Even for Miami Heat players accustomed to the motivational ploys of coach Pat Riley, last Saturday's little talk was weird. The day after the Heat had lost a 95-93 heartbreaker to the Pistons in Detroit, Riley got up during a video session and spoke of a mysterious force in the universe he called the "dark hand of chance." The force, Riley warned, would come back and haunt the Heat if it didn't start playing better basketball.
"Normally you don't want to take your eyes off Coach Riley when he's talking like that, but I couldn't help myself," Heat forward P.J. Brown said with a laugh on Sunday. "I peeked over at the guys to see their reactions. The 'dark hand of chance'? It was like something out of The Twilight Zone."
Well, why not? Miami, led by the suddenly Serlingesque Riley, is quickly turning the NBA into its own version of Bizarro World. Written off by many observers after opening the season 1-3 and losing starters Voshon Lenard and Jamal Mashburn to injuries, the Heat had won eight of nine games at week's end to climb to within a half game of the first-place Orlando Magic in the Atlantic Division.
As if that weren't eerie enough, undermanned Miami starred in another X-Files mystery on Sunday, storming back from a 20-point first-half deficit at home to stun the Magic 84-78. This time the Heat did it without a third starter, All-Star point guard Tim Hardaway, who sat out the game with a bruised right knee. In his place 33-year-old swingman Dan Majerle and 35-year-old guard Terry Porter, a free-agent pickup during the off-season, combined to hold Orlando's Penny Hardaway to 3-for-14 shooting, and Miami center Alonzo Mourning, a career 66% free throw shooter, sank 14 of 15 from the foul line. "Maybe it was preordained for us," Riley quipped.
Despite such supernatural musings, the Heat's impressive rise is really no mystery. "Defense is the sole reason for our success," says Riley about a unit that through Sunday had held eight of its last nine opponents to less than 85 points. "We've been able to buckle down when we've needed to."
Since taking over in Miami in 1995, Riley has made physical play a Heat trademark. Riley's shock troops bump cutters as they move toward the basket, use hand checks to knock foes off balance and reach deep into ball handlers' midsections in an effort to force turnovers. "Every time I got the ball on the wing, Porter and Majerle had two hands on me," Hardaway complained after Sunday's loss. "The whole game they were fouling the hell out of me."
But to say the Heat is just a physical team is like saying The Twilight Zone was just another TV show. In Tim Hardaway, Miami has a sturdy point guard to pressure the ball, and in the 6'10" Mourning and the 6'11" Brown it has two lethal shot blockers to protect the basket. In between, opponents must contend with veteran defenders like Majerle, Porter, Clarence Weatherspoon and Blue Edwards, and a disciplined system that emphasizes team defense.
Perhaps no player embodies that selfless approach better than Majerle. Though he battles chronic back pain that forces him to watch most practices from the sideline, Majerle stepped into the starting lineup on opening night in place of Lenard (who's out indefinitely with a stress fracture of his left tibia that was diagnosed the day before the opener) and immediately began playing D like the Thunder Dan of old. He came up especially big during a seven-game Miami winning streak that ended with the narrow loss to Detroit, using his rugged 6'6" frame and positioning to help limit Kerry Kittles, Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller to a collective 48 points on 12-for-53 (22.6%) shooting. For good measure he then broke out of an offensive slump that had plagued him all season by scoring 15 and 13 against the Pistons and the Magic, respectively. "Dan's a defensive spark for us," Mourning says. "When you see him playing defense like he does, it becomes contagious."
Majerle could not care less about the attention that has come with his success this year. After Sunday's game he left before speaking to reporters to get in nine holes of golf before dark. "Our whole concept is team defense," he had said earlier in the week. "It starts with me, but it filters down to all the other guys on the floor."
Among those other guys Brown has also quietly raised his game in Miami's time of need. For the season, through Sunday he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points on 48.8% shooting, also a career best, all while continuing to play strong defense. But while players such as Majerle and Brown have been the big difference for the Heat, complementing the customary strong play of Mourning and Hardaway, it was Riley more than anyone who kept Miami afloat during its foundering start. After Mashburn suffered a severe bruise to his left knee in a Feb. 7 game against the New York Knicks, putting him out of action for six to eight weeks, some Heat players privately wondered if their title hopes in this lockout-shortened season had gone down with him. Those fears grew after the Heat lost on the road to the Boston Celtics two nights later to fall to 1-3.