When the Portland Trail Blazers blew a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to the New York Knicks on Feb. 26, coach P. J. Carlesimo appeared on the verge of losing his job. At least that's what the New York Daily News reported the next day, saying the former Seton Hall coach wouldn't last another day after the Blazers had lost for the 10th time in 14 games.
Three weeks later, Carlesimo is still with the Blazers. Guess you can't fire a coach who -- since that loss to New York -- has led his team to 11 straight wins (equaling the second-longest winning streak in franchise history), including Thursday night's rout of the Bucks in Milwaukee.
The Blazers are at the USAir Arena tonight to face the Washington Bullets, the second game of a five-game road trip that -- including stops in New York, Atlanta and Charlotte -- might bring the team back to reality.
"We aren't thinking about the streak," said forward Clifford Robinson. "What I'm anxious to see is how we react after we get beat."
That the Blazers are winning has taken a lot of the heat off Carlesimo, who, with a penchant for screaming at players, has had run-ins with virtually everyone on his roster. That wasn't unexpected, with players like Kenny Anderson, Rasheed Wallace and J. R. Rider having reputations as malcontents. But the Blazers do have talent, as evident by the recent stretch.
"Right now we're putting all the individual things aside and concentrating on team goals," Robinson said. "We're settling into our roles, we're doing a lot of talking between each other, guys are accepting criticism and not taking it as a personal thing."
The Blazers have good balance, with six players averaging in double figures and four scoring 15 points or better. And former Bullets forward Wallace had provided a big lift, averaging 15.1 points and shooting 56.3 percent from the field (third in the NBA).
"They can go pretty far," Sacramento Kings guard Mitch Richmond said. "They are a very athletic team. They can go as far as they want to go, but they are still young and this is their first time together. But they are going to be a heck of a team."
All that Jazz
The Utah Jazz's recent seven-game trip -- the team's longest of the season -- was expected to bring the team closer to the pack in the Western Conference. But Utah finished the trip 6-1, holds a 3 1/2 -game lead on Seattle in the conference and is in good position to take the top seed -- and the important home-court advantage -- into the playoffs.
"We were trying to redeem ourselves from earlier in the season," guard Jeff Hornacek said of a 1-5 trip the last time the Jazz went East.
Utah had gone through an eight-game road losing streak earlier this season. Since then the team has gone 14-4 away from home.
How important is the home court in the playoffs?: In last year's Western Conference finals, Utah lost Game 7 by four in Seattle. They believe it would have been different at the Delta Center.
"You look at the way it went last year," Karl Malone said. "If it was reversed, and the way we are playing at home this year [29-3], it would be really nice."
Around the league
Alonzo Mourning (foot) has resumed practicing with the Miami Heat and is likely to be activated any day. Mourning probably will suit up for Wednesday's game against Sacramento. Even with Mourning out, the Heat has a one-game lead over the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division. The Heat clinched a playoff spot Wednesday, the only time in franchise history the team has done that before the final week of the season.
"Are you kidding me? I don't think anybody could say we were going to lead the Atlantic Division for the entire season," Riley said. "I do believe, if we had not lost 'Zo, we would be [farther] ahead. I really believe we would be three, four games ahead."
Although there's still no word when Shaquille O'Neal will return from his knee injury, the Los Angeles Lakers center will accompany the team to Orlando for tomorrow's game. It will be O'Neal's first appearance there since leaving as a free agent. "I'll probably get booed. I expect that. It's like walking through one of those car-wash things. You expect to get wet," O'Neal said.
Quote of the week
9- "Of course I heard. That was world news."
Opponent: Portland Trail Blazers
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: HTS/WWRC (980 AM)
Outlook: After completing a three-game Texas trip, the Bullets return home to face the NBA's hottest team. The Blazers have won 11 straight after Thursday's win over Milwaukee. Washington is 3 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Pub Date: 3/22/97