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No. 1 MIAMI HEAT
Jackie MacMullan
November 10, 1997
After Michael Jordan and his friends vanquished the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, many of Miami's veterans departed for the summer with a small measure of satisfaction. They had, after all, upended the Knicks in the semifinals, unnerving New York with the same physical style that had long been the trademark of Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing et al. Sure, five Knicks had helped Miami's cause by getting suspended for leaving the bench during a fight, but who ever expected the Heat to reach the semis? Wasn't that cause for celebration?
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November 10, 1997

No. 1 Miami Heat

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BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS
Record: 61-21 (first in Atlantic)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points per game (rank)

FG pct. (rank)

Rebounds per game (rank)

Turnovers per game (rank)

Heat

94.8 (22)

.453 (18)

41.0 (14)

15.9 (17)

Opponents

89.3 (3)

.432 (2)

40.5 (11)

16.1 (10)

After Michael Jordan and his friends vanquished the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, many of Miami's veterans departed for the summer with a small measure of satisfaction. They had, after all, upended the Knicks in the semifinals, unnerving New York with the same physical style that had long been the trademark of Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing et al. Sure, five Knicks had helped Miami's cause by getting suspended for leaving the bench during a fight, but who ever expected the Heat to reach the semis? Wasn't that cause for celebration?

But the perception that the Heat had overachieved is precisely what irked coach Pat Riley. "If you believe an occurrence is an aberration," Riley says, "then it becomes one." So he sent his players home with one thought: Figure out how you can improve to help the team. No one was spared that directive, including center Alonzo Mourning, Miami's imposing, impulsive and offensively limited big man. 'Zo vowed to come back to camp in the best shape of his life, with a renewed focus and some new moves.

Whatever strides Mourning has made remain to be seen. During the preseason it was determined that he had a partially torn patellar tendon in his left knee, and in late September he underwent surgery. Mourning will miss from 10 to 25 games, though some in the Heat organization expect Mourning back sooner rather than later. If he misses all 25, however, it would be a stunning blow to a young team eager to build on last season's momentum. "These players have had success," says Riley, "but they still don't know how to win yet. The only way to get a team together is to be hard on one another. We need everyone here to establish that bond."

Mourning's absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle, but it's one the Heat can effectively plug for a while. With backup center Isaac Austin subbing for an injured Mourning in 1996-97, the Heat was 13-4. "I can only do what I do," Austin says. "If I start trying to be someone else, the team is in trouble and I'm in trouble."

Miami was expected to have a tough time adding talent because of the cap-consuming seven-year, $105 million contract Mourning signed two summers ago. Despite his limited flexibility, Riley wooed shooting forward Terry Mills from the Pistons, for $2.15 million over two years, to take some pressure off Mourning on the blocks. The 6' 10" Mills hit 42.2% of his threes last year, but he can be a defensive liability and missed much of the exhibition season recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. All eyes will be on him to see if he can meet Riley's rigorous standards of conditioning and toughness.

Mills's introduction to the Heat and his new coach are not unlike what small forward Jamal Mashburn experienced when he arrived last February in a trade from Dallas. Mashburn went from a system in which he was a primary offensive option to one that provided him with 10 shots a night—if he was lucky. The constant topic of trade rumors ever since, Mashburn struggled in the preseason, shooting 18.2% from beyond the three-point arc, which has been moved back to 23' 9" from the hoop, apparently beyond his range. (Fortunately for the Heat, Mills and off-guard Voshon Lenard should have no difficulty with the new line.)

While 'Zo recuperates, point guard Tim Hardaway will assume additional leadership, scoring and even rebounding duties. Rejuvenated under Riley's watchful eye, Hardaway was an All-Star last season, putting to rest any questions about his balky left knee. Veteran swingman Dan Majerle will also figure heavily in Miami's plans, should he recover from distress in his lower back. In a departure from his hard-line approach to practice, Riley has given Majerle permission to skip workouts if he's in pain. Mourning will likely receive similar leeway upon his return. Riley knows that to keep last season from being judged as an aberration, he's going to need a full complement of healthy players.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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