The battle within
Heat's hopes rest with Zo's ability to maintain composure
Posted: Thursday May 06, 1999 11:05 PM
MIAMI (AP) -- The other matchups -- Pat Riley vs. Jeff Van Gundy, P.J. Brown vs. Charlie Ward -- are mere subplots. The playoff series between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks boils down to Alonzo Mourning vs. his multiple demons.
Mourning must figure a way to conquer them all: playoff pressure, fourth-quarter fadeouts, a short fuse and the Knicks themselves. Game 1 will be Saturday.
"All players go through a period where there's a wall, and you've got to break through it and get over the top," Riley said Thursday. "It's a rite of passage. The playoffs always tell."
Mourning is coming off the best season of his seven-year career. He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game, led the NBA in blocked shots and won endorsements from teammates and opponents as the league's most valuable player.
But elimination of the Heat by the hated Knicks would reinforce Mourning's reputation for folding under pressure.
"I think Zo will be ready for whatever they throw at him," teammate Brown said. "It's definitely a chance to add icing on the cake to the great year he's had."
Mourning has become rattled in each of the three playoff series the Heat have lost under Riley. First it was the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman that got under Mourning's skin. Last season the Knicks' Larry Johnson lured Mourning into a Game 4 slugfest and suspension from the deciding Game 5, which Miami lost.
Despite this year's achievements, Mourning couldn't shake a tendency to disappear late in close games.
The last time the Knicks played in Miami, Mourning had 27 points through three quarters, then had two points and no rebounds in the fourth quarter. The Knicks rallied from a 20-point deficit to win, and their locker room later filled with laughter when Johnson staggered across the shower floor in an impersonation of Mourning wilting under the pressure.
On Thursday, Mourning snapped at a reporter who mentioned Johnson's name. Mourning then said he doesn't know whether the Knicks will try to get physical with him.
"I really don't care," he said. "It's not going to be a factor at all."
"It's going to be a physical series, but not dirty," Johnson said. "Both teams are ready for war."
Mourning said the only thing that matters to Miami is the goal of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time. With Michael Jordan retired and no dominant team in the league, there's a void at the top.
"We've learned, just like the Bulls had to learn," Mourning said. "They lost against good teams. They took a lot of falls. I watched it when I was in junior high school. I saw Michael on the bench crying. I remember those moments against Detroit, getting their butts kicked. We took the same hits he took."
The most painful hit came last year against the Knicks, but bitter feelings between the two teams date to 1995, when Riley left New York amid considerable acrimony. A brawl started by Brown and Ward proved pivotal in the 1997 playoff series, won by Miami. After the Knicks eliminated the Heat last year, Riley and Knicks coach Van Gundy were summoned to the NBA commissioner's office and scolded for their verbal feuding.
Riley said he expect this year's series to be physical but not so personal as in the past.
"I would think that behavior would be over," he said. "There can't be any false bravado or antics or anything on a personal agenda. We've been through that scene. We're all tired of it. I think that's a thing of the past."
Nonetheless, Riley said, Mourning will likely be targeted by the Knicks.
"There's a propensity to come hard at Zo and foul him hard," Riley said. "That's a game plan. It's on everybody's blackboard prior to the game: When Zo goes to the basket, foul him. He's dealt with it."
Doubts remain as to whether Mourning can become a championship center, but his value to the Heat is unquestioned. When he was sidelined last week with an eye injury, Miami lost consecutive games to a pair of lottery teams, Boston and Chicago.
"The thing they have this year is they've got the MVP of the league," Van Gundy said. "He's been by far the most dominant player in the league, and we're going to have to combat that."
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell recently called Mourning the best active center in the NBA.
"He works so hard and he's so effective for his team," Russell said.
Mourning, who has three seasons left on a seven-year, $105 million contract, is the best-paid athlete in South Florida. Although he has never enjoyed the popularity of Dan Marino, or even Craig Counsell, fans chanted "M-V-P, M-V-P" during the final home game of the regular season.
But Mourning knows how cheers can quickly change to jeers. At the age of 29, he begins a postseason that could define his career.
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