MIAMI -- The Miami Heat are losing players faster than they can win games, and at this rate, they'll become the first team in Pat Riley's 17-year coaching career to miss the playoffs.
The two-time defending Atlantic Division champions were touted during training camp as NBA title contenders. But with two starters sidelined by injuries, the hobbling Heat hardly look like a team ready to step into the void left by the breakup of the Chicago Bulls.
A 1-3 start is the worst in Riley's four years at Miami, and the league's abbreviated 50-game schedule makes the situation more alarming.
"The season's too short to dig such a deep hole," forward P.J. Brown said. "We need to get out of it real quick. This team has enough here to get the job done. We're a little down right now, but we believe in what we have."
What the Heat have is a shortage of manpower and firepower. Forward Jamal Mashburn, who appeared on the brink of a breakthrough season, was diagnosed Tuesday with a deep knee bruise that is expected to sideline him for four to six weeks, roughly half the season. Guard Voshon Lenard could miss the entire season with a stress fracture in his leg discovered last month.
In their absence, All-Stars Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning are trying to carry the offense, with dismal results. Hardaway is shooting 35 percent, while Mourning is shooting 43 percent with 17 turnovers and three assists.
"It has been almost 2« years since we had this kind of doubt," Riley said. "Since two of our key guys aren't here, we've got to find a game we can play that's a little bit different now that's going to be effective."
Riley considered acquiring Latrell Sprewell before the season but opted not to make a blockbuster deal. As a result, his options to replace Mashburn and Lenard are mostly unappealing. There's Keith Askins, Mark Strickland, an aging Dan Majerle and three newcomers: Clarence Weatherspoon, Terry Porter and Mark Davis.
"We've got to find some combination, some way to make this thing work," Riley said. "We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves."
Early results suggest the pack in the Eastern Conference is gaining on the Heat. They're 0-2 at home against Detroit and Boston, two teams that failed to make the playoffs last year. Miami also lost at Charlotte and barely beat the Knicks in New York.
Although the offensive options look bleak, Riley is more concerned about breakdowns in areas that have traditionally been Miami's strengths.
"Our defense and rebounding simply have to get together," he said. "We're having a lot of mental lapses in those areas right now. Teams are getting right to the rim on us, and that can't be tolerated."
"The first four games, our defense just hasn't been there," Brown agreed, "and that's been our trademark."
The Heat always count on Riley to find a solution. Last season, they went 26-8 without Mashburn in the starting lineup and 17-9 without Mourning.
But at the moment, a team that hoped to reach the NBA finals for the first time in franchise history is playing poorly. Miami will try for a turnaround beginning Thursday against Toronto.
"In every facet of the game, we're just not getting it done," Mourning said. "Something has to change before it gets worse."
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