Show-stopping Zo rejects disappointment, grabs ring
DALLAS -- The Miami Heat were the NBA's version of the broken hearts club.
Everybody had a sob story to tell. Gary Payton fell short in two Finals with Seattle and the Lakers, not to mention the year his team had the best record and lost in the first round. Shandon Anderson missed twice with Utah, Derek Anderson came close in San Antonio and Antoine Walker had a taste of the conference finals in Boston. And of course, Pat Riley had gone nearly two decades since his last championship.
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But perhaps no Heat player had become more identified with postseason failure than Alonzo Mourning. He was there for all the heartbreaking losses to the Knicks in a previous Heat era, and then came back just in time to see his team blow Game 7 at home in the Detroit series a year ago. All told, Mourning had been part of four different deciding-game losses on the Heat's home court.
So perhaps it was fitting that Mourning was the key role player in the Heat's championship-clinching game in Dallas on Monday night. No, he wasn't the biggest star -- that, of course, was Dwyane Wade -- but he was the difference-maker.
When he checked in, the Heat already trailed by 14 points, and it seemed to nearly everyone that Miami's championship moment would have to wait for another day. But Zo took charge almost immediately, blocking a shot at one end and then getting a rebound and dunk at the other to cut the Dallas lead to eight. By the time he checked out early in the second quarter, Mourning helped Miami shave 11 points off the Dallas lead in a span of just 5:12.
"We knew as a team that they were going to make runs," Mourning said. "We had to sustain their run with getting stops, making defensive plays. I think collectively, everybody just dug a little bit deeper."
Later in the quarter Mourning rose up again, taking a sweet behind-the-back feed from Jason Williams and delivering a monstrous, I've-waited-long-enough-and-would-like-my-ring-tonight-please jam over D.J. Mbenga. That slam capped a 13-0 Heat run that gave the Heat its first lead of the game and utterly deflated the Dallas crowd.
In his short burst of playing time, Mourning's defense at the back of the Miami zone was enormous. He rejected five shots all told, and even briefly guarded Dirk Nowitzki during the fourth quarter. Mourning's final line -- 3-of-4, eight points, six rebounds -- was simply awesome for only 14 minutes of action. And on a night when neither team could make a jump shot, Mourning's intimidation at the basket was crucial.
Not that we were surprised. Mourning isn't able to play extended minutes as the result of a kidney transplant two years ago, but in spurts he's still amazing. He led the league in blocked shots per minute, and he led it by a lot -- his 5.31 blocks per 40 minutes was nearly a full block ahead of the rate of the next best shot-blocker, Minnesota's Eddie Griffin.
|2005-06 Blocks Per 40 Minutes|
Because of those blocks, Mourning was the best reserve in the league this season. Not necessarily the most valuable Sixth Man -- Memphis's Mike Miller was able to play a lot more minutes, and thus deserving of the award -- but on a per-minute basis, 'Zo was the best. His Player Efficiency Rating of 19.45 was not only the best among players who started fewer than 20 games, it would have ranked in the top 40 in all of basketball had he played enough minutes.
So even though it was Wade and Shaq who led the way, Miami couldn't have won without Mourning, especially not on this night.
Here's a dirty little secret: Miami didn't even play well. The Heat went 2-for-18 on 3-ponters, missed 14 foul shots -- including two by Wade that could have iced it at the end -- and had 19 turnovers. Most of those miscues were of the what-were-you-thinking variety, including two sloppy missed connections between Wade and Payton that led to transition baskets the other way.
But thanks to the extra juice from Mourning off the bench, Miami's many veteran bridesmaids finally got the one prize that had eluded them.
"It took everybody playing to exhaustion and just leaving everything out on the court," said Mourning. "Without the effort and the passion we wouldn't be experiencing this moment right now."
Now that he's experienced the moment, it brings up the question of Mourning's future plans. He's battled the kidney problem for a while in pursuit of his elusive championship, so retirement seems a distinct possibility. But he won't worry about that yet.
"I'm going to get my mind right, then I'm going to worry about next season," Mourning said. "But I'm going to enjoy this one. I'm going to party."
And with that, Williams directed a torrent of champagne at him, and the Heat's boisterous locker room celebration kicked up another notch. After 14 seasons and two near-retirements, Mourning is a champion at last.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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