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How far can Mourning take the Heat?

May 31, 1997

MIAMI (AP) _ Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning was snubbed by Michael Jordan, mocked by Dennis Rodman and befuddled by the Chicago Bulls.

But humbled? No.

``They’re a very talented ballclub, but they definitely can be had,″ Mourning said. ``We’re the first team that really got into their heads. The prime example is that Michael didn’t shake my hand before the tip-off in the last game. I said then, `We’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.‴

Not exactly _ the Heat lost to the Bulls in five games. Mourning struggled through the series, which may mean an offseason of criticism for the much-maligned $105 million man.

He’ll scowl and bear it.

``Each year that we don’t win, the fingers are going to be pointed,″ he said. ``It’s nothing I can control except to try to help us win, and then when we win, just accept all the praise.″

While he can take the heat, Mourning’s postseason performance raised doubts about how far he can take the Heat. Orlando Magic journeyman Danny Schayes played him to a draw for much of the first round, and the Bulls’ Luc Longley shut him down for extended stretches.

Mourning predicted a win in Game 4 against Chicago, then led the Heat to victory with 18 points and 14 rebounds. But in Miami’s final two losses, Mourning totaled two baskets and 16 turnovers.

``I’d like to wish Zo a happy vacation,″ Bulls guard Ron Harper said. ``I hope he can predict the vacation spot he’s going to.″

Mourning actually plans to spend most of the summer in Miami working on his game. He acknowledges that he’s predictable with the ball in the low post, muscling into the lane even if it’s clogged with defenders, so he wants to develop a turnaround jumper from the baseline, which would allow him to spin away from double-teaming.

Coach Pat Riley applauds Mourning’s desire to diversify and win with finesse, rather than brute strength.

``It’s not about whether he has moves,″ Riley said. ``He has great moves. One-on-one, he would whip Luc Longley’s butt _ if the Bulls would let him. One-on-one, he gets 35 points every night. But that isn’t the nature of the game.

``He has to deal with team defenses and being disrupted and being put out of his rhythm. It’s like a quarterback who has to read defenses before they come at him. He has to smell it. His instinct to be aggressive doesn’t allow him to anticipate those things all the time, and that’s where his ability has to change.″

Most worrisome is the 6-9 center’s tendency to shrink in big games. Mourning is under contract through 2003 as the Heat’s franchise player and Florida’s best-paid athlete. Unless he learns how to peak in the postseason, his lucrative deal may become known as Riley’s folly.

``He’s going to be scrutinized because people think he’s overpaid, or because he’s not skilled enough,″ Riley said. ``What he is is 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks every night, and we won 61 games with him. But it’s not good enough because they want him to be polished.

``We have a very passionate, aggressive, hard-working, defensive-oriented player wanting to crush the game of basketball into a little ball. That’s how he plays. There’s a certain force behind his game that makes us good.″

But Riley wants the Heat to be great, not just good. Major roster moves are unlikely this summer because of salary cap constraints, meaning the players on hand must improve if the team is to get better.

It all starts with the 27-year-old man in the middle, who compares himself to Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon at the same age.

``They had to learn just like I’m going to have to learn,″ Mourning said. ``If you watch their careers, their games have developed over time. I never stop working, and if I continue to work, eventually it’s going to pay off.″

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