MIAMI (AP) â€” The play is a geometric marvel, with a series of quick moves and crisp passes at sharp angles leading to an easy layup that, alas, falls meekly off the rim.
``Finish!'' Pat Riley hollers from the perimeter of the Miami Heat's practice court. ``Finish strong!''
Riley is shouting at the shooter, but all of his players hear the admonition, as well they should. In five seasons the Heat have yet to muster a finish worthy of their esteemed coach.
Miami was swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 1996 playoffs, and routed again by Chicago the following year in the Eastern Conference finals. Then came even more dismal defeats â€” opening-round meltdowns against Riley's former team, the New York Knicks, in 1998 and 1999.
No wonder Riley's coiffed hair is turning gray. He spent four seasons trying unsuccessfully to win a title in New York, then fled to Miami amid much acrimony. Now, as he braces for another clash with the Knicks beginning Sunday, Riley is reluctant to acknowledge the toll the bitter rivalry has taken.
``Do we have to beat them to get over a mental hump?'' Riley asks. ``Or to make my life better? Or to ensure my peace of mind so when I'm 65, I won't have any nightmares?
``No. I'm past that now.''
Yes, Riley has already accomplished enough for a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He won four NBA titles in his first seven seasons with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers. But it has been a long time since Showtime, and Riley won his most recent ring in 1988.
``He wants to get back to that level, and we want to get him back,'' Heat forward P.J. Brown says. ``He talks about it a lot. He shows us old films with him and Magic and those guys.''
Riley, 55, hasn't forgotten how to win since leaving Los Angeles. His 999 regular-season victories rank second only to Lenny Wilkens, and his 152 playoff victories rank first. He has won 16 division titles in 18 years, including four in a row in Miami.
But he knows that winning the final game is what matters most. And since Riley arrived in Miami, touting his dream of a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard, each season has ended painfully shy of the last round.
Forgive Riley for declining to reminisce.
``We all know the history,'' he says. ``Let's get ourselves ready to play. All the other stuff just drains everybody. ...
``We're in the second round, and we're interested in advancing. I know all the stuff that's going to be written and brought up from the past. While you have to look back to get a bead on the future, the important thing is to look at the present.''
The present looks daunting. The Knicks are cocky as ever, and the Heat may be without their best clutch player, hobbled point guard Tim Hardaway.
When asked if the Heat are determined, Riley looks at the floor.
``They're highly determined,'' he says. ``But my wife is highly determined when she goes to Saks Fifth Avenue, too. Determination is one thing. Doing it is another thing. You've got to do it. I think there was a commercial about doing it.''
Everyone acknowledges this is probably the last chance for this group of Heat players. After last year's stunning loss to the Knicks, Riley decided against shaking up the roster, which prompted critics to label him stand-pat Riley.
Detractors say the Heat are mired among the second tier of NBA teams because their coach has been too reluctant to part with Hardaway, Brown or Jamal Mashburn. Miami's last major trade was more than three years ago.
``We're all very thankful that coach kept the team together,'' Brown says. ``I've always thought we had enough here to get the job done.''
Beginning Sunday, they get one more chance to show it. With meticulous preparation and psychological ploys, Riley will do what he can to help. But Hardaway is not healthy, Mashburn is not Magic Johnson, and Alonzo Mourning is not Abdul-Jabbar.
The decline of the Miami Dolphins makes Riley the most celebrated sports figure in South Florida. Recently, he said he's at the beginning of the end of his career, and an agreement last year on a contract extension means he'll probably finish with the Heat.
But finish strong? First Riley has to figure out how to beat the Knicks.
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