The shot blocking of Sixers center Theo Ratliff gets into opponents' heads
When hornets guard Eddie Jones scooped up his dribble, dipped his shoulder and took a last long step into the key last Friday, he was thinking about a rim-rattling dunk that would fire up his teammates and put the hostile fans at Philadelphia's First Union Center back in their seats. As Jones elevated, however, Sheers center Theo Ratliff swooped toward him, spindly arms held high. Ratliff met Jones at the rim and swatted away the ball. That scintillating block, in the third quarter of Game 3 of the Charlotte- Philadelphia series, was one of six rejections by Ratliff in the 81-76 Sixers win, which gave them a 2-1 series lead. It also gave the Hornets plenty to think about heading into Game 4 on Monday night, in which they were closed out by Philadelphia in a 105-99 Sixers win.
The legions of NBA stat geeks don't keep a tally for "shots altered," but Ratliff's intimidating presence in this series was almost as important as his blocks. Think of them as mental blocks. "Theo probably won Game 3 for us," said point guard Eric Snow.
Such accolades from a teammate are a welcome change from a year ago, when Ratliff was a last-minute scratch before the Sixers took the floor against Indiana, down 3-0 in their second-round playoff series. Ratliff had a strained left calf and could barely walk, but that didn't stop some Sixers from questioning his toughness. After the game, which the Sixers lost, Philadelphia's veteran big man Rick Mahorn said, "I'm not sure this kid understands what it takes to win."
"A couple of people said a few things last season," Ratliff says, "but we got that straightened out, man to man. It never bothered me, because I knew I would come back and do what I'm doing now"
Ratliff has made slow but steady progress since the day the Pistons drafted him with the 18th pick in 1995 after his senior season at Wyoming. A big man drafted that low is usually tagged as a career backup, but Ratliff's raw skills were apparent to everyone. So was his penchant for fading in and out mentally. That lack of focus drove Detroit coach Doug Collins so batty that he traded Ratliff, Aaron McKie and a first-round pick to Philadelphia for guard Jerry Stackhouse and center Eric Montross.
Sixers coach Larry Brown has had his share of frustrations with Ratliff, but the defensive-minded coach has always valued Ratliff's ability as a stopper around the basket. "He's had a great year defensively," says Brown, "and he keeps progressing. I know people think it was a big deal to give up Stackhouse, since he's become an Ail-Star, but the trade worked out great. Allen Iverson has such deficiencies on the perimeter that we need a presence behind him. Theo corrects so many mistakes for us."
Going into Game 4, Charlotte coach Paul Silas tried to correct a few mistakes himself. He ordered his players to drive at Ratliff but then dish off to the open man rather than challenge the Sixers' big man. Such wariness cut down on the number of blocks Ratliff made but did not diminish his impact on the proceedings. "If they're thinking about what I'm doing," he says, "that's a good thing, too."
Nets Center Not Retiring
Jayson Takes It To the Rim Shots
Who needs an alarm clock? Nets center Jayson Williams wakes up each morning with his surgically repaired right leg singing the same dull, aching tune. "I'm hooked on Advil," Williams says. "I take six of them for breakfast. I take four at lunch. Then I take four before I go to bed at night."