The Miami heat was on its way to an afternoon practice in Phoenix last month when the team bus passed Majerle's Sports Grill, the restaurant owned by Heat swingman Dan Majerle, who played seven years for the Phoenix Suns. Miami coach Pat Riley quickly weighed a few facts: The Heat had won a grueling, double-overtime road game against the Sacramento Kings the night before, his team was in the midst of a six-game Western road trip and point guard Tim Hardaway was weakened by the flu. Practice, Riley decided, was not what his players needed most. As the bus arrived at the arena parking lot he tapped the driver on the shoulder and told him to turn around and head back to Majerle's. Practice was canceled. Riley was taking his team to lunch.
As it turned out, Riley didn't have to dig into his deep pockets to pay the bill, because the meal was on the house, including his own order, Riley's Cool Ranch Pizza, a pie topped with chicken that Majerle had recently added to the menu and named after his coach. (Some guys will do anything for playing time.) But Riley did take care of the tip, dropping $200 on the table as he left.
The Heat went on to beat the Suns 87-84 the next night, thus completing a typical episode of Miami's life on the road this season: free-spending, impromptu and highly successful. The most remarkable aspect of the Heat's stunning start—at week's end the team was 24-8 and in first place in the Atlantic Division—was its 14-game road winning streak, the third longest in NBA history, two short of the league record set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers during their record 33-game winning streak, and one short of the 15 straight won by the 1994-95 Utah Jazz. The Miami run was stopped by an 83-80 loss to the Jazz last Saturday night, the opener of a tough four-game trip in which the Heat would also be tested by the Seattle SuperSonics, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Lakers. But Miami's 16-3 road mark through Sunday demonstrates that Riley, a highly sought-after corporate speaker in the off-season, had discovered the secret to a productive business trip.
The Heat's road success was probably due more to Hardaway's return to All-Star caliber play, P.J. Brown's emergence as a solid starter at power forward, the resurrection of Majerle's career and center Alonzo Mourning's scowling presence in the middle than it was to the fact that the team spares no expense on the road—or at home, for that matter. But it is worth noting that on its trips, Miami lives the life of Riley. The Chicago Bulls are the only team that comes close to matching the Heat's ritzy accommodations, which may not win it any games, but as Hardaway notes, "A little extra fluff in the pillow at night can't hurt." At Riley's request last season, Miami owner Mickey Arison also provided the Heat with a luxurious new team plane. Arison, chairman and CEO of Carnival Corporation (owner of the cruise lines), obviously knows the importance of traveling in style.
But the Heat lived like kings last season and it didn't keep the team from playing like commoners when hit by injuries, especially a torn tendon in Mourning's left foot that forced him to miss 12 games. The most encouraging sign for Miami this year is that it has overcome similar health problems, which is where the improvising has come in. Riley has unearthed a pair of unexpected contributors in 6'10" center Isaac Austin, who a year ago weighed 340 pounds (he's down to 257) and was playing in Turkey, and guard Voshon Lenard, who began last season with the Oklahoma City Cavalry of the CBA. Austin has been invaluable as a backup to Mourning, and Lenard has emerged as a perimeter threat, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on a jumper at the buzzer in win number 10 of the road streak. "It almost doesn't seem to matter who plays," says Majerle. "Anyone who's out there is going to play tough defense and concentrate because that's what Coach has drilled into us. When we walk into a gym, we know the other team has not outworked us or outprepared us."
But the adjustments Riley has had to make during the season are nothing compared with the one he had to make before the season started. Last July he signed prized free-agent forward Juwan Howard to a seven-year, $101 million contract only to see commissioner David Stern void the deal after ruling that Riley had miscalculated his salary-cap room. Howard then returned to his original team, the Washington Bullets. The deal was only one of the parts that didn't work out in Riley's master plan for building the Heat into a championship contender. Indeed, the current roster is largely his Plan B. The Heat would not have signed Majerle as a free agent if it had kept Howard, and Hardaway was re-signed only after Miami lost to the SuperSonics in the bidding war for free-agent point guard Gary Payton. Brown, another free-agent acquisition, who played last season for the New Jersey Nets, was to be Howard's backup; instead he is a starter. "You look at Howard," says Jazz vice president Scott Layden, "and you have to wonder what Miami's future would have been."
If Riley allows himself such musings, he isn't saying. In fact, he isn't saying much of anything about his team's surprising success. He was reluctant to comment last week for fear of patting his team or himself on the back prematurely, sending word through the team's media relations staff that he wished to limit his contact with the national media because he wanted his team to keep a low profile. "We're not ready to beat our chests about anything yet," he said last Saturday, perhaps remembering that last year's team started off 11-3 and then needed a late-season rally to finish 42-40 and secure the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
But the bad news for the Heat players is that their foes are already wise to them. "You've got to consider them a real contender," says Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "When your foundation is built on defense, like theirs is, and you've got a presence inside, a very good point guard and some good spot shooters, you have to be considered legit. You look at their box scores, and they're holding people down. [Through Sunday, Miami was allowing 86.9 points per game, fourth lowest in the league.] That's a strong foundation."
There are still a significant number of nonbelievers, however, those who put the Heat, at best, on a level below the title contenders. "I don't think Miami is as good as us, Chicago, Seattle or Utah," says Houston forward Charles Barkley. It's true that the Heat's record could prove to be misleading—six wins on a Western road trip in November came against, in order, the Denver Nuggets, the Vancouver Grizzlies, the Kings, the Suns, the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. That's no Murderers' Row.
But one reason the Heat is not likely to fade the way it did a year ago is that several key players are channeling their anger over personal snubs into maintaining a high level of play. Even though he averaged 17.2 points and 10 assists in 28 games after Golden State traded him to Miami last season, Hardaway agreed to take a pay cut from the $3.7 million he earned last year to re-sign with Miami. "What I'm getting is a million less than I got last year," he says of the deal offered by the Heat after the bulk of the team's free-agent money had been spent on other players. "I got screwed, but I understand it. It's no bitter taste in my mouth. Business is business."