PORTLAND -- Correctly sensing the confusion of passersby, Portland Trail Blazers guard Terry Porter explained why he had just jumped on the back of Buck Williams. This was in the giddy Portland locker room following its series-clinching victory over Phoenix on Thursday night.

Porter had yelled "giddyap!" Or something like that.

"He said when he got here that we could just jump on his back and ride him," said Porter. "So we did."

Wonderful of Porter to provide a metaphor. Though it smacks of cliche' to suggest Williams did this all by himself, that he personally took the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals. That certainly wasn't the case.

But Williams and Portland have been a perfect marriage. The Trail Blazers for so long have been the working definition of that commonly held vision of Western Conference basketball. Aerial tactics and no house-to-house toughness. Short on defense. Nothing more than finesse.

What the Trail Blazers needed, Williams had. But this was a dialogue. Portland had something the former University of Maryland star needed -- opportunity. It had Porter and Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey and Kevin Duckworth, a core that was talented enough to go far in the playoffs, though it never had.

Williams had no one like this with whom to play. He was wasting away in New Jersey when the Trail Blazers sent Sam Bowie and their 1989 first-round pick (with which they chose Mookie Blaylock) to the Nets.

The Nets made some moves toward respectability early in Williams's career, but mostly careened toward nowhere. So people would shake their heads while Williams toiled for eight seasons and they'd talk about poor Buck, how he'd never get a chance to play for a winner.

"I never thought that," he said. "I just knew that somewhere down the line that a trade was going to be made. I had two or three teams on my list, and Portland was at the top of the list. They've been trying to get me for two years. They're very persistent. A lot of teams did a lot of talking, but Portland stepped up and got the job done."

Without Williams, there would have been no Return of Rip City, the refrain that goes through this town quite a bit these days. (It originated long ago, when a local radio play-by-play man referred to long-range jumpers as "Rip City.") There would have been no 10,000 fans at Hillsboro Airport to greet the Trail Blazers' chartered plane early Friday morning.

"That's . . . fair, no question," said Bucky Buckwalter, Portland's vice president for basketball operations. "He has an absolute refusal to lose. And if you're going to lose, you damn well better be bloodied. The intelligence, the work ethic, the focus. The great thing about him is he has such stature with our guys that he became a leader that we could all feel comfortable rallying around.

"We had good athletes and good guys, but we really haven't had it all together and focused. {Coach} Rick {Adelman} did a marvelous job of orchestrating it too. So from Day 1 of training camp, I thought we'd have a good team. I didn't think we'd do this." The Team Concept

They are not the players who levitate. But they are as necessary to the NBA as the leapers. They are people like Rick Mahorn and Kurt Rambis and Cedric Maxwell and Wes Unseld and Dave DeBusschere and Buck Williams, players that made teams teams.

Because they are willing and able to set the extra screen, dive on the floor for a loose ball in the middle of February, jump on a listless teammate, they allow their teammates to do what they do. By example, they set a tone of seriousness of purpose.

"They know what makes them good in the league, and they're willing to accept that," Adelman said. "We knew the first week of training camp that we had a totally different team than we've ever had. Their attitudes, the way they worked in practice."

"I do everything," Williams said, "but it's on a lesser basis. With Clyde Drexler being such a good rebounder inside, Kevin Duckworth's a good rebounder. We have a good overall rebounding team. Drexler scores. I just let them do their thing and I just go out and play my game and try to complement their game."

Williams was just happy to be somewhere else when training camp began. The last couple of seasons in New Jersey were made worse by the fact that everyone believed he'd be traded, but no one was pulling the trigger on any deals. And he turned 27, 28, 29.

There were whispers that the years of losing made him a loser. These thoughts were whispered because Williams still is a chiseled 6 feet 8, 225 pounds. Because his rebounding average dropped in the last three years in New Jersey, there were questions about whether the pounding had taken its toll.

"Every arena that I played in, I always heard the trade rumors," he said. "I got traded to Houston, went down to Houston for a while. L.A., Seattle, Golden State. I got traded to all 25, 27 teams, whatever it is {it's 27}. It was a mental relief finally to get traded out here. I knew it was the best situation for me once I stepped out on the floor."

Drexler took him to dinner during preseason. "I was a rebounding, defensive player who could score around the basket," Williams said. "They just embraced me. I knew that they wanted me here and appreciated me." Down to Business

Williams's impact has been tangible and circumspect. Portland led the league in rebounding percentage at .536, and its 3,907 rebounds is the team's most since the championship season of 1977. The Trail Blazers' defense came up (the .464 field-goal percentage by opponents was fourth-best in the league) as their three-pointers went down.

They won on the road (6-0 against the Atlantic Division), and were 24-17 away from home, the second time in history they had a winning record on the road. You don't win on the road in the NBA with dunks and jumpers. You win with the things Buck Williams does.

Said Adelman: "In the past, we had so many negative things around our team, it wears you down after a while. You're trying to work hard, you're trying to do things, but you don't win, you have a lot of problems off the court, somebody wants to be traded, somebody else wants more money.

"We had four guys who were so solid that we knew if we just gave them some support, we were going to be good. Buck just stepped in with the other four and solidified our starting lineup, gave us five solid people."

Individually, Williams finished tied for ninth in the league in field-goal percentage at .548 and 10th in rebounding at 9.8.

His 800 rebounds were the most by a Trail Blazer since Mychal Thompson's 921 in 1981-82. He was named to the league's all-defensive first team and played all 82 games for the sixth time in his career.

"When I was {in New Jersey}, I felt it was more physical out east," Williams said. "But I think over the last year or so, the physical nature of the game has really caught on out in the west."

His numbers are virtually the same this season (13.6 points, 9.8 rebounds) as last (13.0 points and 9.4 rebounds). It's truly a matter of perspective. He did the same things in New Jersey and was a loser. Now he's four victories away from winning it all.

So it was that, after he stripped Phoenix's Tom Chambers of the Suns' last chance to win Thursday, and his team had come all the way back and clinched the Western Conference championship on the road, six or seven of his teammates found him on the floor and leaped on top of him.

"We all jumped on Buck because we really respect what he's done to help us get here," Porter said. "He's sacrificed some of his game for the betterment of the club, and it doesn't always show on the statistics sheet."