Mourning arrives, so does Miami Center gives Riley team to watch out for


While he may have received $13 million a year to move south, part of what lured Alonzo Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets to the Miami Heat was the chance to suit up for Pat Riley.

"That was the clincher," Mourning said, shortly after the deal made on the first day of the season. "I will play under one of the best coaches to ever coach the game."

When on Sept. 2 he accepted the job of president and coach of the Heat, Riley was prepared to take on an unfamiliar assignment -- a team without a premier player. He had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, and later Patrick Ewing with the New York Knicks.

But suddenly Riley -- who coached teams to first-place finishes in his first 12 seasons before having that string broken with a second-place finish by the Knicks last season -- had a team to be reckoned with the addition of Mourning.

The Heat has matched the best start in franchise history, taking a 6-2 record and a three-game winning streak into tonight's game against the Washington Bullets at the Baltimore Arena.

It was hard for Riley to control his joy after trading for Mourning. The Heat had to pay a price, as it sent starters Glen Rice, one of the best shooters in the league, Matt Geiger and point guard Khalid Reeves to Charlotte for Mourning.

"He has answered my prayers," Riley said of Mourning, right after the trade. "We feel we got back not one of the top centers in the league but, maybe one day, the best center in the league."

Mourning may not be the best, but he is definitely in that small group of elite centers in the league.

Standing 6 feet 10, Mourning is an intimidating presence in the middle. His 4.4 blocks per game this season leads the league, and last Friday he blocked seven shots against the Atlanta Hawks, one short of the team record set by Rony Seikaly.

"That [guy] was everywhere," said Atlanta guard Steve Smith. "If he wasn't there, I'd have had 50. I'd have had 70, 80 layups. Every time I went at [Miami guard Sasha Danilovic], I kept hearing him calling for help, going, 'Over here, Zo. Over here, Zo.' "

With his defensive play Miami has also become the team's top defensive team, allowing an NBA-low 86.5 points per game. Not bad for a team that defensively has allowed teams to average better than 100 points in each NBA season since entering the league in 1988.

That's the Riley influence of the team. In his four seasons in New York the Knicks were always among the top defensive teams in the league.

The Knicks also had a reputation for being thugs on the court, and that's a reputation that has carried down to Miami with Riley's arrival.

Riley calls forward Keith Askins one of his best defensive players. But, in two games in a row against Orlando, Askins has spit in the vicinity of Magic coach Brian Hill.

(Askins claims Hill ordered a player to take a shot at him during a preseason game).

Riley scoffs at the suggestion that the Heat is a dirty team. "I really take offense to the thought that people think we're a dirty team," Riley said. "It's B.S. We simply go after people. Is it dishonorable today to be aggressive," Riley added. "People call it a disgrace when you don't guard anybody."

Thuggery or not, the style is selling in Miami, where the Heat has had to play second fiddle in the state of Florida ever since the Orlando Magic joined the league.

Now it's almost chic to attend a Miami game. Even longtime Los Angeles Lakers fan Jack Nicholson was in attendance for last Saturday's game against the Magic.

NB "We're going to be a team to be reckoned with," Mourning said.

At the Arena

& Miami Heat vs. Bullets

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WTEM (570 AM), WWLG (1360 AM)

Tickets: Many available.

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Miami Heat

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WTEM (570 AM), WWLG (1360 AM)

Outlook: This is the first time the Bullets get a chance to see the new-look Heat. With coach Pat Riley on the bench and Alonzo Mourning at center, Miami is off to a 6-2 start -- the best start in the brief history of the franchise. Miami is coming off a 103-93 win over Golden State on Wednesday. The Bullets ended a two-game losing streak with Wednesday's 98-97 win over Detroit. This is the first of four games for the Bullets at the Baltimore Arena. Washington won just one of four games against Miami last season.

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