When training camp started for the Miami Heat two months ago, a pall of uncertainty hung in the air. The Heat had set aside millions to go shopping during the summer's free-agent market to become a contending team and hooked Juwan Howard -- only to see the deal vetoed by the NBA.
"Having Juwan Howard would have made us a great team," Miami's Kurt Thomas said when camp started. "Now we might not be as good as people think."
But many have been forced to eat their words, including Thomas. The Heat is actually better than anyone could have expected, with Miami taking a franchise-record nine-game winning streak into tonight's game against the New York Knicks.
Why is Miami winning? It helps that the Heat has faced just one team with a winning record -- New York, which it beat Tuesday night -- in the last 10 games. Before playing the Knicks, the Heat had won seven consecutive games against teams that had a combined 22-66 record.
Regardless of the opponent, it's impressive when a team can go out and sweep a West Coast trip, which Miami did at the end of November.
Alonzo Mourning (19.0 points per game, 9.7 rebounds) and Tim Hardaway (18.3 points, 8.0 assists) are playing well, but maybe the biggest surprise has been Dan Majerle, who is scoring 14.8 points and playing 41.2 minutes per game. Not bad for a 31-year-old who appeared washed up last season in Cleveland.
"He thrives on it. As a matter of fact, it looks like he's getting stronger," Heat coach Pat Riley said of Majerle. "He's a 40-minute man. He's in great condition."
Riley had to be concerned in New York, where the Heat was facing the toughest challenge of its streak and where the former Knicks coach was booed in his return last season. But Miami made it look easy with a 99-75 win.
"It feels good to win anywhere," Riley said. "I'm not taking any special glee to win back here."
"I think it meant a little bit more than he let on," Hardaway said.
Hard sell in Denver
It has been a tough season for the Denver Nuggets, who have lost a game by 40 points (against Portland), blown a 36-point halftime lead (against Utah last) and scored nine points in a quarter (against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday). All three point totals are franchise lows, and there is dissension brewing.
A little more than two years ago, the Nuggets were considered one of the league's up-and-coming teams, especially after upsetting the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs -- the first time a No. 8 seed had beaten a top seed.
But LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith and Tom Hammonds are the only members of that team who remain. Gone are Dikembe Mutombo (Atlanta), Robert Pack and Reggie Williams (New Jersey), Rodney Rogers and Brian Williams (Los Angeles Clippers) and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Sacramento).
The coach of that team, Dan Issel, stepped down last season. Already this year, Bernie Bickerstaff has resigned as coach, turning the team over to Dick Motta.
"It seems like around here, in times of crisis, people panic," Ellis said. "And they wonder why people in the community and the media don't believe anymore in the product, why to a large extent the players lose confidence in themselves. We make decisions that have unfortunate long-term impacts."
And the impact has been felt at the box office, where the Nuggets -- who averaged 17,171 fans in 1994-95 -- are now 28th in the league in attendance with an average of 12,422 through eight home dates.
Around the league
Detroit Pistons guard Joe Dumars got the fifth dunk of his career (if you dunk so infrequently, I guess you keep count) in a game against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. The 6-foot-3 guard was mobbed by his teammates when he ran off the court -- although the dunk was open for debate after the game.
"That was the equivalent of Shawn Kemp dunking over three guys," teammate Michael Curry said.
Rick Mahorn was not impressed. "That wasn't a dunk," he said. "That was tippy-toe stuff."
Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Fratello was ejected in the HTC second quarter of Saturday's game against the Orlando Magic, his first ejection since Nov. 29, 1985.
Pistons broadcaster Greg Kelser, a former All-American at Michigan State, after the Toronto Raptors signed John Long (40) and Earl Cureton (39) last week. "My game is on, but I don't think I'm old enough." Long has two nephews in the NBA: Grant Long and Terry Mills, both of the Pistons.
Knicks center Patrick Ewing was loudly booed in Tuesday's 99-75 loss to the Heat. New York coach Jeff Van Gundy left his starters on the floor for the entire blowout, saying, "I thought they should finish what they started."
Quote of the week
Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley, when asked what he says in terms of encouragement to point guard Matt Maloney:
"I told him that if he [messes] up, we're going to waive his [butt]."
Jerry Bembry can be reached via e-mail at Jeryol.com
Pub Date: 12/06/96