No Pats on the back in Miami

By Mitch Lawrence
Special to ESPNET SportsZone

Heat beat Bulls

A day after winning their first Atlantic Division title, the Miami Heat ... practiced.

What did you expect, Pat Riley giving his players the day off? Forget it. After securing the second seed in the East -- six places higher than the franchise's previous best finish -- the Heat was back in the gym at 10:30 the next morning.

"We can't let up at this point,'' Riley said. "We have to finish strong and keep guys sharp. I think it's a misnomer when people talk about resting up for the playoffs. The press starts talking about resting players. I don't buy that.''

He never did in New York or in LA. Miami, certainly, wasn't going to be any different.

"I think it's a misnomer when people talk about resting up for the playoffs. ... I don't buy that."

--Pat Riley

"We're gonna keep pushin','' Riley vowed. "We've been pushing all year. So why would we change now? This is a game about survival and endurance and the team that can endure the longest. I don't want to lose the edge.

"I've been around this league a long time, and they don't give you anything for winning division titles. It's nice for the city and for the franchise. But I've never gotten a ring for a divisional title.''

He won't this year, either. Not that he'd take one, or one of the T-shirts that was seen around Miami Arena, proclaiming the franchise's greatest achievement in its nine-year history. Unless they're championship rings, Riley isn't interested.

But as far as individual honors go, they should give Riley the Coach of the Year award this year. Hands down. If he doesn't win it, start an investigation.

You can argue Dave Cowens, who has done wonders with a revamped Charlotte team. You can argue Phil Jackson, who is going to win 70 games again, despite Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc each missing more than a quarter of the season.

You can even argue Portland's P.J. Carlesimo, who was one defeat from getting fired and ended up coaching the second most-feared team in the West. Or Doug Collins, the embattled Pistons coach who got about as much as his overachieving team as humanly possible.

But none overcame what Riley had to in his second season in Miami. Before the season, if you would have picked the Heat to win 60 games, you would have been crazier than Rodman. Especially after the league voided the Juwan Howard signing and after Riley came up short in his bid for Gary Payton.

Gary Payton

Juwan Howard

Fifty wins looked shaky when Riley lost Alonzo Mourning for 15 games. During Mourning's absence, his center -- Isaac Austin -- was a player the Celtics did not even deem worthy of an invitation to training camp.

Riley had to start a virtual unknown, Voshon Lenard, at shooting guard. His most experienced reserve, Dan Majerle, missed half the season with back surgery.

Yet the Heat still went into the final week with a chance of winning 60 games and finishing with the second-best record overall. No one plays better team defense or shoots the 3-pointer better.

"This team is so much better than last year's, in so many different areas,'' Mourning said. "We're now on the same page. Last year's team, the one we took into the playoffs, was together only half a season. This one has been together the full season. We're so much better.''

The one mark that stands out above all others is the Heat's road record. With one road game to go, they were 31-9 in away games, an astounding achievement as any the league has seen this season.

During Riley's illustrious run with the Lakers, the Magic Johnson teams never won more than 28 road games in a season. In fact, in his eight full seasons, Riley's Lakers averaged only 25.75 road wins.

True, the league is down, nowhere near as competitive as the 1980s. But still, it's a tremendous accomplishment.

"I feel good about what this team has accomplished and where we are. But the job isn't over."

--Pat Riley

"I feel good about what this team has accomplished and where we are,'' Riley said. "But the job isn't over.''

For Riley, the job is never over until David Stern is handing him the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy in some champagne-drenched locker room. Naturally, no one expects to see that this June, if the Bulls avoid an injury to Michael Jordan, if Kukoc regains his health, if Rodman is focused on winning another title.

"If Chicago is playing with a full deck, then they're gonna be very, very tough to beat,'' Riley concedes.

But if you'll notice, he didn't say "impossible to beat.''

Which is why Riley had the Heat trying to secure the second-best record over Utah. You never know what will happen. Riley learned that lesson in 1986 season when his defending champion Lakers didn't even make the Finals. So you knew he wasn't going to let up on his Heat players just because they had secured the second seed.

"There were years with the Lakers when nobody thought we could be had, and you get had, somehow,'' said Riley, remembering how the Lakers were upset in the '86 conference finals by the Rockets. "Somebody gets you. You have a bad game. An official's call. An injury for a couple of games.

"You don't know what's going to happen. That's why there's always a sense of hope on any team that makes the playoffs that, playing your best basketball, with some breaks, you might be able to beat anybody.''

Isaac Austin

Voshon Lenard

The Heat's task looks immense. Miami will go into the postseason with essentially a two-man team in Tim Hardaway and Mourning. And those two qualify as their grizzled playoff vets, even though neither has ever played beyond a fifth game of the second round. They have played in only 16 postseason games apiece.

Compared to the experience of Chicago's players and New York's frontcourt, they don't even measure up.

The rest of the Heat's starters have even less playoff experience. P.J. Brown has played 56 minutes, all as a Nets reserve in 1994. Jamal Mashburn has never played a postseason game. Ditto Lenard.

Riley's top frontcourt reserve, Austin, who filled in so capably when Mourning was out, has played all of three playoff minutes as a bench-warmer in Utah. Keith Askins has averaged 16 minutes over just seven games.

"We don't have a lot of guys who have been in the playoff fire,'' Brown said. "When you look at our team, coach Riley is the one who has all the experience.''

To be specific, 215 games worth. But the experience that will really count in May belongs to the Heat players. They're the ones who will have to make the plays in pressure situations.

"Experience is gonna be a factor,'' Riley said. "This is where Voshon and Ike and even to some extent P.J. -- guys who are critical to our success -- are going to just have to grow into it, fast. They'll all have to grow up, quick.

"You just have to play 'em. You can't talk to 'em about it and you really can't deal with it. Sometimes, it won't faze 'em. But as you get deeper into the playoffs, the lack of experience takes its toll.''

As it should with the Heat, too, even if they have Pat Riley on their sideline.

Mitch Lawrence, NBA columnist for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPNET SportsZone.

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