Mourning Comeback Put in Spotlight

Sunday, April 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) — As Alonzo Mourning sat at his locker, exhausted but exhilarated following the latest game in his captivating comeback, a reporter from New York inquired about his fatigue.

``Why do you want me to tell you?'' Mourning replied. ``So you can write it so the Knicks can read about it? No, I'm not telling you.'' He chortled and added: ``I feel great.''

The Knicks can judge for themselves Sunday when they play the Miami Heat.

As usual, the stakes will be high — with seven regular-season games remaining, the Eastern Conference rivals are tied for third place, meaning the showdown could decide home-court advantage if their paths cross in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year. The nationally televised game also will spotlight Mourning's comeback from a kidney ailment now in remission.

The All-Star center missed the first 69 games and has played in the past six. Coming off the bench, his minutes have gradually increased from 19 in the first game to 27 in a victory over Charlotte Friday, when Mourning sank the go-ahead basket with 93 seconds left.

``Alonzo is not quite there yet,'' Hornets coach Paul Silas said. ``But I'm sure they like what they see.''

``I'm making progress,'' Mourning said. ``Looking back to six months ago when I was first diagnosed, I've made huge leaps and bounds.''

He remains rusty and gets winded quickly but nonetheless has been remarkably productive. If his statistics were projected to 40 minutes per game, he would be averaging 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots — comparable to his career averages.

``Every game he's getting better and better,'' teammate Tim Hardaway said. ``His legs are coming to him. He's getting stronger and playing better. All he had to do was just play games. Once he started playing, everything was going to come back.''

While Mourning has played well, the transition has been bumpy for the Heat, with his return disrupting the rotation of an overachieving team. Miami is only 3-3 since he came back, and before Friday's game coach Pat Riley said the Heat had been ``probably the worst defensive team I've ever coached'' during the past week.

Further adjustment will be required with the imminent return of shooting guard Eddie Jones, who has missed 14 games because of a dislocated shoulder. Acquired last August, Jones never has played with Mourning.

But for the first time, with the playoffs looming, Riley will soon have his club at full strength.

``This can be a very, very good team,'' he said. ``This can be formidable.''

One tantalizing lineup features Mourning, Brian Grant and Anthony Mason in a 760-pound front line. The trio still is learning how to play together, and there have been awkward moments at the offensive end, but it's a bruising combination.

``We're three very experienced post players,'' Mourning said. ``It's just a matter of us developing some level of chemistry. Once we get that down, we're going to be tough to deal with, because all three of us have very aggressive natures.''

With defensive breakdowns and the offense sputtering, the Heat hardly looked dominant this week. The showdown against New York is part of a tough closing schedule that includes two games against division leaders (Philadelphia and Milwaukee) and only one against a team with a losing record.

But the Heat's cornerstone is back, which gives them something to build on.