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Feel the Burn
S.L. Price
May 12, 1997
The Heat wavered before making the Magic disappear
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May 12, 1997

Feel The Burn

The Heat wavered before making the Magic disappear

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Sunday's winner looked like a beaten man. Sunday's winner walked off an interview platform in Miami hollow-eyed, drained, doubting. He still wore his Master of the Universe duds, the trappings of someone who has won many titles in his life; he had, in fact, just led his franchise to its first victory in a playoff series. But Miami Heat coach Pat Riley had the look of someone who had just walked away from a six-car smashup. Things were different now, and he knew it. He drifted into a hallway of the still-emptying Miami Arena and collided with Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel, whose team the Heat had just eliminated in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Riley tried to say the usual nice words. Here was all he could manage: "I've never been in one quite like this. It was harrowing for me."

This is what the NBA playoffs do. They take a team like the Heat—a 61-game winner with two All-Stars, a league-leading road record, a coach feared and respected by all—and shake it to its foundations. A week ago, when Miami left this building after Game 2 of the first-round series, it seemed to be on an unstoppable roll. Led by point guard Tim Hardaway, the Heat had won the first two games by an average of 26 points. But by the time Miami finally buttoned up the series in Game 5, its aura of invincibility was gone. The Heat had been revealed as an inexperienced crew lacking a killer instinct and, even more stunning, Riley had been shown up by Richie Adubato, the Magic's interim (and probably lame-duck) coach. Only two gutty jumpers in the final 44 seconds of Game 5 by Hardaway, who until then had shot 3 of 18, kept Miami from suffering one of the great upsets in NBA playoff history.

"It could've been just as easy for us to lose this game—and we didn't because of the courage of one guy," Riley said after the Heat's 91-83 win. "We had some good performances, but it took the courage of Tim Hardaway to be able to not only take 'em but to make 'em when it counted most. I've been around guys like that before who've bailed my ass out. He did, and I'm not embarrassed to say that. I'll ride his coattails all the way to the Finals if I can."

But first the Heat has to survive an emotional showdown with the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which were to begin in Miami on Wednesday. If the residue of Riley's bitter departure from New York two years ago wasn't enough to prime the Knicks, they also had the benefit of eight days off and the feeling that they alone in the Eastern Conference have the Heat's number. New York won the regular-season series 3-1. After beating the Heat 100-99 in the last of those games, in Miami on April 12, one Knicks player yelled in the hallway outside the Heat's locker room, "We'll be back down here in two weeks to kick your ass."

"Instead it's three weeks," Hardaway said. The delay, of course, was caused by the astonishing resurgence of the Magic. After being embarrassed in Miami in the first two games of the playoff series, Orlando went home and promptly fell down a 20-point hole early in Game 3. Then the most fortunate thing occurred: Midway through the second quarter, Magic center Rony Seikaly dropped to the floor and out of the series with torn ligaments in his right foot. That left Orlando, which was already missing power forward Horace Grant (injured right wrist), without a premier big man, and forced Adubato to go with a smaller, quicker lineup. Having no choice but to rely on Derek Strong and Danny Schayes in the post, Adubato started Brian Shaw at point guard, made Darrell Armstrong the integral backup and moved Penny Hardaway to off-guard—which might prove to have been a career-altering move for the onetime heir to Magic Johnson. Hardaway scored 42 and 41 points in Orlando's wins in Games 3 and 4, firing in so many spectacular shots that he left the Heat gaping.

"We were stunned," said Miami forward P.J. Brown. "We were like, man, what can you do to stop these guys when they're making shots like that?"

It was a startling role reversal for Hardaway. Before the series, he had been tagged as someone who hadn't lived up to his potential; worse, he was considered hypersensitive, and he was seen as the leader of a players revolt that deposed coach Brian Hill in February. But in just three games, Hardaway changed those perceptions. Freed from the constraints of having to distribute the ball, he scored at will and carried his team. Just when the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill seemed ready to become his generation's preeminent player, Hardaway, who finished Game 5 with 33 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, took a giant leap in the NBA pecking order (page 96). "He has simply proved to be one of the game's very best," Riley said.

"People say, 'The next Jordan, the next Magic, the next whoever,' " said Orlando forward Dennis Scott. "He's Penny Hardaway. Ain't no next. He's arrived."

With Penny pushing, something in this series had to give. But who figured it would be Miami's carefully constructed persona? Neither Riley nor the Heat fully recovered from Hardaway's onslaught in Games 3 and 4. Adubato's careful shuttling of forwards Scott, Strong and Nick Anderson created matchup problems that forced Riley to sit backup center Ike Austin—the league's most improved player—for all but 10 minutes in the final three games. Adubato also had his grossly outmanned club better prepared than the Heat to play the final three games of the series. Heat center Alonzo Mourning finished the decisive game with a 22-point, 12-rebound, four-block performance, but he disappeared against Schayes, of all people, during key stretches of the series. An overextended Tim Hardaway struggled under Armstrong's harassment. In the fourth quarter of Game 5, when the Magic cut a 16-point deficit to three, "we were stumbling around against their pressure," Riley said.

His team looked very young. "I've seen the Heat play 25 times this year, and I didn't see anybody expose some of the things we did," Adubato said. The Knicks saw, and Riley knows that. Things will be different now.

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