Having been a model citizen for the past week, Isaiah Rider was rewarded with a spot in the Atlanta lineup. He gave the Hawks a tantalizing glimpse of what he can be when on his best behavior.
He scored and defended. He hustled and encouraged his teammates. And when Rider walked to the bench near the end of a 113-106 victory over the Miami Heat, he flashed a peace sign to the crowd.
For now, life is good.
Rider has been fined several times since joining the Hawks this season, adding to a long list of malfeasance during his seven years in the NBA. Several times, he expressed a desire to play elsewhere, saying he doesn't want to play for a rebuilding team.
Rider seemed more optimistic after starting for the fourth time this season, having served a sixth-man role the last two games.
"From the preseason to now, we are so much better," Rider said. "We've made tremendous leaps and strides. I feel a lot better about my teammates."
One of those teammates couldn't resist a chance to poke fun at Rider's repeated desire to become the focal point of the Atlanta offense.
"Give him the damn ball!" Bimbo Coles shouted in the locker room, drawing a big smile from Rider.
Rider played 43 minutes, hitting 13-of-24 shots from the field, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out two assists, coming up with two steals and even blocking a shot.
"He's a competitor and he wants to win," Coles said. "That's the biggest thing: he wants to win games. He had an opportunity to go out and play tonight and he showed what he could o."
Atlanta became the first team since the 1996-97 season to score more than 110 points against the Heat.
"I know we're a better defensive team than we showed," Alonzo Mourning said. "We pretty much rely on our defense. We let defense dictate games. We didn't do that today."
Jason Terry added 21 points for Atlanta, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter when the Heat tried to clamp down on Rider. The rookie point guard was at the center of a critical three-possession sequence that allowed the Hawks to break open a close game.
Working behind a screen from Rider, Terry hit a jumper to push the Hawks to a 96-90 lead. After Alonzo Mourning was called for an offensive foul, Terry hit a 3-pointer as the shot clocked expired for a 99-90 advantage.
Finally, Terry found the slightest of openings through a crowded lane, feeding a great bounce pass to Alan Henderson under the basket. Henderson was fouled on the shot and hit one of two free throws to give the Hawks their first double-figure lead of the game, 100-90.
"They were denying J.R. (Rider's nickname) pretty good," Terry said. "He told me to start looking for my shots."
Miami closed within 107-102 in the final minute but the Hawks sealed the victory with six straight free throws, including four by Jim Jackson. He also scored 21 for Atlanta.
Mourning led the Heat with 26 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20. But it wasn't enough for Miami, which had won five straight road games and was off to the best 10-game start (8-2) in franchise history.
Led by Dikembe Mutombo, who had 16 rebounds, the Hawks dominated the boards, 46-33.
"We got our heads handed to us in that second half," Miami coach Pat Riley said. "They beat us in every department."
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