- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

MIAMI Pat Riley has seen enough to know breaking up isn't always the best thing to do.

"Look at how we got some of the guys we have and where they came from," said Riley, president and coach of the Miami Heat, the only team without a loss in this season's NBA Playoffs. "We've got some guys who are an indication that if you break something up before its time you might be making a huge mistake."

Take, for instance, Jamal Mashburn, whom the Heat acquired from Dallas. With the Mavericks, he was one of the Three Js Jimmy Jackson, Jason Kidd and Mashburn but that trio never reached its expected heights in Dallas. Then there's All-Star guard Tim Hardaway, who played for Miami in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks despite a sprained left ankle. He was part of Golden State's Run TMC with Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin that never went anywhere in the playoffs. And center Alonzo Mourning, a member of the 2000 Olympic team, once shared a 21,000-square-foot mural on the side of a Charlotte, N.C., office complex with Larry Johnson when they composed the nucleus of the Hornets.

All three helped the 12-year-old franchise win its fourth Atlantic Division crown in five seasons under Riley. But that has not translated into postseason glory; the Heat have been eliminated in the first round all but twice during that span.

When the Heat were eliminated in the first round by the hated Knicks for the second year in a row last season, a clamor arose for Riley to dismantle the team and rebuild around Mourning. Riley refused then but seems open to it now if the team does not acquit itself well in the playoffs.

"This is the last hurrah for us," Mourning said. "Pat has already said so. If we don't get it done this year he's already said we're going to have to make some type of changes."

There are indeed questions, the biggest of which is the 33-year-old Hardaway, whose age and injuries seem to be catching up to him a season after he was chosen second-team All-NBA. He was underpaid at $20 million over the last four years but missed 30 games this season and has done little to prove himself worthy of the $10 million he wants annually.

Also, the Heat tried to trade Mashburn long criticized for his poor postseason play to Philadelphia for Larry Hughes around January. Although injuries have played a major role in his past playoff performance, Mashburn who scored 21 Sunday against the Knicks has no excuses now. Miami even toyed with the idea of adding combustible Isaiah Rider before the trading deadline to give it another scorer.

Still, Riley kept the group intact for one last run, one in which he said the Heat must play with a sense of desperation.

"I think the sense of desperation should come from wanting to advance more than their fear of the consequences if they don't," Riley said. "I think this group wants to win, and we still have three more games that we have to win [against the Knicks]. But if we are not successful we will have to look at the team very closely this summer. But I won't do that right now."

Everywhere Riley has coached including Los Angeles and New York he has won, a big reason why his players have the utmost respect for him. In Los Angeles Riley guided the Lakers to four NBA titles. And in the last nine seasons, the first four in New York, his teams failed to win the Atlantic Division just twice. That's why his decision to keep the roster intact has not been questioned much.

But Riley also knew he had to try something different. So last offseason each player was given additional instruction how to improve his game and adapt to a new running style that increased the team's scoring from 89 points a game to 94.4.

"I knew we couldn't be the same team," Riley said. "That's why we started the day after we lost to New York [last season] and had individual minicamps for players. There were going to be changes. Changes were going to come individually, and changes were going to come philosophically in how we played offensively and defensively.

"The fact they think we're different the fact we're running, playing defense differently and they have seen the results of the changes, they know they're not the same changes."

Even though there is a strong possibility Hardaway will have to squabble for a better salary, he's grateful Riley allowed the team one more chance despite outside pressures.

"Look at Indiana," Hardaway said about the East's top seed. "They get rid of a player like Antonio Davis. That surprised me, giving up someone that valuable when you've gotten so close. I know there's pressure when you listen to talk radio, the fans or the writers. That's the way it is. But sometimes you have to look that pressure in the eye and say, 'This is the way it's going to be.' "

Perhaps only Riley knows what this team will look like next season, and he isn't saying. But if Mourning has it his way, there won't be too much tinkering.

"We've been given a chance to grow and develop together," Mourning said. "It doesn't happen in one day, one season, a couple of seasons. It takes time. I don't know of any team that won a championship without assembling a group of players for a number of years. Detroit, Chicago, they had been together for a couple of years before they won it."

So have the Heat. They just have nothing to show for it.

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