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Heat melts under pressure

The Knicks play spoiler again and may have finally inspired a Miami housecleaning.

Alonzo Mourning sat by himself in the Heat locker room Sunday wearing only his shorts and the unmistakable look of anguish. He stared at everything but looked at nothing, his insides ripped apart by yet another earlier-than-expected playoff exit accelerated by the Knicks.

It was the same look he had last year and the year before, when New York did exactly what it did again Sunday _ celebrate in Miami's face after winning an elimination game on the Heat's home floor.

This time it was an 83-82 decision in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal at American Airlines Arena, but the heartache and misery that it spawned was all too familiar.

"It eats at you," Mourning said in a somber tone. "Losing is all misery. Every last bit of it. It's all misery."

If misery loves company, the Heat has plenty of it now after failing to get past the rival Knicks and the second round for the third straight season.

With the Knicks up by one, Clarence Weatherspoon's shot with about six seconds left didn't fall for the Heat and Latrell Sprewell grabbed the rebound, effectively ending Miami's season and sending New York to the best-of-seven conference final against Indiana starting Tuesday.

The sellout crowd of 20,063 took the loss hard, throwing debris toward the court.

The Heat, which led early by as many as 11, was angrier at the officials than the Knicks. Players and coaches complained that Miami was charged with four fouls in the final five minutes while the Knicks had none.

"(NBA senior vice president of operations) Rod Thorn needs to stop them guys from cheating for (the Knicks)," said Heat guard Tim Hardaway, who spoke for about a minute after the game before waving off reporters.

"They've done a terrible job. And that's all I've got to say."

What actually hurt the Heat's chances was Sprewell's 24 points, Patrick Ewing's 20 and Chris Childs' 15 off the bench, 10 coming in the fourth quarter.

Of course, Miami scoring only three points _ a Hardaway three-pointer _ in the final five minutes didn't help either. Nor did shooting 11 of 21 from the free-throw line.

"We ended up getting four shots at the basket," Miami coach Pat Riley said of his team's play down the stretch, "and (the Knicks) made four good stops."

It was a classic Knicks-Heat game even if they did set a league record (599) for fewest points in a seven-game series. It was tight and intense and loaded with drama.

Was anyone really surprised that the score was tied at 65 going into the fourth quarter? Or that the outcome was decided on a shot in the final seconds?

That's when the Heat, which had gotten possession off a jump ball, set up its final play. The ball went to Mourning, who had game highs with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. The Knicks double-teamed him, so he passed to Jamal Mashburn, who whipped it to Weatherspoon, who didn't hesitate to take the short jumper from the right side.

"I would have taken the last shot if I had a good look at it. I wasn't going to try to force anything," Mourning said. "It was a good shot. Spoon makes that shot."

As players and reporters emptied out of the Heat locker room, Mourning was still sitting. And when the Heat returns to that locker room next season, Mourning may be the only current star left.

After last season's first-round exit, Riley challenged his team to "once and for all" show just how good it is. The answer is that it apparently is no better than before, despite Hardaway's claims to the contrary ("We're a better team than they are.").

That's sure to reignite the debate that started last season about whether the Heat's front office should break up the team, starting with Hardaway (6 of 20 for 15 points) and Mashburn (3 of 15 for 7 points).

Mourning addressed the question, saying he thought the team ought to remain intact. But he clearly was preoccupied with making sense out of another hellish beginning to what will be another long, unbearable off-season.

"I don't mean to bring religion into this thing, but I believe there is a higher being and he makes the decisions on who progresses in these things," Mourning said.

"And I'm just sitting here asking myself why? Why does this keep happening to us? But only he has the answer."