Like Bullets, Heat is off to chilly start Learning Miner, hurt Smith add up

January 02, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

Close your eyes and listen to Miami coach Kevin Loughery's litany of reasons for his team's disappointing 8-18 start this season, and you can almost transpose the speech word for word with ones by Wes Unseld, whose Washington Bullets play the Heat at the Capital Centre tonight.

"We've really been competitive all season, but we can't seem to find ways to win the close games," said Loughery, sounding exactly like Unseld, his former Baltimore Bullets teammate and coaching assistant in Washington.

After replacing Ron Rothstein last year, Loughery led the expansion Heat to its first appearance in the playoffs and Miami displayed surprising pluck in its mini-series with the champion Chicago Bulls.

NBA experts figured that a young team possessing a nucleus of Steve Smith, Glen Rice and Rony Seikaly could only improve this season and possibly even challenge the New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division title. Instead, the Heat, like the youthful Bullets, have been suffering growing pains.

Loughery can point to injuries to key players, training camp holdouts and rookies searching for an identity as logical explanations for his team's regression.

"Naturally, we expected making the playoffs last season would be a big confidence booster for this year," said Loughery, 52, a 14-year NBA coaching veteran whose hair long ago turned silver.

"But we lost Smith to knee surgery before the season, and then we had Grant Long and Harold Miner missing training camp in contract disputes. So now we're 26 games into the season, and I'm still not sure what kind of a team we have."

The loss of Smith, who, in his rookie season, established himself as both an outstanding playmaker and a team leader, is the major reason the Heat has been unable to generate a winning streak.

"Before Smith required surgery, I had him and Miner projected as our starting guards," said Loughery, "with Bimbo Coles and Kevin Edwards as their backups. But out of necessity, Bimbo and Kevin became our starters."

Coles has proved an adequate floor leader, averaging more than six assists a game. But it has only been in the past week that Miner has shown flashes of why several scouts labeled him "Baby Jordan" after watching his acrobatic act at Southern Cal, where he averaged 26.3 points his senior year.

In Miami's victories over the Magic and Lakers, Miner totaled 37 points and made several crowd-pleasing moves.

When Miner, projected as a high lottery pick, slipped to No. 12, there was cause for celebration in Miami.

But Miner has had major problems adapting to the NBA, with his playing time limited to 14 minutes a game and his scoring average a modest 7.5 points.

"Harold is really learning what it takes to be a pro," said Loughery. "The things we were trying to get him to do in terms of shot selection, defensive rebounding, and running the floor all out, he wasn't doing. Like most rookies, he had to discover it takes a lot of hard work, both in practice and games."

After Rice, who has been slumping, suffered through a scoreless first half against Orlando last Saturday, Loughery turned to Miner, and the rookie responded by scoring 19 points in 22 minutes.

"I think it was just a matter of time before he started playing like this," said Loughery. "It would have been easy just to stick him out there, but I think he's learned a lot by watching."

Miner, of course, is not so sure.

"In the past, I'd get yanked quickly and wasn't able to sustain things," he said. "I'm a rhythm player, and I need time on the floor to get into the flow. It's hard to get the feel when you're playing only a few minutes. But once you get experience, your game opens up. That's what is happening to me now."

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Miami Heat

Site: Capital Centre, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV: HTS

Radio: WTOP (1500 AM)

Outlook: After breaking a nine-game losing streak by edging Atlanta on Monday night, the Bullets bowed to Detroit on Wednesday night, 118-110, despite 27 points and 16 rebounds by C Pervis Ellison. F Harvey Grant scored 26 to raise his season average to 21.4. This is the first of five meetings with Miami. The Heat had whipped Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers before losing at home to the Chicago Bulls, 105-100, Wednesday night. Glen Rice leads the team in scoring (19.7). Rony Seikaly is averaging 11.5 rebounds a game. Miami is still awaiting the return of point guard Steve Smith, who underwent preseason knee surgery. Bimbo Coles (6.7 assists) is serving as playmaker.

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