As time goes by, 'Jail Blazers' trying hard to shed that nasty image

screen_shot_2016-08-23_at_9.12.18_am.png

As time goes by, 'Jail Blazers' trying hard to shed that nasty image

I usually pay very little attention to Kevin Garnett's bewildering segments during TNT's Thursday night NBA broadcasts. It's usually just a couple of washed-up players sitting there telling each other how good they used to be. It's a waste of time that I can't believe TNT finds them more entertaining than a couple of minutes of Charles Barkley talking about anything.

But I recently saw a clip of Garnett and Rasheed Wallace talking about the 2000 Trail Blazers-Lakers Western Conference finals Game 7 and the "Jail Blazers" Era. And for those who weren't around at that time, I can't help but attempt to set the record straight about a few things they discussed:

And let me say I agree with Wallace that Portland should have won that series and advanced to an NBA Finals berth against overmatched Indiana. It was a mystifying fourth quarter collapse in the seventh game by Portland that changed the course of the franchise in a big way.

But Wallace, whose image in Portland seems to improve with every year he's retired, misstated a few things about that final game.

The first thing is, he blamed Coach Mike Dunleavy for calling a timeout that he believes stopped his team's momentum and allowed the Lakers to make a comeback. I would say, though, the Trail Blazer players -- and Wallace in particular -- had much more to do with Portland's loss than did the coach. The Blazers had a 73-58 lead in the fourth quarter before being outscored 31-11 to end the game with a four-point loss.

Down the stretch of a magnificent upset of a loaded Laker team that featured Kobe and Shaq, the Trail Blazer players choked. They tightened up to the point they couldn't seem to get their shots to the rim. Wallace himself was awful in the fourth quarter, which wasn't surprising. The talented power forward could be spectacular for much of a game and then run from key shots in fourth quarters. He eventually found a home in Detroit, where there were other players more than willing to take the pressure shots.

And the other thing that happened in this game is that Portland could not buy a call from the referees once the Lakers got their machine revved up. This game has become one of those controversial events that people point to as possible "fixed" games down through the years in the NBA. Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis fouled out of this one, with Sabonis continually getting blocking calls when he had solid position on Shaq as the latter bulled his way to the basket.

A check of the box score shows Los Angeles getting 21 more free throws than Portland and the fouls put a lot of pressure on Portland in the fourth quarter.

But that was a loss and it will always be that way. What I found in the video clip more disturbing was Wallace downplaying the whole Jail Blazers thing, insinuating that the players were being pilloried by the media for little things like parking in handicapped spots or speeding and that the local media was just out to make a name for itself in a small market.

That's a steaming pile of stink, Rasheed.

I'm not going to go into the full list of transgressions by the players on this team but here are just a few I remember off hand:

  • Ruben Patterson --  a registered sex offender who was arrested for felony domestic abuse against his wife.
  • Zach Randolph --  Once punched Patterson's eye socket out in practice, had a DUI and was the leader of the infamous "hoops family" that was under suspicion for all kinds of local mischief,
  • Qyntel Woods -- Arrested for speeding and tried to use his basketball card as ID. A marijuana charge and an arrest for animal abuse because of his involvement with a dog-fighting group.
  • Shawn Kemp -- Departed the team to enter drug rehab during a season.
  • Bonzi Wells --  A couple of episodes of spitting on opposing players and a stated disregard for the team's fans.
  • Rasheed Wallace -- World records for technical fouls, throwing a towel in anger at Arvydas Sabonis in front of a packed house in the Rose Garden and once threatened referee Tim Donaghy in a loading dock incident after a game.
  • JR Rider -- Threatened media many times, couldn't get along with his coaches and once insinuated that people of color were being hanged from trees just a few miles outside of town.
  • Damon Stoudamire -- A couple of marijuana charges, one of them famously at an airport metal detector with weed wrapped in foil.

Wallace, of course, laughed it all off with Garnett. "There were some mishaps in there," he admitted. "We were the only show in town. The only professional sports show in town. The only professional sports show between Seattle, at the time, and LA."

Hmmm. I guess he must have forgotten about all those "professional sports shows" in San Francisco and Oakland. But this Wallace remark was a classic:

"The only thing that could blow up and make local writers big was to go ahead and report everything, like if you had a speeding ticket or parked in a handicapped spot..."

As one of those writers I can tell you that we were just as sick of writing about those "mishaps" as they were sick about reading about them. But they were news and these guys were relentless with their trouble. And the amazing thing about Portland as a basketball town was as long as the team was winning, virtually nobody cared what the players did. We were constantly criticized by fans for writing "negative stuff" about their heroes, who got standing ovation after standing ovation from their adoring fans.

Until they started losing.

And let me tell you, as soon as that team started losing (Bob Whitsitt just couldn't keep his hands off the roster -- he kept tinkering until he moved Jermaine O'Neal to Indiana for Dale Davis and that was a monster mistake that probably cost him his job) the fans turned on the team very quickly. Winning is the ultimate perfume. And when this team stopped winning and continued its misbehavior, the fans revolted about the offensive aroma.

And I'm sorry, any attempt to portray that group of players as a sympathetic bunch is very misguided.

And if you were here and paid attention, you know what I'm talking about.

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

ORLANDO -- Who were those guys?

It seemed as if three new players rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter to rally the Trail Blazers from deficits as high as 14 points Thursday night and a 112-103 win over the Orlando Magic.

The "new" guys?

Well, certainly nobody expected Shabazz Napier to play the entire fourth quarter and a total of 26:21 as a defensive stopper and cool offensive presence.

When all else failed -- and defensive stoppers Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner on the sideline with injuries -- Coach Terry Stotts turned to Napier to defend the Magic point guards, who were burning a path to the rim for layups. And it was part of a three-guard lineup that Stotts stayed with down the stretch of the game.

"It was Shabazz's defense that kept him in the game," Stotts said afterward. "Elfrid Payton had taken the ball to the basket three straight times and I just liked Shabazz's quickness on the ball. I just wasn't comfortable taking him out."

And Orlando seemed comfortable with not taking advantage of Portland's smaller lineup. Can Portland use that extensively the rest of the season?

"I don't know," Stotts said. "It worked tonight. With Evan and Al-Farouq out of the lineup, rotations are going to change. I thought defensively we were not hurt much by it, so it will depend on the matchups but it something we have to consider."

Napier was just pleased to be a contributor -- and in a city where he once played. He scored 10 points, had seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and just one turnover. This was a game, by the way, when turnovers were a real issue. Portland had 15 of them at the half and finished with 20, for 27 Orlando points.

"I'm just glad I could help us win," he said. "I have to contribute in whatever way I can."

Damian Lillard, whose fourth-quarter onslaught provided the firepower for the Portland comeback, lauded Napier's contributions.

"I said he was MVP," Lillard said. "He came into the huddle and said, 'Do we want to win?' He kind of challenged our team and this was before he even checked in. When he got into the game he impacted the game. He backed up what he was saying."

Lillard, by the way, was another "new" guy. This was a Damian Lillard seemingly refreshed from the All-Star break, who scored 17 points in the fourth quarter -- taking over the game with a ferocity and a purpose that we haven't seen from him since early in the season. He finished with 33 points on 12 of 23 shooting, including 4 of 7 from three-point distance.

Lillard has usually played well after the All-Star break and he said he enjoyed recharging his batteries during the time off.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," he said. "Over the break I took a lot of time to myself. I was sitting in the house and would go get treatment, then sit in the cold tub, shoot some free throws and then sit in the house all day watching TV, relaxing, drinking water, just chilling. That allows you to come back fresh, mentally and physically."

Lillard brought the whole package with him to the fourth quarter, hitting difficult, twisting layups and long bombs from the outside. It was some vintage stuff.

Meanwhile, the other "new" guy was a legit new guy -- center Jusuf Nurkic, playing in just his second game since arriving in a trade with Denver. He got his first start, too, and took full advantage of it.

He made half his 12 shots, had 12 rebounds, scored 12 points and had five assists. He was a plus-23 in his 34 and a half minutes on the floor. And he's excited.

"It feels great to play with those guys, especially CJ and Dame," he said. "They make my life easier. I really love to be here. The coaching staff has done a great job of putting me in position as to where I am supposed to be and my teammates are looking for me. This is the first time in two years I'm having fun.

"It was a tough two years (in Denver) and that is all I can say. I was just frustrated and not being in position that I am supposed to be for some reason, but I wish them good luck. I'm just having fun here and I love it, man. I enjoy every day here.

"When you have those type of All-Star guards it is so easy to play with them. First time in my life I have those guys and those type of guards. It feels great and finally I am happy."

And so were the Trail Blazers. But ahead on this trip are a couple of difficult assignments.

Sunday there is a game at Toronto, followed by a Tuesday contest at Detroit.

Perhaps the "new" guys will still have some energy.

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

ORLANDO – At the outset of the Trail Blazers’ first game after the All-Star break, the most interesting topic would be how long it would take for new center Jusuf Nurkic to get into the starting lineup.

That question was answered immediately Thursday night. He started against the Orlando Magic and played well.

But Damian Lillard stole the show down the stretch of the game. Lillard went on a shooting rampage that helped bring his team out of a game-long funk and to a 112-103 win over the Magic, putting an end to Portland’s three-game losing streak.

Lillard was sensational in the fourth quarter – on a scoring rampage with difficult twisting layups and contested threes.

He finished with 33 points, 17 of them in the fourth quarter.

Nurkic earned his first Trail Blazer start and during his eight minutes of play in the first quarter he hit two of his four shots, had two rebounds and an assist.  He finished with five assists and a double dozen -- 12 points and 12 rebounds while doing a nice defensive job against Nikola Vucevic, who is usually a Blazer killer.

The first quarter ended with Orlando holding a 25-23 lead. Portland had six turnovers in the period and put the Magic at the foul line 11 times. Fortunately for the Trail Blazers, Orlando hit just seven of the 11.

Lillard had seven points and McCollum six for Portland over the first 12 minutes.

The Blazers quickly fell behind as the second quarter unfolded, continuing to turn the ball over as Orlando warmed up at the offensive end. When Terry Stotts called a timeout with 9:36 to go in the first half, the Magic had a 33-26 lead.

The turnovers were the story in the first half for the Blazers. They coughed up 15 of them for 20 Orlando points – leading to a 55-46 halftime lead for the home team.

McCollum led Portland at halftime with 14 points. Lillard, saddled with three fouls early in the second quarter, had seven.

Portland fell behind by 13 in the third quarter but got going with a three-guard lineup that featured Shabazz Napier with Lillard and McCollum. The trio helped cut the lead to 71-68 with 4:39 to go in the third.

Orlando carried an 85-77 lead into the fourth quarter when the Blazers were trailing by five and had the ball for the last shot. A McCollum turnover on a play when the Trail Blazers were screaming for a foul resulted in a three-point field goal at the other end – a huge momentum buster for Portland.

Orlando got the lead back up to 11 four minutes into the final period but the Trail Blazers kept on fighting back. But they couldn’t stop the steady flow of turnovers, which kept costing them critical points and momentum.

And with 5:22 to play Lillard’s three-pointer from the corner put pushed Portland into a 96-95 lead. Orlando couldn't respond and the Blazers owned the final minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blazers turn Plumlee into first-round pick and, maybe, a player

Blazers turn Plumlee into first-round pick and, maybe, a player

I must start off by saying it's a shame when a team must trade a player with the popularity, smarts and competitive spirit of Mason Plumlee. He will be missed by his former teammates off and on the court.

But this is the state of sports, particularly the NBA, these days. Salaries dictate rosters. There is a salary cap and a luxury tax on top of that. No team wants to get into the tax, for a variety of reasons. The Trail Blazers were in a position that when Plumlee became a restricted free agent this summer they were very likely not going to be willing or able to match a rich offer to him. They were going to have to let him walk.

Because of that, they were somewhat handicapped in making a deal including him because other teams knew their situation. It looked like one of those bargain-basement sales where a player could be had for a pittance because the trading team had to unload him.

But the Trail Blazers were able to get a first-round draft pick (originally from Memphis) -- their third first-round pick in an upcoming draft people are calling very deep -- and a 22-year-old center who may or may not become a solid player. Jusuf Nurkic is certainly too young to give up on, even though he is going through a troubled season.

Near the end of last season, you could read this about the young center they have called the "Bosnian Beast":

Nurkic could be a cornerstone for the Nuggets franchise for years to come, if he figures things out. He is a dominate (sic) force down low that has scoring ability and a great defensive presence.

And:

There are a lot of questions surrounding Nurkic — like attitude, health and chemistry with teammates — but he unquestionably has the skill to be one of the best big men in the NBA.

But this season, as his playing time has decreased, you could read this kind of stuff:

Nurkic (8 PPG, 5.8 RPG) isn’t the answer. The 22-year-old Bosnian seven-footer might be an Internet cult hero due to his fearsome physical presence, but he hasn’t been a positive difference-maker in his two-plus seasons in Denver. This year, his -10.3 net rating and 98.2 offensive rating were the worst marks among the Nuggets’ rotation players, and he rightfully lost his starting job in mid-December. From the team perspective, Nurkic represents a step backwards from Plumlee offensively given his mediocre scoring efficiency, turnover issues and floor-cramping paint-bound game. And remember, Denver is one of just three teams with a worse defensive rating than Portland this season. While Nurkic has had the chance to be a savior for a poor defense, he hasn’t even played effectively enough to warrant true starter minutes.

Here is the way I look at this, though: Portland is in this for the long term. This wasn't a deal to try to get the Blazers into the playoffs this season. If they get there, great -- but they aren't going to sacrifice their long-term plan in exchange for an eighth seed. They have the time to give Nurkic enough minutes to find out whether he's a boom or a bust. If he proves to be a bust, well, they've still gotten that first-round pick for Plumlee.

When you haven't been able to attract free agents and aren't going to land a top-five draft choice, this is the kind of thing you do -- take a flier on a player with promise and hope he turns out better than expected. If not, you discard him and move on. Plumlee was a great team guy -- one who will be missed. But it would have been hard to envision him as the starting center on a team contending for a championship. So rather than give him a huge contract or let him depart with nothing in return, this was the smart way to handle the situation.

Now, on a different team with a different coach, we'll see who he is.

 

Oakley some sort of martyr? I don't think so

Oakley some sort of martyr? I don't think so

By now, you all know about the Charles Oakley incident at Madison Square Garden.

I'm not sure exactly what to believe about the events of that night. The story linked above gives both sides of it. Garden officials say Oakley was "abusive" and "disrespectful" from the moment he walked through the doors of the arena. Oakley called the accusations "outrageous." The video, also in the above link, shows Oakley getting physical with security guards who were attempting to escort him out of the arena. His actions toward those people certainly did not make him a sympathetic figure. And neither did witness reports obtained by TMZ.

Particularly when his reputation as a player was as an enforcer and frequent fighter. It was obvious security people were handling him with great caution.

Public and media outrage have followed, most of it, predictably, critical of Knicks/MSG owner James Dolan and his treatment of a former player. I assume a lot of the media is attacking Dolan simply because this incident gives them another chance to do so. But when I watch the video of the incident it's pretty hard for me to sympathize with Oakley, who seemed to escalate his problems by physically confronting the security people. Should he have been ejected from his seat and the building? Hard for me to judge, but if the stories are true about his conduct in the arena, he should be treated like anyone else whose actions are threatening to those around him.

Many in the media are turning him into a martyr.

I've always sympathized with sports franchises when it comes to the way they are expected to treat former players. In a good many cases the players are paid handsomely for their tenure with a team, then upon retirement, return to the franchise and expect special treatment and some sort of paid position -- oftentimes a job that requires little work and high salary. I have heard, over the years, front office people in just about every sport complain about players who have earned big bucks from a team and then expect special treatment when their playing days are over.

VIP treatment? You get plenty of that as an active player and anything beyond your retirement is a bonus. I'm a big fan of employing ex-players if they are willing to earn their pay. But beyond that, I don't see a responsibility for a team to have to continue the sort of pampering these guys get while playing.

Oakley, by the way, is not one of those players who has squandered his salary as a player and is expecting a handout. His net worth, according to one source, is $52 million. He has been at odds with Dolan for years for reasons not entirely known. But Oakley earned more than $15 million from the Knicks during his tenure there. The franchise owes him respect for what he gave his teams, but nothing more.

To me, he's just another disgruntled ex-player running around whining about how "soft" the NBA is today:

The coaches in this league, in this day and era, are soft; the players are soft, how can you build something? They put all these stat guys, these analytic guys, and put them on the bench and make them GM because of numbers.

Or worse:

“When we played in the ’80s, it wasn’t OK [for European players to play in the NBA]. They weren’t coming over here. They were scared. The game was tough and they weren’t tough.

I believe if he walks into that building and is responsible for making people feel uncomfortable or threatened, he ought to be removed from the building, whether he played for the Knicks or not -- just like you or me. Oakley made a big deal about buying his own ticket for that game, but so what? He did so, apparently, to sit near Dolan, for whatever reason.

To me, Oakley having to buy his own ticket is not a great hardship and it buys him nothing more than the same rights and responsibilities of any other ticket holder. I have very little sympathy for him.

The NBA has been very, very good to Charles Oakley -- and I'm not sure he was in Madison Square Garden the other night with the idea of returning the favor.

Did NHL Coyotes "tour" Moda Center? If so, McGowan didn't see them

Did NHL Coyotes "tour" Moda Center? If so, McGowan didn't see them

There have been plenty of reports the past few days that the National Hockey League's Arizona Coyotes "toured" arenas in Portland and Seattle in preparation for a possible move.

Look out, Portland hockey fans -- you are about to be used as leverage.

Chris McGowan, the president and CEO of the Trail Blazers and a man with a background in hockey with the Los Angeles Kings, says he knows nothing about any representatives of that team paying a visit to Moda Center.

"To my knowledge no representatives from any NHL teams have toured the Moda Center recently," he said Thursday.

Portland, with an existing arena that is NHL-ready, was rumoed to be in the hunt for the Coyotes franchise at one time but the owners of the team decided to stay in Glendale, Ariz. But payments on the arena there continue to be a problem and the team recently studied the idea of moving to Tempe -- a plan which has apparently been abandoned. Officials of the Coyotes denied the reported visit to the Pacific Northwest but there is no question that the Glendale site, where the Coyotes are near the bottom of attendance in the league, is a real problem.

But in this case, I'd say that Portland is likely being used by operators of the NHL franchise as a possible landing spot for the franchise in order to get a better lease or a new arena. It's nothing new in sports.

But that doesn't change one thing: Portland is still the best NHL market without a team in the country. And the NHL wants to come to this region, too.

I believe it's coming at some point. But this may not be the time.

 

Blazers finally win a one-point game, but lose Evan Turner

Blazers finally win a one-point game, but lose Evan Turner

DALLAS -- Winning a road game is always fun. But winning a road game by a single point on a last-second shot for your first one-point win of the season is even better.

The Trail Blazers rode CJ McCollum's 16-foot floater in the lane with just three-tenths of a second on the clock for a tense 114-113 win over the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night in a game that featured a whopping four ties and 12 lead changes in the final quarter. And, of course, some vintage Dirk Nowitzki three-point shooting.

Nowitzki, who became the NBA's 10th-leading all-time scorer during this game, hit two high-arching threes inside the final 39 seconds to give Dallas leads. But McCollum took an inbound pass and fought off Wesley Matthews trying to ride him down the lane to hit a perfectly beautiful floater that nestled into the net with :00.3 showing on the game clock.

McCollum was definitely fouled on the play, perhaps by both Matthews and Harrison Barnes, but he shook it off. "There is always contact late in the game," he said. "If I was Kobe, I would have gotten the call. But being me, I figured they wouldn't call it so I had to play through it."

McCollum replayed the whole thing upon request for the media afterward:

"I caught the ball with about three seconds left, close to the sideline. I know that Wes (Matthews) in late-game situations likes to press up on guys. Once I caught it, I knew I was going to attack right away. I had seen Harrison Barnes coming from the left side so I just threw the ball up there and tried to split, get to the free-throw line area and get to my sweet spot. I got there and knew it was a shot I was comfortable with. So I had a good feeling it would go in.

"This is a game we really needed to have, so down the stretch I was just trying to be aggressive, execute and make plays."

The Blazers needed this one to square their season series with the Mavericks at two games apiece. And to tag another loss on Dallas, which is right behind Portland in the race for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. And more than anything, they needed to win a close game -- a one-point game. It's the first one they've captured this season.

"We have been on the wrong end of (close games) a lot of times this year," said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. "I'm glad we closed it out. The finish was incredible -- great shot-making by both teams. I'm glad we don't have to play them again."

The Trail Blazers played solid defense most of the game, particularly in the first half, and kept Dallas guard Yogi Ferrell under control. He finished with 12 points and two assists after a 32-point game in Portland last week. Their pick-and-roll defense was much better than it has been lately and their aggression was at a high level.

But in what has been an up-and-down season, the Trail Blazers managed to have a "down" on the same night as one of their biggest "ups." Portland lost Evan Turner to a broken third metacarpal bone in his right (shooting) hand. "At first," said Turner, "it didn't hurt much. It was just numb. But then it really started to hurt after I caught a pass from Dame. It's a pretty boring way to break your hand. I mean I just kind of ran into Barnes. I wish it was a better story, like on a dunk or something."

The usual time frame for healing such an injury is a minimum of a month but often longer. Turner says he's a quick healer.

The Blazers, who will likely be in a fight for that playoff berth all season, could use him as soon as he's ready.

Blazers win game, lose Turner

Blazers win game, lose Turner

DALLAS – The Portland Trail Blazers got a clutch runner in the lane from CJ McCollum with .3 seconds left in the game and it was the winning margin in a 114-113 win over the Dallas Mavericks. But Portland still suffered a big loss in the game.

The Blazers lost guard/forward Evan Turner to a broken right metacarpal in his right hand in the third quarter.

Dirk Nowitzki buried a three-point field goal with 3.9 seconds to play to give the Mavericks a 113-112 lead before McCollum drove from left to right into the lane and lofted a pretty runner that passed through the net.

The Trail Blazers opened the game with a much different defensive strategy than they used in last week’s home loss to the Maverics.

Portland blitzed the Dallas pick-and-rolls – double-teaming the ball handler after the pick. It was effective for the most part, although the Blazers’ rotations were a little slow and uncertain at times when the Mavericks worked the ball to the weak side of the court.

All in all, the defense serves one big purpose – it gets the Blazers much more active at the defensive. Portland was as active on defense as it has been in weeks.

The quarter ended with the Trail Blazers holding a 32-27 lead. Portland shot 54.5 percent from the floor while holding Dallas to 35 percent.

The rebounds were a big factor in the first half as the Trail Blazers punished the Mavericks on the boards, leaping to a 30-16 advantage at halftime.

Dallas stayed in the game as it usually does, though, by hitting three-point shots. The Mavs shot 46.7 percent from long distance, including a 26-footer by Devin Harris at the halftime horn.

Damian Lillard had 22 first-half points for Portland and made all four of his three-point attempts. The Blazers were 7-14 from three over the first two quarters.

Portland led 64-53 at the half on the strength of 56.8 percent shooting in one of its best offensive halves of the season.

Podcast:

It's still too early to call tonight's game a must win for the Trail Blazers

It's still too early to call tonight's game a must win for the Trail Blazers

DALLAS -- With the Trail Blazers, carrying a two-game losing streak and fighting for a playoff spot with at least four other teams, heading out for a rematch with the Dallas Mavericks tonight it would be easy to look at this game and call it a must win. A game Portland cannot afford to lose.

Well, given the state of the other teams fighting for that No. 8 playoff berth in the Western Conference, I don't think that's the case. There are still 30 Portland games left and it doesn't appear any team is going to jump out and take charge of this race. It's very likely going to come down to the final week of the season.

Now don't get me wrong, the Trail Blazers need every win they can get -- and every loss they can deliver to the teams they're competing against. But I'm not going to count them out of the playoffs after their 53rd game of the season.

The Mavericks, who hung a 108-104 defeat on Portland in Moda Center Friday, come into tonight's game after a loss last night in Denver, which jumped out to a 22-point halftime lead and cruised to an easy win behind Will Barton's 31 points. The Nuggets took the game inside against Dallas and got 50 points in the paint and held the Mavs to 30 percent shooting from three-point range -- a big key to beating Dallas, which is thriving on three-point shots. Yogi Ferrell, who tortured the Trail Blazers last Friday with 32 points, had only 15 vs. Denver.

With the win, Denver stayed two games ahead of Portland in the loss column. Dallas dropped a game behind the Trail Blazers. Sacramento and New Orleans are also within striking distance but none of these teams seems poised to make a big-time run. They are all riding the same roller coaster the Trail Blazers have been on all season.

But the Trail Blazer schedule gets easier down the stretch of the season, which could be a key to this whole thing.

And, of course, Portland needs to prove it can translate solid play into victories. The Trail Blazers did a reasonable job of controlling Oklahoma City Sunday afternoon but couldn't close the deal in the fourth quarter. That's been a problem this season.

Make no mistake -- tonight is a big game for Portland. There's a need to keep Dallas from capturing the season series, which stands right now with the Mavericks holding a 2-1 edge. But the road team has won all three games so far.

The Trail Blazers need this game -- at this point they need every game. They have little margin for error. But it's still too early to call it a must win -- or even to count them out of the playoffs if they lose.

And THAT's why you probably shouldn't bet big $ on sports events

And THAT's why you probably shouldn't bet big $ on sports events

I cannot remember being more certain of a Super Bowl winner than I was last week. I just KNEW that Atlanta would beat New England. They had a better team, played in a better conference and should have been the favorite but for all the sentiment about the coach and quarterback for the Patriots.

And if I had it to predict all over again, I'd say the same thing. But I'd hope the Atlanta coaching staff would come to its senses late in the game. Come on, guys -- a first down at the New England 22 with about four minutes to play and you pass? You pass?

I didn't get it at the time. Just run the ball three times, get the ball in the middle of the field for your kicker -- who is one of the best in the business -- run the clock down and boot a field goal that would have sealed the game for you. That's all they had to do.

But no, what followed was a disaster. A franchise-changing disaster. By the time the Falcons were finished with that series they'd taken themselves out of field-goal position, Tom Brady was the greatest quaarterback of all time and Atlanta was a bettor's nightmare.

The Falcons were getting three points. A steal. And I would have lost a fortune.

Except that I've seen these things happen so many times before that I don't bet on sports events -- other than an occasional dinner wager or five bucks here and there. You can have these things figured out ahead of time and then somebody does something stupid or there's a power failure on the field or maybe a garbage-time cheap score destroys your point-spread cushion.

No matter how certain you are about a game's outcome, my advice is be careful. Stupid stuff happens.