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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez makes a move in Saturday's game against Philadelphia.Is Robin Lopez the new Buck Williams?

In other words, the final piece to the starting lineup puzzle for the Trail Blazers? The fifth Beatle, er, Blazers starter who gets them to the NBA Western Conference finals or beyond?

Williams came to the Blazers in 1989-90. The veteran power forward averaged 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds and shot 60.2 percent from the field that season, and Portland won the West.

Lopez, since arriving for this season, is at 10.0 points and 8.4 rebounds at center and is shooting 54.9 percent.

Lopez has 1.4 blocks per game; Williams had 0.6 in '89-90, but he was just as much of a defensive presence, if not more so, for his team. Defense in the low block helped establish Williams as the golden spike that linked the Blazers and really made them go.

That and his character, both in terms of citizenship and in sense of humor and ability to get along with his teammates — all without needing the ball on offense or taking a lot of shots or scoring, although he could score in flurries, more so than Lopez.

All the intangibles, though, made Williams' addition significant, and it appears that Lopez has those kind of qualities, too, making him at least a poor man's Buck Williams for the Blazers.

• I'd vote Terry Stotts for NBA coach of the year well before I'd vote Neil Olshey for executive of the year. Unless Olshey can pull off a deal for the kind of defender-penetrator bench player that puts Portland atop the conference.

• The Blazers have been able to trim a few minutes per game off their key guys, but not that much, given that none of them ever gets a night off.

LaMarcus Aldridge is down from 37.7 minutes last season to 37.0. Wesley Matthews is down from 34.8 to 34.2. Damian Lillard is down from 38.6 to 36.3. Nicolas Batum is down from 38.4 to 35.8.

All four have played in all 34 games. Last season, Lillard played in all 82, while Aldridge played in 73, Batum 73 and Matthews 69.

Can all four play in all 82 games, or close to that?

What happens if Portland continues to battle for a homecourt first-round playoff spot or even homecourt through the Western Conference playoffs — do the fab four's minutes go up?

Also, Lopez is averaging 30.6 minutes per game — 4.6 above his career high. He also has been in all 34 games this season, after playing in all 82 (at 26.0 minutes per) last season with New Orleans.

• Yes, the Blazers are living by the 3-pointer, but more and more teams are these days, even at the high school level. And I submit that the phrase "dying by the 3-pointer" is an airball, especially in this new generation of basketball.

Yes, the Blazers were 3 for 22 on 3-pointers in Saturday's 101-99 loss to Philadelphia.

Matthews also missed two late free-throws, Lillard had a great drive to the rim at the end that he missed, Lillard had six turnovers, Lopez missed a key rebound opportunity in the closing seconds, Aldridge was 13 of 30 (on 2-pointers!), and so on and so forth.

In the final eight minutes of that game, the Blazers were 0 of 6 from 3-point range — but they also were 3 of 14 on 2-pointers, with the three baskets on layups ... which means they missed 10 other 2-point shots from an average distance, according to the box score, of 4 feet.

Maybe they shouldn't shoot so many 4-footers ...

But back to shooting a lot of 3s — it's an approach that makes sense in many ways, as I recently outlined in another column.

And, it's important to remember that not all 3-point attempts are created equal. It's one thing to shoot 3s under duress, when well-contested or when a few feet or more beyond the arc, or off-balance and off the dribble, or when the players who take them aren't good from that distance.

It's an entirely different thing when they come in the flow of an offense, with a defender a step or more away, when right on or close to the line, in rhythm on a nice catch-and-shoot, and when taken by players who are comfortable from that distance.

Even a 3-point taken when a defender is running at the shooter typically can be a good look — having someone running at you often means that defender is too late to get a block, and the defender often serves to make sure the shooter gets more air under his shot, and the higher arc increases the chance of a make.

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