April 15, 1993, was a particularly taxing day for Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery. His team was harboring modest playoff ambitions before stumbling on the road against the hapless Washington Bullets, 110-92.
Coincidentally, that was the only victory in the final 11 games for the 22-60 Bullets, who once employed Loughery as both a player and coach.
"We played very poorly that night, and it ended our playoff hopes," Loughery recalled. The Heat finished last season 36-46 after qualifying for the NBA playoffs the year before.
But that was only a single defeat. Loughery prefers blaming the team's non-contending status on the arthroscopic knee surgery
that kept all-purpose point guard Steve Smith sidelined the first 31 games.
"Smitty is definitely our leader," said Loughery, who brings the Heat to Baltimore tonight for a game with the Bullets. "He runs the show. He can score, pass, rebound and defend because he's bigger than most point guards.
"He sees the floor well and makes good decisions. He doesn't blow by people. He's more like a Magic Johnson type. The biggest thing is that the other players have faith in him. Without him, we're just not the same team."
Miami's record since making Smith the sixth overall choice in the 1991 draft supports Loughery's claim. In games the former Michigan State star has played, the Heat has gone 55-55. When he has been out with various injuries, the team has gone 19-36.
His teammates share Loughery's belief that without Smith, they resemble a tribe without a chief.
"If Smith had been healthy all year, I'm sure we would have won 50 games," said center Rony Seikaly.
Added small forward Grant Long, on the injured list with a broken shooting hand: "Steve is our driver. He's the guy who can take us where we want to go, because he's the one at the controls, and he gets the ball to the right people."
Smith, 24, said he thinks the team lacked zest and spontaneity last season while it struggled to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference.
"I call it playing happy," he said. "To succeed in this league, you have to play loose without off-the-court problems."
But Loughery cites other positive signs besides having a healthy Smith running his offense.
"I've seen tremendous improvement in Harold Miner and Glen Rice from this time last year," said Loughery. "Miner came into camp in far better shape and with a much better understanding of how to play this game."
Last year's No. 1 draft pick, Miner had spectacular moments as a rookie, but more often appeared out of control.
Rice's scoring average dipped more than three points to 19.0 last season, when teams elected to double-team the former Michigan star with the delicate outside touch.
"Last year was like a wake-up call," Rice said. "I'm not going to let it happen again. I wasn't in condition to fight off that kind of defense teams used against me. You can't get in condition during the season."
Opponent: Miami Heat
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WXZL (103.1 FM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: This is the first of four Baltimore games for the Bullets. Washington was 1-3 at the Baltimore Arena last season. Miami is led by C Rony Seikaly (23.2 points) and F Glen Rice (19.0 points). Seikaly had a career-high 34 rebounds against the Bullets last season. The Heat is one of two teams that the Bullets won a season series against last season (the other was Milwaukee). Washington won the series, 3-2, with the wins coming on the Bullets' home court.