I’d had some great moments in my career in college and starting out in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors. But when Golden State traded me to Miami, it opened a clear path for me to get to the NBA Finals, with the Heat being right in the mix in the East along with the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Indiana Pacers.
Of course, a few weeks after I got traded, Michael Jordan decided to return to the Chicago Bulls and obstructed the path real good for us and all those other teams. But that’s a different story, for another day.
I was traded from a 25-28 team in Golden State that was heading in the wrong direction — it finished the season 36-46 — to a Heat team that had a lot of promise. When I joined Miami, it was only 24-29, but we finished the season strong — 18-11, which was good enough for us to finish better than .500 and in the playoffs.
We got dropped in three straight by the Bulls in the postseason, but there was every reason to believe we’d be a stronger team in 1996-97.
We were ever. All season long we battled for the Atlantic Division title with the Knicks and were a solid 45-16 when we lined up to play the Washington Bullets on March 7, 1997 — the game I’ll never forget.
There were some off-court issues between Miami and Washington before the season even began; the Heat had signed Bullets forward Juwan Howard to an offer sheet as a free agent that the league later deemed a violation of the salary cap. He was forced to return to the Bullets, who were a talented young team.
In fact, they had beaten us the night before, in Miami, thanks to a furious fourth quarter. They embarrassed our team defense, outscoring us 36-19 in the last 12 minutes.
I can look back and smile a little about it now, but the guy who really killed us in that game, in place of an injured Chris Webber, was an unknown, undrafted player named Ben Wallace. I didn’t really know his name, and after the game I can remember telling reporters that Wallace was the key to the game—only I didn’t know his name, and I didn’t even get his jersey number right! I sure wouldn’t make that mistake today.
Anyhow, we had revenge on our minds for our second straight game vs. Washington. No one was going to outhustle us in two games — or even two periods — in a row.
We wanted to bury Washington, and we had the talent to do it. Our main muscle in 1996-97 was Alonzo Mourning — there wasn’t a single center in the league who could have his way with Zo, even though he gave away a few inches to almost every opponent.
However, Zo had been injured in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers in February and we had gone 3-3 since then. Thankfully, we had very capable frontcourt players like P.J. Brown and Ike Austin, who weren’t going to take any business from anybody, either.
The Bullets played us tough in the first quarter, which ended with us up by one, 24-23. We turned on the afterburners and blew them off of their own floor in the second, however, 35-15, so heading into the break we were leading, 59-38.
In the third, Washington fought us hard and got our lead down to 11, but we ended up holding our serve and led 86-66 through three.
I don’t know if we thought it was in the bag already, or Washington had a lot more in the tank than we figured, but the Bullets battled us hard down the stretch and nearly embarrassed us in the fourth quarter again. They stepped up their man-to-man defense and killed us with hustle.
The Wizards shut us down completely for more than seven minutes, and a 25-4 run put them up one in the waning moments. If not for a couple of missed free throws, we would have been sunk again. In fact, it was Howard missing one with 1.4 seconds left that kept us alive. As it was, they outscored us 29-9 in the fourth, and the game was tied at 95 when the buzzer sounded.
Without Alonzo, we were shorthanded before the game even started. Pat Riley was our coach, and there weren’t many games where he dipped deep into the bench—especially not after having lost a winnable game to Washington the night before.
As a result, four of our five starters played basically the whole game — me, Jamal Mashburn, Austin, and Voshon Lenard. Mash and I would end up playing 50 and 51 minutes, respectively. Brown played only half of the game because of foul trouble, or else he would have been pushing 50 minutes, too.
We only had nine guys playing, you know Coach wants his high performers out there — with Willie Anderson and Matt Fish watching the whole game from the bench.
We were tired, and frankly, I wasn’t sure if we would be able to dig in for five more minutes and hold Washington off. Personally, I was having my greatest scoring game as a pro, so I wasn’t too worried about myself. I was just hoping the other guys could hang around long enough for us to pull this one out.
The good news: The reason I can proudly say this is my most memorable game as opposed to suffering the embarrassment of having my top-scoring game be a defeat, is that we did prevail and exact our revenge on the Bullets, 108-105.
I tallied a career-high 45 points, shooting 13-of-25 from the field, six-of-12 from the three-point line, and 13-of-14 from the foul line. I also added seven rebounds, seven assists, and four steals.
In the process of scoring my personal best, I also passed the 10,000 point mark for my career, no small feat for a kid from Chicago that some people thought would never size up with other NBA point guards.
The Heat ended up winning the Atlantic Division title with a 61-21 record and making it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals that season. Individually, it was my most satisfying all-around season ever. I led the team with 20.3 points (17th in the NBA), 8.6 assists (seventh), and 1.86 steals (15th) in 38.7 minutes (19th) and was named to the All-NBA First Team.
Even though we fell short of the NBA Finals—the Bulls beat us again, this time in the Eastern finals, we had a very memorable, seven-game series win vs. the Knicks, and in Game 7 of that series I had the playoff game of my life. A playoff career-high 38 points, including 18 points in the third quarter, seven assists, and five steals.
So it’s safe to say my enjoyment in the NBA truly came from more than just one game, I guess.