Heat catch fire, burn their critics

Pat Riley's Heat are making Charles Barkley and Mike Fratello look smart with their surprising rebound from a 2-14 start.

Updated: March 5, 2002, 1:55 PM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

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.

Alonzo Mourning
As Alonzo Mourning's health has improved so have the Heat's play.
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 clearly."

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 3½ 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.

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. 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 anyone.
Alonzo Mourning, Heat center

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 anyone."

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.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics