NEW YORK -- It didn't matter that Derek Harper was playing for the worst team in basketball. To Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the trade that sent Harper from the Dallas Mavericks to the New York Knicks simply meant fewer regular-season encounters.
"Harper's been a real thorn in our side for years," Tomjanovich said. "When he came back East, we were very happy."
So it's not lost on the Rockets that the man they were glad to see leave the state of Texas could deny Houston its first NBA championship.
Harper has been the most consistent New York player through the four playoff games, and one of the main reasons the series is tied, 2-2, going into tonight's fifth game at Madison Square Garden. Harper had a team-high 21 points in Wednesday's 91-82 win, hitting five of New York's seven three-pointers. He played 41 of a possible 48 minutes.
"Right now he's playing as good as I've ever seen him play," said New York coach Pat Riley of Harper. "He's relentless and he's not tiring. He's so mentally into this thing that fatigue is not a
Why would it be for a player who has played his entire career for the Mavericks, in recent years basketball's version of purgatory? He's the all-time leader in assists (4,790), steals (1,459) and three-point field goals (645) for the Mavericks. Yet during the team's rebuilding, Harper was surprisingly benched by first-year coach Quinn Buckner. It was a move that resulted in Harper asking out of Dallas.
At the same time, the Knicks were attempting to keep their championship hopes alive by shopping for a point guard after starter Glenn "Doc" Rivers suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Dec. 16. So on Jan. 6, the Knicks traded seldom-used Tony Campbell and a 1997 first-round draft pick to Dallas for Harper.
"God blesses me with a chance to go to a new opportunity where I had a chance to win," said Harper, playing for an NBA title for the first time in his career. "I feel very fortunate."
And, until now, Harper had felt a lot of heat. His first 27 games as a Knick were in a reserve role, backing up Greg Anthony at the point. He would wind up starting the last 27 games of the season, but his 8.7 scoring average and 43.0 percent field-goal percentage in a Knicks uniform left many wondering if the 32-year-old had lost his legs.
"When I got here, I was out of shape," Harper said. "Then I heard people saying I was slowing down.
"But I still feel like I can make an impact on any court in the world. When you surround yourself around good players, it makes all the difference in the world."
And apparently, playing in the spotlight in the NBA Finals has made all the difference. Harper is averaging 17 points in the series, making 51.0 percent of his shots.
And Harper has been confidently stepping into his three-point shots. He's 14 of 27 (51.9 percent) from beyond the arc this
"They're giving us a lot of comfortable threes that let us get in a rhythm," Harper said. "Once you get in a rhythm and the ball is going in for you, you can stroke your rhythm and you don't worry about it."
And no longer are there suggestions that Harper's game had been reduced to thuggery, which Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson suggested during the Eastern Conference semifinals. Harper was suspended for two games in that series, after an ugly fight with Bulls reserve guard Jo Jo English.
"I'm still a nice guy," Harper said, when asked if he had changed. "Ask my kids."
NOTES: Harper also has contained Rockets guard Kenny Smith, who was scoreless in Game 4. Smith has averaged five points this series. . . . Robert Horry, who suffered a bruised tailbone when knocked to the floor on a flagrant foul by Anthony Mason in the second half, is probable for tonight.
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Series tied, 2-2)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Date .. .. .. .. Site .. .. .. .. .. .. Time
Tonight .. .. .. at New York .. ... ... 9
Sunday .. .. .. at Houston .. .. .. ... 7
Wednesday * ... at Houston .. .. .. ... 9
* -- If necessary
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4