Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on May 29, 1997 · Page 48
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · Page 48

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Thursday, May 29, 1997
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Section 4 Chicago Tribune, Thursday, May 29, 1997 THE NBA PLAYOFFS EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS The Bulls are now 20-3 (.870) in the playoffs at the United Center, their only losses coming in conference semifinals to Orlando twice in 1995 and Atlanta this season. Miami, which never won a playoff series before this year, was 5-0 in do-or-die games against the Magic, Knicks and Bulls this postseason before being eliminated by the Bulls. in Mill I A 5'. Miami C9 - 1 2 3 4 Hi 33 31 16 20 100 19 31 15 22 87 These days, only big thing about Austin is his stats Miami's backup center loses weight, becomes a force By Andrew Bagnato Tribune Staff Writer If Isaac Austin were a telephone number, he would be unlisted. . The Miami Heat center isn't mentioned in this year's NBA Register, which contains biographies of every NBA veteran and significant newcomer. He doesn't appear in the Heat's media guide. Most official preseason guides had gone to press by the time Austin signed with Miami Oct 3. Editors couldn't have known Austin would become one of the best little stories in the NBA this season or maybe that should be "big" stories. The 6-foot-10-inch Austin weighs 290 pounds, down 50 from a year ago. But he shed his anonymity with a strong performance off the bench in the Eastern Conference finals, which ended Wednesday night with the Bulls' 100-87 victory in Game 5 at the United Center. The game was a painful experience for Austin, who suffered what the Heat described as a "minor broken elbow," which will not require a cast But the series backed up Alonzo Mourning's boast that his teammate is "the best backup center in the NBA." Austin pulled down seven rebounds and scored four points in 20 minutes Wednesday night. He also picked up a technical foul ounun nothing Starts with MJ's By Bonnie DeSimone Tribune Staff Writer Alonzo Mourning's Game 5 began with an unconsummated handshake and turned into one giant faulty connection. Th,e Miami center, who was the lightning rod for much of the energy that crackled between the Bulls and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, completely short-circuited Wednesday night "They did a good job, but that doesn't excuse my play at all," said Mourning in the quiet but not overly somber Heat locker room. "Fd like to start the series over from scratch, go back to Game 1. I know it would have been a different outcome." Mourning just missed an ignominious triple single, racking up a meager 13 points 10 of them from the free throw line 8 rebounds and one assist. He was 1 for 4 overall, a ratio identical to his horrendous showing in Game 3. After that game, Mourning, composed but clearly unhappy with himself, guaranteed a victory in Game 4 and helped keep that pKdge by contributing 18 points and 14 rebounds. This time, the former Georgetown star, who just completed the first year of a seven-year, $105 million contract ($9.38 million this year) will have to wait all summer to: redeem himself. before the tipoff. Mourning and Tim Hardaway made their customary trip to the center circle to greet the referees and acknowledge their Bulls counterparts. Mourning extended his hand to Michael Jordan, but Jordan regarded it the way he might regard a rat on the 18th green and reflised to return the gesture. "It was no big deal," Mourning said, then put his own positive Seat looked By Andrew Bagnato Tribune Staff Writer U In the end, the Miami Heat did the unthinkable in the Eastern Conference finals: It made Bulls fans long for the New York Knicks. The Heat also won one game from the Bulls. ?It's hard to tell which was the bigger shock. The East finals ended with the Heat's 100-87 loss to the Bulls in Game 5 Wednesday night at the United Center. Miami had blown into town a week ago demanding respect from the defending champions, but the Heat did more pretending than contending' in this in the second period. For the series, he averaged 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. After this month, it's safe to assume Austin will be listed in all of next year's official guides. "The playoffs gave me a lot of experience, a lot of confidence," Austin said. "This year has been a great year for me and my team." It almost wasn't any year for Austin, who had to make the Heat in training camp, vjf I hadn't lost weight, I would not be in the NBA," the 27-year-old Austin said before the season. He did and was named the NBA's Most Improved Player for 1996-97. In his first NBA season in three years, Austin played in all 82 regular-season games and averaged 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds a game off the bench. Austin is, in many ways, a prototypical player for Miami coach Pat Riley. While in New York, Riley helped revive the careers of projects such as John Starks and Anthony Mason. Riley knew the Heat needed muscle to back up Mourning under the backboards and it wasn't much of a gamble to invite Austin to work out at the Heat training facility last spring. Riley said he could see a big-time player struggling to get out of a too-big body. "His skills were such that nobody ever knew how good he could be," Riley told a reporter. inds b pregame snub spin on the breach of etiquette. "We're getting respect when they don't want to shake our hands. "We've definitely gotten up here," he said, pointing to his head, "without a doubt." Jordan's poisonous look was followed by a concerted and successful Bulls effort to exterminate Mourning's game. Jordan, however, credited Mourning for his own downfall "He did it himself," Jordan said. "We didn't do anything to him. He talked himself out of the game." Mourning had a shot blocked by Bulls center Luc Longley in the first minute of the game. He made his only field goal, a three-pointer, with 2.5 seconds left in the game. In between was a wasteland. Mourning was forced to fight through double and sometimes triple-team coverage, largely provided by Longley and Brian Williams, both of whom had their best games of the series. They prevented Mourning from getting the ball or releasing it quickly when he did get it The longer he held it the higher the odds that he would become flustered and turn over the ball which he did seven times. Mourning collected his third and fourth fouls within the space of 10 seconds in the third quarter and left the game for about seven minutes. His fourth foul came on a move off the dribble when he turned around and delivered a hard shot to the chest of Dennis Rodman. Not to be outdone, Rodman followed up by drawing a technical, taunting Mourning after Longley dunked over him. Rodman later slyly patted Mourning's rear end after a brief, arm-flailing encounter in the fourth quarter. But by and large, the two stayed out of major con- like threat series. The Atlantic Division champions went back to South Florida flatter than a palmetto bug on a windshield. The Heat was forced to look hard for any sign that the Bulls took it seriously. Here was center Alonzo Mourning's take on the Bulls' refusal to shake hands with Heat representatives during the pregame meeting with the referees: "When they don't shake our hands, it makes me think we got their respect." It's hard to tell whether the Bulls respected Mourning's lone bucket, which came with 2 seconds left. Most of the defending champs were already high-fiving by thea The long view says the Heat o 1 ut IT "He was always heavier than he should have been, but you could see it then, even at 300 pounds, that he had the quickness. I was sort of salivating: How good could he be at 260 pounds?' Weight long had been a problem for Austin, a product of Arizona State. The 48th overall pick by Utah in 1991, Austin had spent only two-plus seasons in the NBA, with the Jazz and Philadelphia, before he ate himself .out of the league. He flunked a physical with Cleveland in the summer of 1995 and suddenly found himself out of work at 25. Austin's road back included stops in France and with the CBA's Oklahoma City club. He finally found salvation in Turkeythe country, not the entree and by last year he had lost 30 pounds. Then came Riley's invitation. Austin opened the season on the bench, but started in February when Mourning missed a month with a foot injury. Austin more than held his own, averaging 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds a game in 14 starts. Austin reverted to reserve duty when Mourning returned. But the playoffs have indicated Austin won't be a second-teamer for long. "I have the potential to be a great player," Austin said. "But I have to keep working." ' 'f f ? II f -,,3si: ...-. f -if.:- , (r- iJmSL l M - f Vwms If J k i - ' v i , . - j y tetMa',-",J, ";-:.,.":?...'M4 - - - -'.i. "" ; .w- Alonzo Mourning heads into a tree flagrations such as the headlock tussle of Game 4. Mourning's most significant move of the series, however, may have been the elbow that raised an enormous lump on Scottie Pip-pen's forehead. That prompted Jordan to vow that the Bulls in regular season, but this isn't regular season overachieved under Pat Riley, who was named NBA Coach of the Year for his work with an unimpressive roster, and that the club's prospects for success are bright. The short view says the Heat had no business playing into the last week of May, at least not this May. "We are accused of being an overachieving team, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that," Riley said. "I hope our season is not dismissed as an over-achieving team getting to the conference finals. It doesn't matter how you get there." The Heat got here as much through circumstance as talent. Yes, the Heat won 61 games in the regular season. Yes, the Heat took r-- " . : J ' f j ' ill : Tribune photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo Although his season ended on a losing note Wednesday night, the Heat's Isaac Austin turned his career around this year. tall after losing the ball in front of Brian would match and surpass the Heat's physical play. Mourning said he would absorb the battering and go on. "A lot of people have forgotten that the Bulls went through some very adverse times," he said. "I was young, but I remember those 32 road games, the second most in NBA history. Yes, Tim Hardaway made the All-NBA first team. But all those lovely regular-season achievements meant little in the playoffs, when Miami appeared unprepared for the NBA's brightest spotlight. "After ending it like this, it leaves an empty feeling, that you're better than that," Mourning said. In the first round, the Heat watched a two-games-to-none lead nearly evaporate against mediocre Orlando, which pushed Miami into the final minute of the final game before submitting. In the second round, the Heat beat the full-strength Knicks only twice; Tribune photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo Williams (left) and Luc Longley. times when they were getting beat up. Their time came, and they took advantage of it "They're capable of being beaten. We just didn't accomplish it. If we have to go through a team next year, I want to go through this one." Miami's other two victories came when the Knicks were severely shorthanded because of suspensions. And in the Eastern Conference finals, Miami's lone win came when Michael Jordan missed more shots than anyone else attempted. The Heat's high-water mark in the playoffs may have come when P.J. Brown flipped Charlie Ward in Game 5 of the second round, inciting the fight that led to the most lopsided trade in professional basketball history: Brown for five Knicks. Brown was suspended for two games, while five key Knicks, including Patrick Ewing and John Starks, were suspended for a game apiece. INSIDE THE HEAT Hardaway says help is needed By Bonnie DeSimone Tribune Staff Writer As good a season as the Miami Heat had, its point guard implied Wednesday the team is still short a player or two from a more distinguished performance at the NBA's Final Four. "I think we understand what we need to do," said Tim Hardaway, who led the Heat with 27 points, hitting 4 of 12 from three-point range. Asked to elaborate, Hardaway , paused and said, "That's not my job. Talk to coach and team president Pat Riley." Center Alonzo Mourning, how-' ever, seemed to indicate the team needs tinkering as opposed to) major surgery. "The skies are the limit for our potential," Mourning said. "If we keep our nucleus and our core group of guys, our time will come." The Heat don't figure to get much help from next month's draft Miami has the 26th pick. Shooting bricks: The Heat set two playoff records for offensive futility: its 393 total points were the fewest ever scored in a five-game series and its 78.6 per-game scoring average was the lowest in a playoff series of any duration. The record for fewest points in a five-game series had been 424 by . Detroit against New York in the first round in 1992. The lowest ' average for a playoff series was Cleveland's 79.7 against New York in the first round last year. Bilingual lingo: Some basketball ' terms don't translate well. But Jose Paneda, the Heat's Spanish-language radio play-by-play broadcaster, has come up with some creative turns of phrase. "I say 'alley-oop,' but then I explain it by saying pase de puente, which means 'pass with a bridge,' Puente said. "It's not per-, feet, but it gets the point across." Puente, 32, a native Miamian of Cuban heritage, did the first regular Spanish-language broadcasts in the NBA eight seasons ago. Eleven NBA teams now have Spanish-speaking commentators covering some of their games, but only five including the Bulls do the entire schedule. Puente has taken some liberty with Bulls nicknames. Dennis Rodman is simply El Loco the madman. Michael Jordan is vaca sagrada sacred cow. Happy camper Even on a team of sleepers, overachievers and refugees from foreign leagues and the CBA, reserve Heat swingman Keith Askins is more grateful than most to have gotten this far in the playoffs. "You'll never hear me saying I'm having a terrible time," Askins said before Wednesday's game. "I wasn't even drafted. Nobody thought I could play in the NBA. I didn't even think so in college. I played to go to school and get a free education." Askins, who graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in marketing, was raised in the small town of Athens, Ala., where he recently built his mother a new home. He played in a career-high 78 games this season, his seventh in Miami, and averaged 4.1 points. See no evil: Although the Heat players and coaches refused to speak with the media at Wednesday morning's shootaround, a light game-day practice, the team will not be fined as the Bulls were last week. NBA rules require players to be available for interviews after off-day practices and before and after games, but not at game-day practices. After finally defending its home floor in Game 4, the Heat spoke bravely of making another stand in Chicago. But the first 3 minutes of Game 5 were a microcosm of the Heat's troubles against the Bulls throughout the series. On Miami's first possession, Hardaway heaved up a brick from three-point range. Then Jamal Mashburn, hardly a factor most of the series, fired an ill-advised pass to Scottie Pippen, who fed Jordan for a breakaway jam. The Heat eventually found itself in an 18-point hole. It was a fair indicator of the distance between it and the NBA Finals. "We're not satisfied," Mourning said. "We realize that we Qan accomplish mora."

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