They sat in their locker room inside Miami Arena, dejected and beaten, staring intently at nothing in particular. If it weren't for their white uniforms with the word "HEAT" stitched across them, they would have looked just like the New York Knicks of last year, who had the same hollow gaze after the Heat eliminated them in a deciding seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals in this same building.
"It's funny how the tide turns," said a jubilant yet composed Knicks guard John Starks.
Funny, maybe, to everyone but the Heat, which was not laughing after the Knicks booted it from the post-season Sunday just as the Heat had eliminated the Knicks here in last year's playoffs.
As New York did a year ago, Miami took the news hard, grumbling unceasingly about how it lost Game 5 on its home floor 98-81 to a team it loathes the most. And how it did so without All-Star center Alonzo Mourning, who was suspended along with New York's Larry Johnson and Chris Mills for their part in a fight during Game 4.
"With all we've been through, winning the Atlantic Division and working on the home court, losing Game 5 here at home is pretty tough to swallow," Heat guard Tim Hardaway said. "Very tough to swallow."
Tough because the Heat had just completed its best regular-season home record (30-11) in franchise history. Tough because no Eastern Conference seventh seed had eliminated a second seed since the league began using its current seeding format in 1984. Tough because the Heat had rallied from a 20-point deficit to close to within two of the Knicks but couldn't complete the comeback.
"They were far superior than us today," said Heat coach Pat Riley, surprisingly complimentary considering he ripped the Knicks and coach Jeff Van Gundy for their part in that Game 4 scuffle. "We made a mad push at it at the end and got within two (but) they just stayed in there strong and stayed the course."
The Knicks, who played admirably much of the season without injured star Patrick Ewing, compensated for the loss of Johnson and Mills far better than the Heat did for the loss of Mourning.
Allan Houston had his best game of the best-of-five series, scoring 30 points. And Starks, starting in place of Mills, had five three-pointers.
Buck Williams, with 14, and Charles Oakley, with 13, led New York's domination (42-34) in rebounding. Others helped, such as Charlie Ward, who had 14 assists and five steals.
The Heat, meanwhile, had trouble offensively without Mourning, who was averaging 20 points in this series. Miami managed just 31 first-half points, had 15 turnovers, shot 42.9 percent from the field and dished out only 18 assists, including just two in the crucial fourth quarter.
The burden of the offense fell to Hardaway, who was awful early, making 2 of 10 by the middle of the third quarter, but who helped Miami's rally. He finished 8-of-20 for 21 points. Jamal Mashburn, expected to step up as Miami's main low-post player, had 14 points on 5-of-18 shooting.
Still, Miami, which trailed 69-49 with 4:22 to go in the third quarter, had its chance when it charged back to 72-70 on a Hardaway three-pointer with 7:14 remaining in the game.
But Ward made a three-pointer, and Houston followed with a jumper to make it 77-70 with 6:21 to go. Miami hadn't officially lost at that point, but it was, in essence, beaten.
"That took over the game," said Starks, whose team advances to a second-round series against Indiana.
"That kind of took the steam out of them."