MIAMI - Alonzo Mourning insisted his supremacy over fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing yesterday wasn't responsible for the Miami Heat's tense 87-83 victory over the New York Knicks in the opener of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"This matchup that you all are calling this one-on-one matchup, a lot of it is built on our friendship and the competitiveness of the series historically," Mourning said. "It's pretty much a team thing when you get into it."
'Zo much for modesty.
Mourning rose magnificently to a big occasion, scoring the Heat's last eight points in a frantic fourth quarter that featured nine lead changes. Backed by P.J. Brown's 16rebounds, seven assists from Tim Hardaway in his return from a sprained left foot and Jamal Mashburn's 21points, the Heat extended its playoff winning streak to four and gave the sellout crowd of 20,053 at AmericanAirlines Arena hope it can end a two-year playoff losing streak against the hated Knicks.
"We all collectively knew how important the first game is, especially at home, to start the series off," said Mourning, who had a game-high 26 points despite being briefly stunned in a third-quarter collision with Knick guard Charlie Ward. "People may say, 'Zo, you won the battle today,' but we've got a long ways to go."
It's difficult to imagine Mourning topping his fourth-quarter performance yesterday.
He made two free throws with 3:24 to play to tie the score at 81, two more to give the Heat an 83-81 lead with 2:49 to play, a layup off a pass from Dan Majerle to put the Heat ahead 85-83 with 41.8 seconds left, and a clinching 17-foot jumper that inspired him to punch the air in glee.
"We're going to go to Zo. It's going to be a great matchup," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "We need him out there. He can't get into foul trouble."
Mourning avoided foul trouble, but Ewing, who missed practice Saturday because of back spasms and had a heating pad taped to his back during a fourth-quarter break, drew his fourth foul with 3:24 to play. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said fear of another foul may have made Ewing cautious on Mourning's deep post-up, but thought Ewing looked fine and wasn't to blame for the loss.
"We're going to have to handle the ball better," said Van Gundy, who said it was his decision not to commit a foul after an errant pass by Allan Houston led to a turnover with 28.3 seconds to play and the Heat leading, 85-83. Miami ran the clock down to 5.6 seconds before Mourning hit his final jumper.
The Heat's defense was superb, holding the Knicks without a field goal for seven minutes in the first quarter and for the last 5:34 of the game, after Houston's 13-foot jumper gave the Knicks an 81-79 lead. The Knicks sabotaged their cause by turning the ball over four times in the final 3:35 and missing open shots by Latrell Sprewell, Chris Childs and Larry Johnson after getting three defensive stops that kept Miami's lead at 83-81.
"We messed up," Ewing said. "We'll get 'em next time."