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 down."
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.
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."