Lack of talent has closed Riley's window

Tuesday, May 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

These are not the best of times for Pat Riley.

You can count on that.

It was all over his face Sunday as he walked off the court at American Airlines Arena in Miami, having just been knocked out of the NBA playoffs by the Knicks for the third straight year. The pressure. The crushed hopes. The realization that this Heat team he had built in his own image has gone as far as it can go. It was all there, as etched into his face as his South Beach tan.

Riley and his Heat were not supposed to be losing to the Knicks Sunday, going out in the second round of the playoffs. Not at home in a seventh game. Not in his fifth year in Miami. Not someone who is the NBA coach of his generation, the consensus best coach in the pro game, the one whose style and philosophy has carried him to the very top of American sport.

Sunday, he seemed like just another coach without enough answers.

In the last minute, in an offensive possession when the Heat simply had to score, the Heat died with a Tim Hardaway solo flight into the lane. Then, with still one more chance, it was a Clarence Weatherspoon jumper off an offensive set that had stalled like some old clunker left too long out in the rain.

One last play? One last thing to go to? Some bit of legerdemain to carry the Heat over the top?

Nowhere to be found.

At the time in his tenure in Miami when he had to get by the second round of the playoffs, in a game he simply had to win, Riley was just another coach going one-on-one against the most basic lesson in the NBA: Players win games. Not strategy. Not motivation. Not being a warrior. Not living by all those slogans taped to locker-room walls. Players. Players who make plays.

It's what we tend to forget.

We give coaches too much credit when they win, too much blame when they lose. We tend to think of them as gurus when they're successful, objects of blame when they're not. Often, it's somewhere in the middle. Especially in the NBA, where players win games.

For the Heat can complain all they want about the referees. They might even have a case. Yet when all the complaining is over, there are a couple stats that will haunt them all summer: They missed their first five free throws in the fourth quarter; they missed eight of their last nine shots. At home, in a one-point game, these are both unforgivable.

And not without a large slice of irony.

Jeff Van Gundy may coach the Knicks. But it was Riley who constructed them, taught them about pride and intensity and defense, the three things the Knicks now carry with them like some moveable feast. Now the teams are mirror images; they've become the other's shadow, impossible to shake. Yet it was the Knicks who were mentally tougher and won on the road in a seventh game. And it had to be a stake in Riley's heart.

In a sense, he was done in by his own philosophy, his belief that intensity and will is enough, that it can trump talent. It does not. Not often enough, anyway. The Heat did not lose to the Knicks because they didn't play hard enough or weren't prepared. They lost because they weren't talented enough.

And that comes back to Riley.

We all know he's a great coach. No one's going to dispute that. But it's as though he began to believe his own hype, that he could get this team to the NBA finals by the strength of his will. That somehow, some way, his team was going to be to tougher, more resilient, more something, because that's what Riley's teams are.

Make no mistake. This is Riley's team, pure and simple. He makes all the decisions, oversees all the personnel moves. The Heat are his show, period. If they are not talented enough in Riley's fifth year, it's because he believed in this group, thought that their deficiencies could be camouflaged by sheer grit and will.

He constructed this Heat team to be able to win now. This was their window of opportunity, one that apparently ended Sunday. Ended with a Heat team that self-destructed in the fourth quarter, at home, in a game it had to win. As though after all the motivational talks and all the strategy, it came down to players. Which players came through and which didn't.

For when it really mattered Sunday, Riley was done in by his players, too.

By Alonzo Mourning, who inexplicably tried to intercept a pass to Patrick Ewing, only to fail and watch Ewing get an uncontested dunk, the biggest basket of the game. By Jamal Mashburn, who essentially disappeared for most of the afternoon, then failed to take the big shot in the closing seconds, giving the ball to reserve Weatherspoon instead. By Hardaway, who was 6-for-20 from the field.

These are Riley's big three, the horses he's tried to ride all the way to the heights of the NBA, the way he once rode Magic Johnson and James Worthy back there in L.A. It hasn't worked. At least not the way it did in L.A.

There's a lesson for all of us about coaching in there somewhere.

For when it really mattered, in those closing minutes when one team moves on and the other goes home, Riley was just another coach on the sideline watching his team self-destruct. Just another coach who had no answers.