Heat catch fire, burn their critics


You heard it from TV luminaries large (Charles Barkley) and small (Mike Fratello) and coaching contemporaries as big time as George Karl and Phil Jackson. All of them said so, some going all the way back to Miami's 2-14 start.

Their message: Don't be surprised.

Don't be shocked, they warned, to see Pat Riley's Miami Heat still alive at tournament time, no matter how the season started.

Yet you ask Alonzo Mourning about those predictions now and he swears he
never heard them. Zo only seems to recall the louder, larger group of
critics who celebrated Riley's worst-ever strife like some sort of Mardi
Gras, piling on The Winner Within Who Has Never Missed The Playoffs.

"There were a lot of people writing us off," Zo says. "I remember that

Zo will not forget it. He also won't allow any dancing in his locker room
now that the Heat is making Chuck and Furious George look good. He's not
happy about the way Riley and everyone, really, got slammed -- "It was all of
us," Zo said -- but Mourning also thinks it's too soon to proclaim a return
to prominence.

The farthest Zo goes?

"We know," he says, "that we deserve to be in the playoffs."

Scanning through the past 30 games, it's tough to argue. The Heat is 20-9
since 2-14 became 5-23, and it visits Detroit on Tuesday night in what
suddenly looms as a showdown between the East's hottest two teams. Neither
team is scorching hot like Portland but neither's complaining, either.
Detroit has won 15 of 18 to claim its latest Central Division lead since the
championship season of 1989-90. Miami shows up tied with sinking Toronto in
the loss column and just 3 games behind Charlotte and Indiana, who
jointly occupy seventh and eighth in the Leastern Conference at 29-30.

All of this, of course, speaks as much to the Leastern's ineptitude as
Miami's fortitude. None of it would be possible if the Atlantic Division
wasn't upside down (New Jersey on top, New York in the cellar) or if seven
other clubs weren't also floating near .500 territory.

The counter to Zo's "we deserve" spiel is the list of stragglers that can
claim victories over the Heat. That's three each for the lowly Cavaliers and
Hawks, one each for Chicago and Memphis and two victories each for the
hanging-on Wizards and Clippers.

But ...

Miami's still no fun to play, as Byron Scott's Nets have loudly noted and as
the roughed-up Mavericks discovered over the weekend. Mourning has gradually
regained some strength and stamina and still ranks, as described by Dallas
assistant Donnie Nelson, as "the Shaq of the East" when his body cooperates.
Eddie Jones, after numerous Riley lectures about "mattering," has been much
more aggressive in the new year to finally start replicating his All-Star form. Brian Grant isn't there yet, but late signees Rod Strickland and Jim Jackson have looked considerably more steady than risky.

Most of all, as ever, the Heat continues to play the stingiest defense in
the league, which always gives them a chance. Miami's per-game surrender of
88.3 points remains the NBA's lowest, with Philadelphia (89.4) ranking as
the only other club under 90.

And when they can get away with physical play -- the way Mourning did
Saturday in posting a tidy 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 30
minutes -- you really don't want to play these guys.

"There's a sense of urgency because we dug this huge hole for ourselves,"
Mourning said. "Now we've got to keep on climbing."

Said Jones, asked if he's starting to sense some opposition trepidation
about facing Miami down the line: "I'm pretty sure."

Riley, too, is gaining confidence, after admitting Monday that this all
looked like "a pipe dream" not long ago. The confidence of a Barkley or
Karl, while flattering, looked rather unfounded at the time, given Riles'
struggles as a big spender -- four first-round losses in his first six tries
as a Heater. No one expected the depths of 2-14 or 5-23 or 8-26 this season,
but you couldn't expect too much from a group Riley assembled on a budget.

Owner Micky Arison, after all the early flameouts, limited Riles to roughly
$12 million to fill around the $40 million triumvirate of Mourning, Jones
and Grant. Strickland, Jackson, LaPhonso Ellis and Chris Gatling were the
bargain buys who didn't immediately click.

That had Riley fielding almost daily questions about the end of his X-and-O
career -- as in, why not walk away now? Similar suggestions were thrown at
Mourning, but more in sympathy for his health situation.

Tim Hardaway, once of Mourning's dearest friends, still sometimes wishes Zo
would stop and tell him so. "But everybody's going along with Zo because
that's what he wants to do," Tim Bug says. "He knows how I feel. His wife
tells him the same thing: 'Why, why, why?' I'm just happy to see the
medicine and his body starting to work together at the same time. He wants
to try to play, so I'm in his corner, rooting for him."

It's working well enough that Mourning is averaging 15.4 points, 8.4 rebounds
and 2.6 blocks in 32.6 minutes -- All-Star numbers in today's East, such as
it is, with no need for sympathy votes from the coaches. Zo's coping well
enough with his kidney ailment that Riley can be heard reminding his lead
warrior not to pace himself.

"Pat's doing the same things he's done all season," Mourning said. "We're
just responding better to what he's saying."

The key from here, Mourning insists, is ignoring what anyone else but he or
Riley says. Ask him if he checks the standings daily, or if he likes the
stretch-run schedule, and you get cut off. Zo doesn't want to talk about the
18 games left against playoff aspirants or the nice things lots of people
are starting to say on TV about the Heat.

"About 10 of the guys went to dinner before the Dallas game, and guys were
at the table talking about games we have on the road, games we have at home,
who has to go West," Mourning said. "I told them, 'I don't care. I don't
care that two weeks from now, we've got San Antonio.' We can't look past

Mourning was then asked if his teammates heeded that message.

"Everyone was listening to me," Zo said. "No doubt."

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com.