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Portland fires coach Cheeks

Sagging team hopes to salvage playoffs

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For all his popularity among the players and the fans, Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks ultimately didn't have the wins.

Cheeks, 48, was fired yesterday after the Blazers had lost seven of their last nine and tumbled to 22-33.

"It's a sad day for me because I've got guys on my team that I really . . .," said Cheeks, his voice trailing off in disappointment during an emotional news conference a few hours after he was let go.

"I didn't do as well a job as I could have, as I did in previous years," he concluded.

The Blazers appointed Kevin Pritchard, the team's director of player personnel, as interim coach.

"Our players liked Mo a great deal, but sometimes a fresh voice might ignite them to go in a different direction," Blazers general manager John Nash said.

While the Blazers are not giving up on the playoffs, Pritchard's appointment shows the team is going to focus on evaluating younger players.

"I'm not going to mislead anybody. It's a long uphill battle to get to the playoffs from where we're at -- 11 games under .500," Blazers president Steve Patterson said.

The Blazers are in 12th place in the Western Conference, six games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot. Portland went 41-41 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

Cheeks, who was hired by Portland in 2001 to replace Mike Dunleavy, amassed a 162-139 record as Blazers coach. He was in the final year of a four-year contract worth an estimated $12 million.

The Blazers hardly made Cheeks' tenure easy -- on or off the court. There were several players cited for marijuana possession, and forward Qyntel Woods was investigated in a dog fighting scandal. Former Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace drew unwanted attention to the team two seasons ago when he threatened a game official on the loading dock of the Rose Garden. Wallace, later traded, was suspended for seven games by the NBA.

Although he was popular among his players, Cheeks did have a couple of verbal clashes with former guard Bonzi Wells and current forward Darius Miles. Both players served team suspensions for their actions.

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