1996-97: HEAT Rises to Verge of Title
The 1996-97 Miami HEAT were the NBA's biggest surprise, and the league's most improved team. In charging to a franchise-best 61-21 record, the HEAT posted the third longest road winning streak in NBA history (14 games), captured the Atlantic Division title and improved the previous season's record by 19 games. The only thing that stood between the HEAT and its first appearance in the NBA Finals was the Chicago Bulls, who defeated Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Coach Pat Riley orchestrated his 13th division title in 15 seasons with a pair of All-Stars and a cast of role players who routinely stepped up when called upon. Tim Hardaway, the team's emotional leader on the floor, emerged early in the season as a candidate for Most Valuable Player (he would finish fourth in the voting). The fiery point guard, who was almost not re-signed during the offseason, led the team in scoring (20.3 ppg) and assists (8.6 apg) and was among the league's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.02-to-1). Alonzo Mourning's success inside complemented Hardaway's shooting and playmaking. Mourning averaged 19.8 ppg and 9.9 rpg and was fourth in the NBA with 2.86 blocks per game.
The role players included Voshon Lenard, who emerged as one of the NBA's top three-point shooters, versatile Dan Majerle, and backup center Isaac Austin, who lost 80 pounds, filled in admirably when Mourning was down with an injury, and was named the league's Most Improved Player. Jamal Mashburn, acquired just prior to the trading deadline, provided another scoring threat to ease the offensive burden on Hardaway and Mourning, and P.J. Brown added rebounding and toughness, which served the HEAT well during playoff matchups that went the limit against the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks. Miami, which trailed 3-1 to New York in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, won three straight games to earn a berth against the Bulls. Chicago, winners of 69 games during the regular season, ousted Miami for the second consecutive season.