing transition to spending a lot of time at shooting guard.

'The dual role I'm playing is still kind of difficult for me,' says Jack, who played mostly point guard his first two seasons in Portland. 'I'll be playing the 2, and then the 1, and I have trouble getting myself involved if the ball's not in my hands.

'(When playing point guard), I don't have to wait for the ball, because I already have it. I can make plays and be aggressive, rather than standing on the wing and waiting for somebody to throw it to me.

'I just have to find ways to do something positive when I don't have the ball. It's something I have to work on.'

It's not something McMillan wants to hear. He regards that as an excuse.

'I've heard that before, and Jarrett and I have talked about that,' the coach says. 'My first year, (Sebastian) Telfair and Jack played some together, and he felt that way then.

'I don't look at it as a dual role. We have two guards. Sometimes Brandon handles the ball, sometimes Blake does, sometimes Jack does. The way we run our sets, we take advantage of the defender. If a weak defender is on a certain guard, we try to work that.

'Really, with Jarrett, when his shot falls, everything is good. When it's not falling, it's 'I'm in a dual role.' '

Jack, incidentally, isn't complaining about his reserve role, or his time at shooting guard.

'Blake's been doing a great job,' Jack says. 'The reason for me coming off the bench is so I can be aggressive and won't take shots away from Brandon and LaMarcus, guys who need to get going early in games. I understand where coach is coming from. I'm bigger, taller and stronger than Blake or Sergio. When you look for somebody who can do both, I'm the candidate.'

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