J.R. IS O.K.
Isaiah Rider's timing was perfect for Portland
Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem child isn't to
punish him but to challenge him. Few players in the NBA have
been sent to the principal's office more often than the Trail
Blazers' notorious guard, Isaiah (J.R.) Rider. But it appears
that Rider has finally found a subject that engages him--playoff
pressure--and, accordingly, last week he was a problem only for
the Jazz. Thanks largely to Rider's cool, controlled
performances, Portland held a 3-1 lead through Sunday in its
best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal, and for Utah, school
was almost out.
Rider scored 24 points in Game 4 on Sunday, including seven in
the final 30 seconds to seal Portland's 81-75 win at home. As
usual, the egalitarian Blazers got contributions from nearly
everyone on their roster, most notably from backup point guard
Greg Anthony, who played spandex-tight defense against the Jazz
point guards, and from power forward Brian Grant, who matched
Karl Malone shove for shove--if not elbow for elbow--in the low
post. But it was Rider, 28, who emerged as the closest thing to
a go-to guy that Portland had, leading the Blazers in postseason
scoring with a 19.4 average through Sunday.
Then again, scoring has never been a problem for Rider.
Punctuality, however, has. He was benched five times this season
by coach Mike Dunleavy for tardiness, but in the postseason the
Blazers have been able to set their watch by Rider, because he
understands how high the stakes are. "I've never been on a team
this good before, a team with a real chance to win a
championship," says Rider. "Since the playoffs started, I've
buckled down and assessed my time wisely. I know I need to be on
time, do the right thing and not give Mike a reason to sit me
May 30, 1999
The tension of the postseason seems to relax Rider. While he
waited in the backcourt as John Stockton stepped to the line to
shoot two crucial free throws during Game 1, he took a Jolly
Rancher out of a bag on the scorer's table, unwrapped it and
popped it in his mouth. When the Blazers called timeout to slow
a Jazz run in Game 3, he jumped up off the bench, draped a towel
over his arm like a butler and grandly motioned for his
teammates coming off the court to take a seat. "The more
pressure there is," says Portland forward Walt Williams, "the
more fun it is for him."
Rider has had more than his share of problems in his career,
including numerous legal scrapes, but a lack of self-esteem has
never been one of them. "I'm doing it all," he said after
scoring 27 points in Portland's 84-81 win in Game 2. "I'm
playing defense, I'm talking to my teammates, I'm keeping us in
it and I'm giving us offense." In Game 3 of the Blazers'
first-round sweep of the Suns, he had to be taken to the locker
room with a strained right knee after a third-quarter collision
with Phoenix forward Tom Gugliotta but returned later in the
period to help Portland to its series-clinching 103-93 win. "I
was the reason that we woke up and started playing good," he
said after the victory. "I kept us together. I was definitely
Willis Reed tonight."
Comparing himself to Reed, whose return from a thigh injury
inspired the Knicks to their Game 7 victory in the 1970 Finals,
is a stretch, but Rider has performed so superbly, he's allowed
a bit of hyperbole. "He's played as well as anybody in this
series, maybe better," Malone said after Game 3. "The playoffs
just bring out the best in some players."
The Blazers are grateful that Rider is one of those players, but
they're not assuming that his newfound focus is permanent.
Before he left the Rose Garden locker room after Game 3, at
least three members of the Portland staff reminded him of the
time and place of the next day's shootaround. "Two-thirty, here,
J.R.," said one of the clubhouse attendants. But it's a sign of
progress that he felt no need to add the three words that Rider
has heard so often: Don't be late. --Phil Taylor
Chuck Daly's Retirement
PENNY IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Last Friday, a close friend of Chuck Daly's was asked about the
possibility of Daly's stepping down as the Magic's coach. "I'll
be shocked," said the friend. "I doubt that will happen."
At a hastily called news conference on Monday afternoon, the
68-year-old Daly announced that he had coached his last game,
though he will remain a consultant to Orlando. Although Daly had
been telling people for months he was considering retiring, most
felt he would return to coach a young team he genuinely liked.
Daly waffled until the morning of his annoucement, when, driving
to the Magic offices, he decided he'd had enough.
"It's a personal thing about knowing when to leave," said Daly,
who is walking away from a $5 million salary next season. Daly
will also walk away from the headache of dealing with Penny
Hardaway, who was upgraded to a migraine on May 17, two days
after the 76ers bounced Orlando out of the first round of the
playoffs. A frustrated Hardaway launched into an emotional
soliloquy, bemoaning the lack of respect he receives in Orlando.
"I helped a team win 33 games in a season when we weren't
supposed to win 20," Hardaway told The Orlando Sentinel. "I
helped players like Darrell [Armstrong] and Nick [Anderson] and
all those guys get better by drawing double teams and kicking
the ball out. But I get no credit."
As stunned Magic executives tried to decipher what provoked this
latest in a series of Hardaway outbursts dating back to his
rookie season, the rest of the league assessed the remarks in
terms of what they will mean for Hardaway as a free-agent-to-be.
"The biggest question people have about him is, Can he be a
leader?" one Western Conference executive says. "You read those
comments, and you come away with a definite no."
Hardaway, sensing that his words had been unfavorably received,
phoned the Sentinel the next day to take them back. Did he say
he wanted to leave Orlando? No, what he meant was that he hoped
to stay. He would be glad to play another season for Daly, who,
Hardaway felt, never fully embraced or supported him. That is
now a moot point, and Daly insisted on Monday that Hardaway had
no bearing on his decision to retire. "Rearview mirror," Daly
said. "It's not even open to discussion."
While Daly's departure may enhance Hardaway's chances of
staying, he shouldn't bank on receiving the maximum salary ($85
million over seven years) the Magic can offer him. Team owner
Rich DeVos, who has a $42.5 million payroll, the league's third
highest, wondered last week whether he needs to pay a
temperamental superstar so much--especially after Orlando failed
to sell out its two home playoff games. Magic fans have already
weighed in with their advice to Penny: Don't let the door hit
you on the way out. No wonder Hardaway lamented to the Sentinel,
"My feeling is Orlando really won't respect me unless I leave."
Team sources say the Magic would like to explore a
sign-and-trade deal agreement with Hardaway, but finding a
proper salary match could be tricky. If Penny does re-sign with
Orlando, the days of coddling him are clearly over. Hardaway has
failed to learn that respect must be earned; the more you demand
it, the less likely you are to receive it. "I read where he said
he's got to do what's best for Penny Hardaway," says Magic
general manager John Gabriel. "Well, this time, it's got to be
what's best for us, too."
Around The Rim
That groan you heard out of Secaucus, N.J., last Saturday during
the draft lottery emanated from the Raptors. They badly want to
choose Maryland guard Steve Francis in the first round, but the
pick they received from the Nuggets in a three-way trade in
January for Chauncey Billups turned out to be only the fifth
choice. By the time Toronto gets to make that selection, Francis
figures to be gone....
Now that Michael Jordan has pulled out of a deal to buy into the
Hornets, others bidding to become partners with George Shinn
have stepped forward, including Charlotte-based businessman Carl
Scheer, the team's president and general manager from 1988 to
Hawks forward Alan Henderson learned he won't need surgery on
his left eye after all. Henderson was raked across the face by
the Cavaliers' Cedric Henderson in Atlanta's last regular-season
game and has been suffering from double vision ever since. "The
doctor said he must have smashed my eyeball so far back that it
touched my brain," says Alan....
On the same day that Warriors owner Chris Cohan said he expects
Golden State to make the playoffs next season, he also cut
season-ticket prices and vowed to freeze those prices until
after the 2000-01 season....
Jonathan Bender, the 6'11" star from Picayune (Miss.) High who
has declared for the draft, has impressed scouts enough with his
raw talent that he's projected to be a top 15 pick.