On the NBA
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Added strength has allowed Travis Outlaw to bang around with power forwards. The fifth-year player is working on improving his consistency.

A half-hour after the Trail Blazers' win over Minnesota last Saturday at the Rose Garden, Von Wafer was the only player left dressing in the locker room.

'Travis (Outlaw) is still lifting weights,' Wafer told an attendant. 'That's crazy.'

Then Martell Webster entered the locker room, his body glistening with sweat after completing his own workout.

Webster smiled at Wafer and explained that he had been getting in extra postgame work since last season, and Outlaw - who meanwhile wandered into the all-but-empty room - has been a regular this season.

'That's dedication,' Wafer nodded approvingly.

The 6-9, 215-pound Outlaw feels the extra strength work helps him battle thicker bodies at power forward, the position he has played most this season.

'When you play the 4, the opponents kind of wear on your body,' the fifth-year pro says. 'It makes me feel like I have an edge. So far, my numbers are showing it's a lot better with me doing it.'

Outlaw is Portland's No. 3 scorer at 13.2 points per game and is averaging 4.5 rebounds, up from his marks of 9.6 and 3.2 last season. That despite some of his poorest play of the season on the team's recent five-game road trip, when he made only 15 of 49 shots from the field (.306) while averaging 7.0 points and 2.0 rebounds.

His season shooting percentages are solid - .442 from the field, .375 from 3-point range and .728 from the line.

'Travis is working on consistency,' coach Nate McMillan says. 'There are periods where he may have a week of bad basketball, but he'll find a way to get it back.'

Outlaw seemed to come out of his slump against the Timberwolves, knocking down 8 of 13 shots while collecting 17 points and three boards in 17 minutes. He hopes that continues tonight at the Garden against Phoenix, but he is one of those rare NBA players who is genuinely most concerned about the team's welfare.

'I don't know why I had the drop-off,' Outlaw says. 'I was like, 'What's wrong with me?' But the team has been doing well, and that's the most important thing.'

McMillan envisions using Outlaw, 23, in the same capacity next season.

'We like him in that sixth-man role,' McMillan says. 'He's become a very important player for us. As far as the future, that's where we see him - a guy who can come off the bench and provide some scoring. He can do that at both the 3 and 4 spots.'

'Whatever it takes for the team to win,' Outlaw says. 'Wherever the organization feels they need me at, that's where I'm going to be. As long as the minutes are there, I'm OK.'

• Tonight's contest remains a red-letter game on the schedule for Portland center Joel Przybilla.

'Not only to face (Shaquille O'Neal), but the whole Phoenix team - (Amare) Stoudemire, (Steve) Nash … they've been one of the top teams in the league the past few years,' he says. 'It's always a good challenge.'

In their meeting here two weeks ago, Portland cut a 23-point third-quarter deficit to two before falling 97-92 to the Suns.

'We feel like we owe them one,' Przybilla says. 'We thought we should have had that game.'

• The other Blazer big man, LaMarcus Aldridge, claims he doesn't get psyched up for one opponent over another.

'Every game is the same,' he says.

Even to go head-to-head with Stoudemire?

'He's an all-star,' Aldridge says of Phoenix's power forward. 'Any all-star is going to be a challenge to go against. But I'm excited to play any game right now. I don't feel any more (enthusiasm) for Phoenix. I feel it every game.'

• McMillan says that finishing with a winning record is a goal for the Blazers (35-32), and it's eminently achievable.

After tonight's game against Phoenix, Portland will be favored in five of its next six games - a home-and-home with the L.A. Clippers, at Seattle, and then home against Washington and Charlotte. The Blazers will be the underdog only for their March 27 game at Golden State.

That will change in April, when the Blazers will be favored only once - against Memphis at home April 15. There's a home-and-home with the L.A. Lakers, home dates with Houston, San Antonio and Dallas and road games against Sacramento and Phoenix.

If they go 7-8 the rest of the way, the Blazers will be 42-40 - doubling their win total of two years ago, when they finished an NBA-worst 21-61.

• Portland has been among the league's best at winning close games. The Blazers are 11-3 in games decided by four points or fewer, 22-10 in games decided by eight points or fewer and 5-2 in overtime. They have 14 wins when trailing or even going into the fourth quarter. Only two victories have been by more than a dozen points.

McMillan often talks about learning how to win, but 'it's not just about winning close games,' he says. He wants lessons learned along the way - such as how to handle the second of back-to-back games, how to prepare for a team the Blazers already have beaten three times in a season, or a team they've played three days earlier, and how to play well in the first game home after a long road trip.

Most of Portland's April opponents will be jockeying for position in the Western playoff race. Another lesson, McMillan says, for a Blazer team he hopes will be in the thick of it in 2008-09.

'Basically,' McMillan says, 'our games down the stretch are preparing us for next season.'

• The Blazers continue to bring up the rear in NBA fastbreak points at 7.9 per game - about a point more than they averaged in transition a year ago. Opponents are averaging 13.1 points. Portland has won the fastbreak point battle only 14 times all season, going 8-6 in those games.

Portland also is last in the league in points in the paint (31.0).

• McMillan says too much was made of Greg Oden's practice session with the Blazers last week in Sacramento.

'They made it seem like he went through a lot of practice,' McMillan says of the rookie center, who continues rehab on his surgically repaired knee. 'I see this report on ESPN, and I'm sitting and thinking, 'Oh, my God.' (General Manager) Kevin Pritchard calls and says, 'What's going on?' '

McMillan says team doctors and trainer Jay Jensen thought it would be good for the 7-foot Oden - who is expected to skip summer league but be ready for October training camp - to get in some light running in a controlled workout. McMillan threw him in for about 15 minutes with some Blazer reserves.

'It was nothing, really,' McMillan says. 'Greg went through it and felt OK the next day. We haven't even talked about doing it again this season.'

• James Jones likely will opt out of his contract this summer, but the Blazer forward - second in the NBA in 3-point accuracy at .487 - likes Portland and would prefer to re-sign here.

Pritchard likes Jones, too, and won't let him go.

• Fifteen games left, and there's no indication about Darius Miles' return to the court.

'We're just letting him work with the trainer and the doctor,' McMillan says of the enigmatic forward, who has missed the entire past two seasons after microfracture knee surgery. 'They kind of guide me on what we're going to do. If he's ready for the floor, we'll bring him to the floor. If not, no.'

Well then, no.

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