Johnson, Hornets feel sting of improving foes

It began as one of those potentially big nights for Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson, a game in which even his alter-ego "Grandmama" would have been good for 20 points.

The Hornets on Friday were playing the Denver Nuggets, who were without talented second-year forward LaPhonso Ellis. Denver instead started Tom Hammonds, a 1989 first-round pick who failed to distinguish himself in three years with the Washington Bullets.


So what happens? Johnson scored a season-low three points, hit- ting just one of 14 shots over 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Hammonds grabbed 17 rebounds and scored 11 points, helping the Nuggets to a 102-94 victory.

The Hornets are sliding, having lost four in a row and five of seven. Their 110.6 points per game are second in the NBA, but, with the recent emphasis in the league on defense, Charlotte's 107.4 points allowed are second worst (Sacramento gives up 112.6 points a game).


It doesn't get any easier tonight when the Hornets take on the 16-1 Houston Rockets, who are 6-0 on their home floor.

"Our schedule's a little bit tough and we've played a couple of games on the road against teams that are particularly good," said Charlotte player personnel director Dave Twardzik. "We were not at full strength to begin with, and I would say we're 75 percent now."

Neither Johnson (bulging disk) nor Alonzo Mourning (knee) was at full strength at the start of the season, but that didn't stop Charlotte from giving Johnson his $84 million contract.

With the retirement of Michael Jordan, the Hornets were expected to fill the void at the top of the Central Division. But Charlotte is 8-8, tied for second in the division behind the surprising Atlanta Hawks (11-4).

"As far as those expectations about the team, we never concerned ourselves about it," Twardzik said. "The expectations don't make you win, you have to play well."

Nuggets starting to shine

Speaking of Hammonds, the 6-foot-9 forward scored 17 points in Denver's win over Dallas on Sunday. Hammonds hit seven of nine shots and, according to coach Dan Issel, "has stepped up big-time" for the Nuggets.

Hammonds, who was traded by the Bullets in the deal that brought Rex Chapman to Washington, is averaging 6.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17.6 minutes.


His is just a small role in the resurgence of the Nuggets, who are 8-7. Center Dikembe Mutombo's 4.0 blocks a game lead the league, and Ellis and former Dunbar star Reggie Williams (13.2 points per game) have provided steady play.

But the big difference has been the backcourt play of former Virginia star Bryant Stith and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson). Stith is averaging 14.2 points and is a solid defender. Abdul-Rauf is eighth in the league in scoring (22.4), first in free-throw percentage (94.6) and is off to an All-Star start.

With guard Robert Pack ending a contract dispute, the Nuggets have enough talent to improve on last year's 36-46 record. Unfortunately for Denver, it plays in the tough Western Conference. But the Nuggets' turnaround could be enough to get the team into playoff contention.

Rider a shoe-in

What does a 9.0 scoring average and 40.5 percent field-goal percentage get a player?

For most, a seat on the bench. But for Minnesota Timberwolves guard Isaiah "J. R." Rider, it gets you a shoe, in the NBA's create-a-star world.


Rider, the fifth pick in the draft, recently spent 15 hours shooting a commercial for Converse that pushes his new shoe. Rider was so exhausted he couldn't practice the next day.

Kind of makes you wonder where that Chuck Nevitt model has been all those years, doesn't it?

No retraction here

Several readers took offense to rating Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal behind New York's Patrick Ewing and Charlotte's Mourning among Eastern Conference centers. One, a reader named Charles, even went as far as calling Ewing "Patricia" and "Pat-nothing" before Hakeem Olajuwon scored 37 points in last week's big New York-Houston matchup.

Ewing's flaw throughout his career has been relying on his fall-away baseline jumpers -- something he fell back to while scoring just 12 points against Olajuwon. It's a habit that he'll have to get away from if the Knicks, who are not nearly as deep as people might think, are to win a championship.

There's no doubt that the Western Conference has the two best centers in the league in Olajuwon and San Antonio's David Robinson. But I'll keep Ewing as the top choice in the East -- despite that fall-away jumper. At least he has a jumper to fall back on.


Worth mentioning

* O'Neal, averaging 28.2 points, was the first center to lead the league in scoring for a month since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971-72.

* Philadelphia has been held below 100 points in 13 of its 15 games.

* Houston's 133-111 loss at Atlanta on Friday was the first time the Rockets had allowed more than 100 points. San Antonio (12-5) also has allowed more than 100 just once.

* Ten of Houston's 16 wins have come on the road.

Parting shots


* Doesn't watching San Antonio forward Dennis Rodman and his new 'do remind you of those late-night Chia Pet commercials?

* After Olajuwon outplayed Ewing last week, Rockets guard Scott Brooks said it was a performance equivalent to "me playing against a bunch of reporters." Somebody better beam you up, Scottie. Olajuwon could score a zillion points against most reporters I know, but you'd have a hard time getting to double figures.

* Charlotte coach Allan Bristow, after a lopsided win over the Los Angeles Lakers: "When I'm associated with a win over the Celtics or the Lakers, I have no reservations about pounding them. I can beat them from now until the year 2000 and I'd just be catching up. I don't have any sympathy. Not at all."