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BLAZERS' SEASON OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS ENDED TOO SOON

A Pacific Division title and the best record in the league weren't enough for the Portland Trail Blazers. Their goal was an NBA championship.

So their elimination by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, ending with Thursday night's one-point loss at the Forum, was tough to swallow."It's a bitter disappointment," Clyde Drexler said. "That's all you can think about."

All the team's accomplishments are overshadowed by the images of Cliff Robinson dropping the ball out of bounds under the basket on a 4-on-1 break with less than a minute to play and Terry Porter missing a wide-open 17-footer for the winning basket.

"They just gave us the game," Porter said. "But we didn't convert."

About 700 Blazermaniacs gathered in the middle of the night at Hillsboro Airport to welcome the team home.

"It was a lonely flight coming in here," coach Rick Adelman said.

The seeds for this season of high expectations were planted in last year's NBA Finals, when the Blazers lost to Detroit in five games and vowed to return in 1991.

They began the season as if they meant it.

Bolstered by the addition of guard Danny Ainge, Portland won 19 of its first 20 games and spent only one day out of first place in the Pacific all season. They finished the season the same way, winning 16 of their last 17.

Their 63-19 record was the best in franchise history and assured them the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

But doubts about the team surfaced in the first round against Seattle. The Sonics won twice at home. It marked the first time a No. 8 seed had taken a No. 1 seeded team to five games.

The Blazers needed only five games to eliminate Utah in the second round, setting up a showdown with their longtime nemesis, the Lakers. The team's had played each other tough all season and Portland had ended Los Angeles' nine-year reign as division champions.

Then came the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the conference finals, one of many memories that will haunt the Blazers this summer.

Portland led by 12 points at the beginning of the quarter, but the Lakers stormed back to win 111-106. The Blazers' homecourt edge was gone and it was an uphill, futile fight the rest of the way.

After winning Game 2, the Blazers were blown out twice in Los Angeles. The team's heart, character and intelligence was questioned repeatedly in print. The Blazers won Game 5 in Portland behind Buck Williams' rugged 16-rebound effort, then went back to the Forum for what proved to be their final game of the season.

The problems against the Lakers were numerous. The Blazers' offense often was stagnant. Their defense couldn't consistently stop the potent combination of Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Sam Perkins. And they couldn't win on the road.

The team with the best road record in the NBA's regular season was 1-6 away from home in the playoffs.

The Blazers made mistakes at crucial times, and they had a hard time making shots.

For the series, Portland hit 46 percent from the field, compared with 49 percent for the Lakers. Blazers center Kevin Duckworth had a miserable series, hitting 37 percent from the field and committing 27 turnovers. In the three games at the Forum, Duckworth hit 8 of 30 shots.

Drexler, though, was magnificent. He had 23 points and three steals Thursday night. He finished the series averaging 21.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game and his status as one of the NBA's best no longer is questioned.

The Blazers have other questions to answer.

Will they stay with the inconsistent, tempermental Duckworth in the middle? What will be the role of aging veterans Ainge, Walter Davis and Wayne Cooper? How long will Robinson be satisfied in a reserve role?

Robinson has one more season left on a contract he signed as a rookie. Since he was a second-round pick, he is a big bargain and he may want more money now that he fills an important role.

Except for his critical mistake late in Game 6 and his penchant for missing free throws, Robinson had a solid playoff performance.

Adelman indicates any tinkering will be minor.

"We have a group of guys who are going to be here for a long time," he said. "We put them together for the future. We just have to come back and learn from our mistakes."