Ainge: Lead mule in Blazers' stable of thoroughbreds

June 12, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PORTLAND, Ore. -- He still has that face.

The one you'd like to slap.

The one with that perpetual pout.

The one with that bratty I'm-gonna-tell-Mom leer.

The one that would tempt even a nun to make a fist.

Oh, age has diminished it some, softened a bit that suggestion of a constant whine.

He's no longer the irritating, infuriating Little Sir Pampers of the 1980s, when he was a Boston Celtic, which by itself was reason enough to hate him even without factoring in that snotty face.

No, Danny Ainge is no longer Diaper Danny. He has metamorphosed, remarkably enough, into something approaching a council elder.

He is in the employ of the Portland Trail Blazers, perhaps the most physically gifted but also the most emotionally fragile team in the NBA, a team that obviously, desperately, needs someone to walk to the front of the mule train and pick up the lead traces and set off.

Ainge, by default, is turning out to be that player.

Lead mule on a team of fractious thoroughbreds.

He is, after all, the only Portland player wearing a championship ring. So he can -- and does -- provide perspective, experience, and a soothing, calming presence on a team beset with the jitters.

At a pivotal, volatile moment in Game 4 Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls, Ainge defused a potential moment of self-destruction. Jerome Kersey had committed a flagrant foul and was angrily pushing away teammates. Ainge interceded and Kersey flailed at him. Ainge stood there, as though to say: "Fine. You got to hit someone. Better me than a Bull. Let's don't come undone now."

They didn't. Kersey regained his composure and the Blazers converted a deficit into a victory.

Twice now, Ainge has come scuttling in from off the bench and has served as a catalyst in a Blazer comeback. Without Ainge, in fact, this series could now be over, with uncertain, hesitant Portland having been swept by the Bulls.

But, instead, it is 2-2, with Game 5 tonight in Portland's homey little arena.

Instead of being broomed, the Blazers find themselves, almost through no fault of their own, trembling before the portals of the promised land, sneakered version.

It is the Blazers with the reputation for folding like cheap lawn chairs, but it is the Bulls who have twice squandered leads in the closing minutes and allowed winnable games to slip away.

Each time, with the Blazers standing around wondering how to take take advantage of this we've-got-it-won nonchalance by the Bulls, it has been Ainge who has shown them how to cash in.

He has had time to measure his shot and then stroke in three-pointers.

He has driven the lane, scoring off twisting left-handed contortions, and also creating dish-off dunks for the others.

He has lunged after loose basketballs with inelegant but earnest effort.

He has sent that touch-me-and-I'll-cry face skidding across the floor, and the other Blazers have looked at each other as if to say: "Hey, maybe that crazy little dude is onto something."

For all their marvelous skills, the Blazers appear to lack only the finisher mentality. That was one thing those Boston teams of yore always could do -- once they had a team down, they stomped them.

"Yeah, sure, I remember those days," Ainge said. "We've got the talent to tear out your throat here, too."

The talent, but not the temperament. Not yet. It is still in their nature to be passive. But if the Bulls continue to fritter away games they smugly assume to be won, there will come a night, and very soon now, when it will dawn on the Blazers that it is all there dangling in front of them, asking to be taken.

Ainge would be the last player you'd consider as presenting any sort of matchup problem.

But the Blazers have had their greatest sustained success, as they had in overtime of Game 2 and in the last quarter of Game 4, when they have used a three-guard alignment.

The lumbering Kevin Duckworth, who seems capable of missing any shot from six inches or closer, is brought to the bench. So is Buck Williams, whose game is more suited to pachyderm pace.

Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey remain on the floor. They are joined by Cliff Robinson, a breath-taking aerialist who sometimes flies over the moon and sometimes crashes into mountains, and by Ainge, who is most definitely ground-bound but still not the slow slew-foot you might think.

By now, Ainge knows all the short cuts, knows how to grab discreetly on defense, knows where the soft spots are apt to be on offense.

The Bulls, meanwhile, look baffled.

They have yet to figure out a response to this three-guard set, and now they have begun to grumble among themselves, an ominous sign.

Ainge is profiting all 'round from this. If he isn't careful, he's liable to wind up on another championship team.

Plus, his own stock has risen. He will be a free agent after this season, and every time he makes the netting jiggle you can hear cash register sounds.

Once he embodied every little punk brother you wanted five minutes alone with, and now he has become, quite suddenly, the piece of the puzzle the Bulls must make fit.

And they can't make it fit just by smashing it, either.

Much as they'd like to.

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