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
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
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.
Riley addressed his players at practice the following day,
urging them not to give up. This time he spoke not of
metaphysical forces but of human emotion. "He knew we might be
having doubts, and he wanted us to stick with it," Brown says.
"He said if we were going to lose, let's lose the right way. I
think it helped put us all back on the same page."
Maybe it's the breakup of the Chicago Bulls and the suddenly
wide-open NBA title chase, but there's something even more
intense than usual about Riley this season. He seems more
animated on the bench, his body twisting over missed shots and
his eyes blazing with a new ferocity. Against the Pistons he
practically blocked one of Joe Dumars's shots while trying to
wave his defense into place, and after a lackluster 91-83
victory at Charlotte on Feb. 24, he broke down game tape to
count the 35 "mental errors" the Heat had made.
In fact, while listening to Riley last week, one wondered if he
had indeed slipped into some kind of NBA coaches' Twilight Zone.
"If we keep making these mental errors, then you're leaving it
to chance," he said. "When you leave it to chance, then all of a
sudden you don't have any more luck. Then being a force in the
game becomes mitigated."
It's the talk of a man on a mission. A man who will settle for
nothing less than the NBA title. A man who doesn't want to leave
things in the dark hand of chance.